Expectations were high as acting Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama walked into present the first post-war budget last Tuesday. But after a two-and-half hour presentation, the hopes were dashed. There was no immediate relief to consumers or public servants who were pinning their hopes on the budget for a Rs. 2,500 salary hike, which the government kept on promising and kept on postponing.
In contrast to previous budgets speech, where the final part was an explanation about new taxes being imposed and how relief measures would be funded, the final part of this year’s presentation included a summary of the allocations to ministries and the economic outlook.
Japanese ambassador Kunio Takahashi in conversation with Acting Finance Minister Amunugama at the Budget day tea party. Pic. by J.Weerasekera
Opposition MPs, mostly the UNP members, who had come prepared for a ‘no relief budget’, pulled out printed posters and hand written placards and staged a protest over the rising cost of living and the government’s failure to provide the salary increase for public servants. They demanded that the government fulfil President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election pledge to the public servants.
Watching on from the opposition benches was Gen (Retd.) Sarath Fonseka who had pledged a Rs. 10,000 increase if he was elected as the President.
Their slogans included: “Amathiyo Raja Pare, Mahajanaya Maha Pare (Ministers enjoying – public on the streets) and “Kageda MeAyaweya – IMF Ayaweya” – (Whose Budget? IMF Budget).
As expected, the slogans drew sharp retorts from the government benches, with Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva distributing hand-written slogans among ruling party members and urging to retaliate.
The otherwise lacklustre budget was followed by the traditional tea party. One of the events which drew the attraction was President’s son Namal Rajapaksa extending his hand to greet Gen. Fonseka as they crossed each other on the corridor.
Gen Fonseka later during the tea party, sitting along with the other members of his party – the DNA – and nibbling a ‘helapa’, remarked, “This is the budget food we will have to eat, given the type of budget presented by the government”.
As government and opposition members exchanged pleasantries, one of the invitees at the tea party walked up to Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa and asked him what his response was to the opposition charge that the budget failed to offer relief to the masses. “I must say that I did not hear what they were saying, as they were all shouting,” the minister said.
On the adjoining table was Irrigation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. Asked by journalists as to why the government failed to keep to its promises on reducing the cost of living, his response was “the budget is not some thing like Santa Claus distributing presents during the Christmas season”.
However, Water Supply Minister Dinesh Gunawardena described the budget as one that projected the future and dismissed the opposition protest as cheap stunts aimed at attracting media attention.
While most opposition members criticized the budget, DNA’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake directed his criticism at a section of the media. Apparently concerned that he was not drawing sufficient media attention, he told journalists, “I will give my comments but you run away from here if you see a minister. His said that some journalists got a voice recording from one member only to stop it half way to run behind another member coming out from the lift.
As the budget debate began on the following day, the focus was not mainly on the economy but largely on a war of words, with the opposition charging that the budget was prepared on the instructions of the IMF and the ruling party members defending it by saying it contained the ‘vision of the government’.
One wondered whether the members were talking about everything else except the budget. This again was in contrast to the previous budget debates at the committee stage.