United National Party Parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne asserts that the Government is depleting the resources of the municipality on an election extravaganza.
In a candid interview with the Daily FT, the former banker points out that the forthcoming election is more important than the services received from the Colombo Municipal Council. According to Wickramaratne, it is a choice between a top down development approach and a more inclusive and participatory humane political future.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: How optimistic are you about the forthcoming election?
A: I am an optimist by nature but my view about the result is not based on blind optimism. It’s based on the fact that the Government has neglected the city of Colombo for a long time. Now they are showing a sudden interest in the development of the city.
The Government has missed a very vital factor; that is the people living in the city. It appears that the Government wants to develop the city more as a promotional tool rather than giving the residents of the city a better life. At the centre of any development, people should be at the very heart of it. The Government is focusing on physical infrastructure and it has ignored the people. We have to put back humanness at the centre of it.
The people of Colombo are going to give back the Colombo Municipality which has been in the hands of the Central Government for the last five years to the United National Party, because they know primarily we are interested in them and we will follow an inclusive participatory governance and development process in the city.
This election is lot more than the services you receive from the Colombo Municipal Council. You have a Government, Presidency and a Parliament which is dominated by one political party and family. Democracy requires a pluralism of power centres. Therefore, people have to take that into consideration.
It’s a choice between a top-down development approach and a more inclusive and participatory humane political future. Every vote counts. People need to exercise their vote and by that they are defending their democracy. The process of voting is as important as the outcome.
Q: Do you believe that the UNP will have an edge given the Government force and strength?
A: Clearly we have come in to the election as underdogs with very powerful presidency which was strengthened with the abolition of 17th and 18th Amendments. The Deputy Election Commissioner on record in Wednesday’s Daily Mirror says that because of the abolition of the 17 Amendment, he is unable to enforce fair reporting by the media and intervene in the use of State resources by Government candidates in this election.
We are competing with very powerful Government machinery. As a result it’s been a very huge, uphill task. And apart from what the Deputy Elections Commissioner says, we have evidence to prove that there have been lots of unfair practices by the Government. Public servants are involved in the election including Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Civil service clearly should be operating on a different code of behaviour and ethics distinct from politicians.
There is a more subtle thing that is being done; funding is given through the Ministry of Economic Resource and the Western Provincial Council to rebuild toilets, tar roads and improve community centres in Colombo. The issue is that when a certain amount is given, the incoming administration will be less of the amount. Because the provincial council is given that money to the municipality as a loan and they will recover it someday. The Government is depleting the resources of the municipality on an election extravaganza.
Q: If the UNP wins the election, it is doubtful that the Government will allow it to carry out its work efficiently and effectively. How will you face this challenge?
A: The UNP has won the municipal council in the past even when the presidency was under a different party. Not only did we win, we administered the city in such a manner that Karu Jayasuriya was selected as the ‘Most Innovative Mayor in Asia’.
The City of Colombo was awarded the ‘Most Beautiful City,’ beating Bangalore, which had previously won the award. Colombo also bagged the award for ‘The Best Managed City’. The Colombo Municipality has resources to provide for day-to-day services and has proved that even with Mayor being from the UNP and the President from a different party it is not a difficult task to manage the city.
No democratically-elected mayor and council will be obstructed by the Central Government. If they were to do it and ignore the mandate of the people, there will be other consequences.
Q: The UNP has been criticising the Government’s urban renewal programme continuously. Are you trying to create an unnecessary fear among the people and gain political mileage over this issue?
A: We have been talking about this issue for almost a year. This is not an issue we have brought up at the election campaign. I have been personally involved in this matter with the UNP leaders and we have taken it to the people.
Let’s look at the facts. The Government has a programme and it says it wants to re-house 6,500 homes. In the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ on page 21 and 22, there is a programme called ‘Jana Sevana’. In that programme the President specifically states that slum dwellers with two perches of land will be given complete ownership of that land. This pledge was made in 2005 and it has not happened to date.
Secondly, instead of building houses, the Government has demolished thousands of houses in almost every part of the city. If you look at the record of building houses in 2005, the Government has built 1,960 houses in the Colombo District. But in 2010 up to June, the Government has built only 24 houses in the Colombo District. It is saying it will build 35,000 houses in the city in three years. Look at these facts and say whether it’s wrong to criticise the Government.
The Government has signed agreements with the residents whose houses were demolished to build new houses. Unfortunately up to date nothing has happened. What is even worse is that these residents don’t know that the Government is not going to stand by these agreements. These lands are in the list to be sold. These innocent people are unaware that their land is being sold.
Governments can have plans but those plans can change over time. I accept that. What is not acceptable is keeping the people in the dark. Under this pressure and exposure the opposition has created, now the Government has started to speak about the plans more openly. There has to be transparency and the Government has to speak more openly about its work. It should carry these people along this change.
People need to be told and explained. A home is a sacred because that’s where you get your protection and shelter and every family needs it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s palatial or poor, but to that family it is sacred and important. When you threaten people, it is not the way to go. It’s a change for people. It’s a difficult task. It needs to be done through a change management process and it has to be done by including the people in the decision-making process.
Trying to do everything quickly, haphazardly and non-transparently is definitely worse than doing things transparently, openly and consultatively. Those who govern need to understand that experts have to be brought into the process; you need town planners, architects and anthropologists and most importantly you need to bring the beneficiaries into the process. Sometimes the experience of the beneficiaries may be more relevant than the expertise of the professionals.
Q: Despite various allegations by the opposition, don’t you feel people are excited about the Government’s ongoing development programme?
A: I really don’t think people are excited about the work. There may be a small group of people who are excited about it. Those who are caught up in the cosmetic changes may be excited about the so-called development work of the Government. As you will see in the election result, these cosmetic changes do not deal with the real issues the people are facing.
Colombo has 700,000 residents. It has 900,000 commuters entering the city every day. Of these commuters 54% arrive on 6,000 buses into the city and 100,000 enter on trains. The balance 350,000 commutes to the city using 225,000 private vehicles. Building bigger roads, overhead bridges and car parks is not going to solve the problem. It might be beneficial to those who are initiating and building the projects, but it is not going to solve the city’s congestion, pollution and parking.
If we look at any major metropolis in Asia – Singapore, Hong Kong or Bombay – the solution for congestion and pollution has been public transport. We need a public transport solution. We want people to come into this city, not vehicles. People will enrich the socio-cultural life of this city. When they are talking about solving problems, why I call them cosmetic is because they are not tackling the real issue.
There should be drinking water and proper sanitation facilities; drains have to be built and cleaned. What do we have as a result? We have diseases like dengue. More than 100,000 people have died. What do we do? We turn to the people and blame them for not keeping the environment clean.
Q: How do you expect to transform Sri Lanka into a developed country without such infrastructure development projects?
A: Development is important. If they think development is to do with infrastructure, that’s a huge disagreement. Development is primarily to do with people and uplifting the living standards of the people. In that process, the people should be involved. If somebody doesn’t understand that, then we are not even at the starting point.
You need ‘different horses to different courses’; we need politicians, economists, development specialists, sociologists, professionals and the common people in the process of development. If we go on the present route, it will eventually lead to social unrest.
Q: You were alleging that the Government is keeping the rupee steady by selling dollars in the market. Isn’t this a requirement to boost investor confidence and also to keep a tab on inflation and imports?
A: If we are using the argument that it is important to boost investor confidence, let’s look at the result. We have had this particular exchange rate policy over the last several years and in 2009, the year in which the Sri Lankan military conflict ended, 600 million dollars of direct foreign investment. In 2010 we got 500 million dollars and in 2011 we have got more; the numbers are still not out. However, while we have got those numbers, the rest of Asia has got substantial investments.
Investment is not to do with the exchange rate; it is to do with host of things – sovereign risk, sovereign rating, political stability, democracy, good governance, consistency of policy and rule of law, and they get into the economic and financial criteria. In the economic criteria, the exchange rate policy is only one element. The exchange rate policy that is presently being followed is mainly followed so that the Sri Lankan rupee debt could be managed mathematically as a smaller number and a lower outward interest payment could be made. It is a very short-term strategy.
By the Government over extending itself on this strategy, it is weakening the economy in the long run. Our exports are going to be less competitive in the long run. The Government has had the luxury of having this exchange rate policy because it has boosted Sri Lanka’s reserves artificially. The reserves normally comprise of the Central Bank reserves and those come out of the real sector imports and exports. It has boosted that by the IMF’s grants and Sri Lanka’s borrowings overseas.
The real strengths of a reserve should be seen in terms of what reserves we are deriving from the real sector of the economy. Because when you have reserves boosted by borrowings, they could leave as fast as they came. When you purse an exchange rate policy like this, in the long run you are weakening your export competitiveness. It can’t continue for too long. We have been saying this for some time. I am surprised that the International Monetary Fund took so long to highlight this issue, which the opposition has been highlighting for quite some time.
Q: Although you criticise the Government’s economic policies, the IMF says the country’s economy is on the correct path. Does that mean you are making baseless allegations?
A: If you ask whether the Government is managing the economy well, my answer would be ‘no’. But if you say the economy has not collapsed, I would say ‘yes’. If you are running a company, you will look at few things – the profit and loss statement, balance sheet and cash flow. When running a country in a sense we look at the same three elements.
Here, the issue is about the quality of your balance sheet. The balance sheet has increasingly shown highly-sensitive debt. You have actually weakened your balance sheet. Then you say the economy is doing alright because it has the cash flow, even though it does not have the investments; it has the borrowed funds that are coming. We all know that we can’t go long on borrowing. You can pay one debtor with another debtor but there is a limit to that.
The important factor is that the whole time we are weakening because we are ignoring the fundamentals of economics. The Government can’t ignore it for too long. And that is why I predict that the exchange rate policy will change. It has to change, because circumstances will force the Government to have a more flexible exchange rate.
Q: Following the discovery of natural gas deposits, the Government is expecting to commence commercial gas production in two years’ time. What impact will this move have on the country’s economy?
A: It is far too early to make any sensible response to that announcement. The announcement was about some preliminary indication by a one particular company. We need to know the extent of it; we need to know the financial viability of taking it out; if it is gas, there will be many market issues. The only thing I could think about was that it was a fully political statement that again was timed because this is an election in urban areas.
People may think that this has something to do with the gas which they use in their homes. That’s the only sensible comment I can make. Every other comment will be unfair because apart from a statement, there is substantial evidence, report or date and it requires more investigations and it will be years before and if any of these are economically viable that we will have the benefits of it.
Q: The UNP is yet to resolve its internal crisis and the JVP too is in turmoil. Do you agree that the opposition is getting weaker by the day and Government is becoming stronger and more authoritative?
A: I would not agree that the opposition is getting weaker by the day, but I agree that the Executive has got stronger. I wouldn’t agree with the comment that the Government is getting stronger because it is only the Executive that is getting stronger. It’s those who share in Executive power and that’s a small quota of people including the Presidential family. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Government is getting stronger because there are lots of ministers in the Government who really don’t have power and have very little of the national budget.
The opposition was weakened a year ago when the 17 Amendment was abolished and the 18th Amendment was brought. And it was weakened by the Government incentivising people financially and in other ways to join its alliance. What has happened in the last year is that the opposition has got a lot more focus on the issues and we have been consistently pointing out to the Government its failure on the policy front and economic management and particularly on the issues to do with good governance.
There is a continuous attempt to weaken the opposition. If we look at it realistically, people in this country show their gratitude for ending the 30-year-long military conflict. That’s the people of this country. This includes the opposition and there are lots of UNPers among them. Raising that flag to continue a term in office will not work. There are more pressing issues in the country and people are rallying to that call. They want the opposition to fight for their rights and economic prosperity.