So it came to pass – though it is still to be finally passed of course – that Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake presented what he called a budget for the people. He was only half right. It was a budget for some people – or so it is said. Former president Rajapaksa thought it was [...]

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Oh how our politicians sprout wings

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So it came to pass – though it is still to be finally passed of course – that Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake presented what he called a budget for the people. He was only half right. It was a budget for some people – or so it is said. Former president Rajapaksa thought it was a budget meant to appease foreigners. What is wrong with that? If you are after foreign money you have to give them something to show that you are 24-carat genuine and there are no scams, bond or otherwise, intended to pick their pockets.

So you offer some passing foreigner perches or acres of your country and a little bit of sovereignty and as Ravi Karunanayake would say what the heck is the matter with that when the previous government was willing to give several hectares to the Chinese. And that was land that did not even exist – I mean it had to be dredged from the sea damaging the eco- system and all that marine life.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera hinted that he would like to have seen continuity.

Creating land that the creator did not create is not out of our league though it could contribute to climate change as any environmentalist worth his sea-salt will tell you. The new US President Donald Trump thinks this climate change business is one big hoax fathered on the world by the Chinese drawing on the thoughts of their revered Confucius to confuse everybody, but not Trump.

So what will our worthies running the foreign ministry do now after two years of deferential bows and ahey hamuduruwanes to officials high and low in the Obama administration? Of course they all misread the election outcome putting the last million bucks still burning a hole in their worldwide travel budget, on the Clinton camp.
Foreign Minister Samaraweera who likes to see himself as a liberal – whatever that might mean these days – hinted that he would like to have seen continuity meaning that the dubious Hillary Clinton with her penchant for the Prabhakaran-style governance should occupy the White House so that perhaps he could go on with the politics of kow-towing to the west that we have become accustomed to in the last 22 months.

How could one forget the unprecedented diplomatic gesture of the foreign minister turning up at the Bandaranaike airport to welcome Nisha Biswal as though she was some Zeus descended from Olympus instead of a middling diplomat descending from SriLankan Airlines or whichever the carrier that brought her to Sri Lankan soil.

Why, they would be scrambling to prepare for the u-turn that will find them all running after the Trumpeteers in the State Department and elsewhere. They may even shoot off the Harvard-experienced deputy foreign minister Harsha de Silva to the good old USA to tell a seminar here and the conference there organized by our Washington embassy that Trumpeconomics is the thing of the future and to hell with globalization and other shibboleths.

Why the same wise man with dear Rosy and a couple of others in tow was in London some months back to try and convince the Sri Lankan community that UK’s membership of the European Union was the next best thing to Sri Lankan koththu roti saying that a vote for Brexit would be damaging to the Sri Lankan economy.

What the Sri Lankans back home are struggling to understand is what is worse-the Brexit that they were asked to worry about or inconsistencies that pass for policies as the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government tries to fix its fiscal deficits with more burdens heaped on the people.

No doubt the tub-thumping for the ‚Äėpeoples budget‚Äô will be heard from the usual supporters of yahapalanaya. But it seems that not all supporters of President Sirisena‚Äôs SLFP are ready to stand up and call for encores for the Karunanayake performance. He is no Leonard Cohen surely.

Hardly had Karunanayake announced the 2017 budget a few days ago when the Chief Minister of the western province Isuru Devapriya threatened to tell the president of the ‚Äústep-motherly‚ÄĚ treatment extended to the provincial councils.

His grouse was that provincial councils suffered a Rs. 9 million cut in the new budget compared to the previous year which itself had shown an increase over the allocation in 2015. In a move that seemed to take many by surprise because it never seemed to have happened all these years, Finance Minister Karunanayake had ‚Äėconsulted‚Äô two former finance ministers – Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ronnie de Mel – ahead of presenting the budget.

Whether this was to pick up some valuable tips on budget-making or to show some sort of political balance-talking to both the SLFP and UNP- one does not really know. But there were pictures in the media of this greatest pre-budget show on earth, as it were.

One doubts whether Chandrika Kumaratunga or Ronnie de Mel had anything to do with knocking off several millions from the provincial council budget. After all why should they. So it seems the handiwork of Ravi Karunanayake himself, possibly egged on by one of his so-called experts who has a knife into the pcs or the Minister Faiszer Musthapha now on a rubbish eliminating crusade that is still to take him to environs of Diyawanne Oya.

Though there have been several criticisms of the budget from the plantation sector to those speed fiends driving private buses over the minimum fine for accidents, our interest in the chief minister’s complaint that provincial councils have been short-changed arises from other concerns.

Around the time Devapriya was letting off his steam or esteem or both, one read in the media that another group of over 25 councilors and staff of the Central Province council were packing their winter clothes to go on an ‚Äúeducational tour‚ÄĚ to Russia.

One group had already taken wing when President Sirisena put a clamp on the second group. Apparently he was irked that the councilors with a travel itch had not even sought the permission of the provincial governor before heading off to the airport.

Not to be perturbed by such minor contretemps, the persistent councilors have managed to convince – if convincing was necessary – Governor Niluka Ekanayake how important it is to visit Russia and learn how Vladimir Putin runs his country. So when they come back home they can be putting here and putting there the great lessons picked up from Putin land.

Now why anybody with a basic knowledge of geography would want to visit Russia in the winter months when many parts of that vast country can be under several inches if not metres, of snow beats the hell out of me. One does not have to be a climatologist to know that this is hardly the time to go on an ‚Äúeducational tour‚ÄĚ. The Russian winter might have defeated both Napoleon and Hitler but apparently not the intrepid councilors from the ancient Kandyan Kingdom.

Anyway Chief Minister Sarath Ekanayake seems to have convinced Governor Niluka Ekanayake (no relative I presume) of the truth of that old saying that travel broadens the mind. So she has with generosity oozing from every pore granted the batch of 20-odd to go forth as long as they keep the costs down.

This is like telling a monkey who has got hold of a bunch of bananas to eat only one. How much is the permissible amount to spend? Is it to be calculated per head or without the head? And who is keeping tabs on who spends what and how?

But before the generous governor sorts those things out after the return of the prodigals, there is a much more fundamental issue that impinges on what was raised by Isuru Devapriya.

Whose money are the councilors and their minders planning to spend? If I am not wrong this is money allocated to various provincial councils from the state budget. This was money meant to be used for development work in the respective provinces. It was not money given to individual provincial councilors and told, with a fatherly pat on the head, go have an ice cream.

So here is a case where the budgetary provision has not only been sufficient but is enough money left to send our councilors and staff gallivanting in a country which has little or no resemblance to our Central Province or its development problems.

Central Province councilors are not the only local politicians who somehow manage to save enough funds to go on junkets. When I was serving in Bangkok, the embassy was notified that batch of councilors and staff of the North Western provincial council was due to come on a study tour.

So naturally we inquired whether we should arrange a programme and make some appointments with Thai counterparts. The disinclination was palpable. It seemed they would do their own studies. Understandably, as there are lots of lessons that could be learnt in Thailand and each councilor would like to learn his or her own lessons though not all of them would be relevant to the wayamba palatha.

The question that needs an answer is whether this money for travel was saved by ignoring or short- circuiting much needed development in the towns and villages coming under these councils? This seems to be happening quite often, perhaps even annually.

If so somebody or bodies should be held accountable for depriving the people of small and medium scale development works such as repairing roads, culverts and small bridges, providing pipe-borne water and drainage and other local needs. Who checks on what provincial councils actually do except engage in talk fests and tamashas and blow their own trumpets.

What does the Provincial Council Ministry do? Should it not be looking into how state money is spent? Just allocating funds is not enough if there is no scrutiny of how and why those funds are spent and whether the people are being short-changed. If the ministry is not doing so it should. Surely somebody must be accountable. After all that is what this government promised. Or was that talk intended for the masses and the asses.

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