Main opposition party criticises reduced education, agriculture and fisheries spending
Sumanthiran tells Parliament that Govt. ignored proposals by Tamil reps for North-East livelihood allocations
Slams proposal for “vertical tower” in North instead of spending on rebuilding lives and livelihoods
Opposes ‘selling off state assets’, urge Govt. to look at other remedies for state enterprise development
By Dharisha Bastians
The main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) yesterday issued a scathing critique on the National Unity Government’s budget for 2017, saying it proposed a “grossly inadequate” allocation for development of the North and East and reconciliation work and neglected spending for priority sectors such as education.
Opening the debate on the second reading of the budget yesterday, TNA Jaffna District Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran told Parliament that the Government had allocated insufficient funds for the North and East in its second annual budget plan unveiled on Thursday (10).
He said that after the Government had allocated Rs 14 billion for the North and East in 2016, it apologised for the inadequacy of the allocation, and promised to hold a donor conference to obtain funds to boost the economies of the
TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran
former battle zones. “But the donor conference didn’t happen, and we are left with a small allocation for 2017,” the TNA Legislator observed.
Sumanthiran said that while the budget proposals indicate an allocation of Rs. 180 million for “reconciliation work,” they do not outline for what purposes the monies are allocated. The TNA MP said he had met Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake ahead of the budget presentation, with a detailed proposal for the North and East, with regard to Agriculture, Fisheries and animal husbandry.
“Those three together are the main livelihoods of our people. People have to get back on their feet. I am deeply saddened that those proposals have not been considered,” he added.
Instead, the Finance Ministry had allocated Rs. 1 billion for a “vertical building” with office space and an entertainment area in the North, the TNA lawmaker charged.
“Who wants that? The people didn’t ask for it. They want to get back on their feet. Give them something to boost their economy. Why doesn’t the Minister consult representatives of the people of the North and East when he drafts these proposals?” Sumanthiran demanded.
The Opposition MP said that infrastructure alone will not rebuild the lives of people, and noted that the previous Government had come in for criticism for its predominant focus on infrastructure while neglecting other aspects of uplifting the war ravaged regions.
“We urge the Government to move away from these fancy ideas of putting up towers that are not useful for the people living there - although it must be for some others – and consult us on allocations that will be meaningful to our people,” he asserted.
In his 30 minute speech, the Opposition MP also recorded his party’s criticism on other aspects of the 2017 budget, saying many of the proposals made would lead to social exclusion and inequality even though the budget was titled Accelerating Growth and Social Inclusion.
Sumanthiran said that the allocation for education was lower than the previous year, while several other sectors had also been neglected in the spending proposals. There were some allocations for agriculture and fisheries, the TNA MP said, but these were insufficient.
“It is clear that the Government’s priorities lie elsewhere. Rs 15 billion has been allocated for digitising the economy. Rs 1 billion has been set aside for marketing campaigns for foreign direct investments. Rs. 1 billion has been allocated for free trade zones. And the allocation for agriculture is only Rs 450 million,” Sumanthiran said.
This was despite the Finance Minister’s claim at the budget presentation on Thursday that Sri Lanka had an agriculture based economy.
“We cannot afford another upheaval as a result of social inequalities,” he warned.
For the first time since 2002, when Sri Lanka was reeling from the economic aftershocks of an attack on the international airport in Katunayake, the 2017 budget expenditure was lower than the previous year.
The opposition parliamentarian also took aim at the Government’s plans to privatize state enterprises, saying the Government’s efforts in this regard were misdirected. “The Government must look for other remedies to deal with inefficiency and lethargy in the state enterprise sectors, it must not sell off assets in this way,” Sumanthiran noted.
TNA tables new proposal on 65,000 houses
Strongly rejecting a controversial Government proposal to build 65,000 prefabricated steel houses in the North and East, the Tamil National Alliance tabled a new proposal in Parliament yesterday to build the same number of homes in the war-ravaged regions at less than half the cost.
Taking the issue up during his speech during the budget debate, TNA Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran said that while the steel houses would cost Rs. 2.1 million per unit, the new proposal by civil society that would be financed by five local banks, estimated the cost of a brick and mortar house more suitable to the needs of the people of the North and East at Rs. 800,000. “If the proposal is to include a community centre, parks and other facilities for the village, the cost per unit would be Rs 999,950, less than half the cost of the Government’s proposal,” Sumanthiran told Parliament. Further, the TNA MP said, local banks were willing to finance the project, which meant the Government would not have to expend foreign currency on paying for the housing scheme.
Minister of Resettlement and Rehabilitation D. Swaminathan’s USD 2 billion proposal to build pre-fabricated steel houses at a cost of Rs. 2.1 billion per house came in for sharp criticism from civil society activists, economists and Tamil political representatives on the basis that the units were pricey, flimsily constructed, could not be modified to suit individual needs and were unsuitable to the climate.
“We are not saying we don’t want houses. We don’t want people to misunderstand this. Of course our people want houses. But we want permanent houses that people can live in and pass on to their children,” Sumanthiran told the House, reiterating that the TNA was not blocking the housing proposal.
Sumanthiran informed Parliament that the TNA had helped to facilitate the alternate proposal for 65,000 houses, which was drafted by a collaboration of civil society groups and experts.
The TNA Lawmaker noted that while the steel houses would cost upwards of Rs. 2 million, houses had already been built in the North and East through the Indian housing scheme, for Rs 700,000, three times less than estimated cost in Minister Swaminathan’s proposal.
He also revealed that the Minister had been calling up TNA MPs and asking them if they wanted houses for their areas. “We don’t want prefabricated houses on which someone is making a killing,” Sumanthiran charged. “You can’t leave that to your children. We want a veedu (house), but not a koodu (cage),” he said.
“With the same amount of money the Government was willing to put down for 65,000 houses, 102,000 houses can be built according to this proposal and funded by local banks,” he stressed. (DB)
Note: A previous version of this article indicated that the cost per unit of a house including community facilities in the civil society proposal was estimated at Rs. 950,000. This has been changed to reflect the accurate figure of Rs. 999,950. The previous version also indicated the alternate proposal estimated the number of houses that could be built at the same cost the Government was willing to spend 65,000 prefabricated steel houses, was 120,000. This has been also been rectified to 102,000.