President calls for cross-party support | Daily News
Targets set for three more years:

President calls for cross-party support

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena welcoming President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during the Ceremonial Opening of Parliament. Picture courtesy: President’s Media Division
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena welcoming President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during the Ceremonial Opening of Parliament. Picture courtesy: President’s Media Division

Despite Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s repeated assurances of sufficient foreign exchange inflows to keep the wheels of the economic recovery turning, the day-to-day lives of the people have been reeling from one crisis to another.

While the forex-starved Government is struggling to maintain the essential supplies and services uninterruptedly, a looming power crisis has cast a dark shadow over the country.

Power Minister Gamini Lokuge and Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila, who are holding Ministry portfolios which had been merged in the past, seem to be passing the buck to each other as they literally grope in the dark on the issue, but to be fair with them, both Ministers are “powerless” in the wake of the acute dollar shortage.

Power supply

As the dry weather settles in, the country’s hydropower generation has dropped to about 25 per cent and it is expected to decline further in the coming weeks. The operation of thermal power plants for power generation has become problematic due to lack of diesel and furnace oil stocks with the State-run Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). The CEB depends on the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), another State-run company, for fuel supplies, but finding dollars even to pay for the shipments of fuel, which have already arrived at the Port, has been a long and painful process for the CPC.

Like for all other importers, the CPC has been facing constant snags when opening Letters of Credit (LCs) to import fuel recently. The CPC has to manage fuel stocks for all required purposes such as for vehicles, power generation and industries etc. CPC Chairman Sumith Wijesinghe said the CPC purchases diesel at Rs. 146 per litre but sells the same to the CEB at a concessionary rate of Rs. 121, incurring a huge loss. According to the CPC estimates, the country’s monthly fuel import bill stands at a staggering US$ 450 million (figure for January).

Well aware that the question of foreign reserves is beyond their purview, Ministers Lokuge and Gammanpila have been mulling over various proposals to reduce the consumption of electricity and fuel in order to ease the deepening power crisis.

After a meeting presided over by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday, Energy Minister Gammanpila told the media that the President instructed the Central Bank to release the funds to pay for a diesel shipment which has arrived at the Port.

The meeting, attended by all relevant parties, was convened to discuss immediate arrangements to avoid power cuts. Gammanpila said the President also instructed the Central Bank to disburse money to the CEB to settle its Rs.93 billion debt to the CPC.

In the meantime, following bilateral discussions between Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar on January 15, the Indian Government has offered a new Credit Line of US$ 500 million for importing fuel from India, possibly through the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC).

Policy Statement

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the traditional Policy Statement of the Government at the inauguration of the new session of Parliament last week specifically stated that the foreign exchange problem was the most serious challenge the Government has faced today in terms of economic management.

“Today we are encountering the climax of a problem for which a number of Governments have failed to provide a lasting solution,” he added.

In his lengthy statement, where many topics such as the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, the vaccination programme, national security, steps taken to control the drugs (narcotics) menace, human rights, ethno-religious reconciliation, foreign policy, justice system, infrastructure development, agriculture, foreign investments, renewable energy, education and technology etc. were broadly discussed, the President called for the support of all political parties to overcome the contemporary challenges facing the country.

“The representatives belonging to various political parties in this August Assembly have various political views and policy differences.

However, we all ultimately wish for the good of the country. During this difficult time of a global catastrophe, we all have a national responsibility as people’s representatives to work together and build this country. I invite all of you to join us in fulfilling this responsibility,” the President urged.

Opposition Reactions

However, the three-day debate that ensued in Parliament showed that the Opposition parties were not convinced about the President’s opening remarks. While blaming that the Government was trying to bill all troubles into the account of COVID-19, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs charged that the Government, with its poor decision making and mismanagement, was responsible for the current socio-economic mess in the country.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP) Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake said that the President seemed to be living in an alien country unaware of the ground realities and burning problems the people have faced during the last few years. “It showed that he has got no solutions to any of the pressing problems faced by the people. The President even failed to give any explanation as to why he prorogued Parliament all of a sudden,” he commented.

Former Prime Minister and United National Party (UNP) Leader MP Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking along different lines, told the House that traditional politics has got no solutions to the present-day problems, and that it was high time to collectively change course.

Observing that the President’s statement came in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis in over 34 years, he stressed the need to work out long-term policies in a consensual manner to resolve the problems affecting the country and its people. “We have come to the end of traditional politics. We may shout at each other and go out to shout slogans, but that will not help us solve any of the problems,” he remarked.

MP Diana Gamage, who broke ranks with the SJB some time back to support the Government, whipped up further controversy with a proposal that the term of the President and Parliament should be extended by another two years by way of a Parliamentary Resolution. Taking the floor in Parliament, she justified her proposal stating that COVID-19 disrupted the Government’s plans in the last two years.

Her statement raised many eyebrows and many Legislators, both in the Government and the Opposition, threw cold water on her controversial idea. Resting all doubts as to whether the Government was toying with the idea of a term extension through a referendum or other means, Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris told the media on Sunday that there was no such discussion at all within the Government.

“Since we have another three years left of the people’s mandate we received, it is the Government’s goal to transform the Saubhagyaye Dekma policy (Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour) into reality within that period. We dedicate ourselves to the maximum for that,” he said.

TNA turns to India

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) lamented that the President’s speech was a far cry from what was expected from him. TNA Spokesman MP M.A. Sumanthiran expressed his disappointment over the President’s notion that economic dividends and infrastructure development could settle the problems of the people in the North and the East. “It is an insult to the people who have been struggling and fighting for their dignity to be treated as equals in this country,” the MP said, emphasising that the Tamils have been demanding meaningful devolution of power and recognition. “The President reduced all of that to ‘facilities’. It says much about his understanding of the National Problem,” the MP said.

Last week, seven Leaders of Tamil Parties in the North and the East, including TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, handed over a collective letter, addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay, asking India’s help to press the Sri Lankan Government to keep to its promises and fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and bring about a lasting political solution to the lingering national question.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem and the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by Mano Ganesan had not been signatories to the letter despite participating in the initial rounds of talks in that regard. They, as well as other Muslim Parties and Up-country Tamil Parties, had opted out due to some differences on the content of the letter. However, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla who visited Sri Lanka a few months ago had urged Tamil parties not to involve India in their battles against the Government.

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