It was good to see the President seated in Parliament to listen to the Budget debate this week. One of the drawbacks of an Executive Presidency is that the holder loses touch with Parliament isolated as he is in an ivory tower of a Secretariat, far removed from the parry and thrust of Parliamentary discourse. [...]


Budget blues


It was good to see the President seated in Parliament to listen to the Budget debate this week. One of the drawbacks of an Executive Presidency is that the holder loses touch with Parliament isolated as he is in an ivory tower of a Secretariat, far removed from the parry and thrust of Parliamentary discourse.

Unfortunately, the less said about the quality of the debate in the House, the better. Governments MPs given 10 minutes to have their names entered in Hansard, squandered their time singing hosannas to the President and the Prime Minister, while Opposition MPs mostly harangued the President with cries of “Sir fail; Sir fail”.

The Budget itself has run into a storm on at least three counts: one, the legality, or otherwise of the Appropriation Bill of 2020; two, the highly exaggerated targets set out in the Budget (that are unlikely to be realised) and three, the return to a heavily protected home-grown economy, a failed strategy of the period prior to 1977.

We saw the sorry spectacle of witnessing essentially the Budgets of 2020 and 2021 being passed this month making a mockery of Parliamentary control of public funds, a constitutional requirement. This and the backdating of about Rs. 400 billion spent in 2020 to 2019 to show a lower Budget deficit in 2020 that will be overlooked and swept under the carpet by the Government’s steam-roller majority. The Auditor General will be aghast as he has already audited the 2019 accounts.  None of these shenanigans of cooking the books will easily escape the scrutiny of international lending agencies, banks, rating agencies and prospective investors.

Then, there is the import restrictions policy. The Government says the savings amount to USD 1 billion but these are mostly on intermediate and investment goods; this is not a wise policy. This inward looking action has already attracted the displeasure of the European Union as they say trade is not a one-way street.

We said last week that this import regime hampers agriculture and industry, creating bottlenecks and raising prices while spawning a mafia of preferred agents retarding economic growth in the process.

While one might be tempted to ask the EU to ‘go to hell’, the stark reality is that Sri Lanka cannot escape being tied to the apron strings of a global economy. Countries, both socialist and capitalist around the world have rejected these outdated import economic mantras. The few that still adopt them have failed to lift the living standards of their peoples along the way.

Laws of nature

 This week’s Court of Appeal judgment on the deforestation of a reserve on the borders of Wilpattu National Park, and the order for the culprits to reforest the areas they had raped have been widely acclaimed not just by environmentalists, but by the public at large.

Quite apart from the concerns for the natural environment, this particular case also had an indirect political environment to it. There was a false start to the public litigation case filed by a group of environmentalists who deserve credit for their persistence in seeing the matter navigated through the judiciary so that justice was eventually delivered. Earlier, the case had been heard, but no verdict given. It had to be reheard before a fresh Bench.

In the eye of the storm is a controversial political figure who had a chequered record, being once accused of intimidating the sitting judge in Mannar. He marketed the displaced persons of his community for political advantage as vote banks, offering them to the highest bidder, come elections. In return, he received Cabinet portfolios from political parties across the board, desperate for his bloc vote.

He had the nerve to write directly to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister of Pakistan as a Minister of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, ostensibly seeking funds for housing for the displaced persons he represented. It was a complete violation of the laws of the land that required all foreign funds to be channelled only through the External Resources Department of the Treasury. Even the Wilpattu adventure had the imprimatur of that government.

That government turned a Nelsonian eye to these illegal acts, almost encouraging them as a quid pro quo for the vote bank. It was only when the politician switched allegiance that he became a political pariah.

Those were heady days for those in power. Today, this politician has learnt a bitter lesson in politics – the perils of being on the wrong side at the wrong time. The fact that the ex-Minister escaped criminal prosecution and has got away with only a fine, however hefty, manifestly displays how those who have the protection of a coalition in office escape the long arm of the law.

It could be said of the previous Government (2015-19) they were so impartial in that they neither prosecuted their own, nor those in the then Opposition who had made hay while the sun shone on them when in office. Police investigators were utterly corrupt at the time and/or thoroughly inefficient. The farce has turned full circle now with many of those who were under some form of token investigation at the time having the audacity to claim they were politically victimised and claiming compensation.

In the United States, however, a former Sri Lankan ambassador is not so lucky. He is facing serious charges of, inter-alia, financial fraud by the Justice Department and is banned from leaving that country. A separate case, also in the US, involves misappropriation of millions of dollars — funds remitted without Parliamentary approval by the then Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Both cases are likely to embarrass those in power today should details get into the public domain and ghosts of the past resurface to haunt them.

The Appeal Court judgment also comes in the wake of continuing public discourse on the new Government seemingly giving weightage to the problems of villagers who have made incursions to a habitat reserved for nature, like at Sinharaja in the deep south. Elsewhere, there is the continuing felling of trees, illegal sand mining under the aegis of local ruling party politicians and there is also, the ever increasing human-elephant conflict.

In a country with limited real estate and a growing population, balancing nature and livelihood is always a tricky business for any Government. But that is what Governments are there for and they must surely be aware that while the grievances of the people can be always heard, the sound and fury of nature’s response comes in different ways.

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