Budget hopes

Monday, 26 January 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In the blur of Sri Lanka’s political transformation every day counts. This week will see several critical developments starting with the interim Budget to be presented to parliament by newly hatted Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. After nine Budgets presented by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa Friday will see the task return to the Finance Minister, in itself a huge sign of change. Gone too are the standard pictures of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundara pouring over the thick tome. But people’s expectations from the Budget remain unchanged. Granted little can be done in 100 days on this particular front, especially by a Cabinet that is readying for a general election as early as May. Therefore, a handout oriented Budget is expected that will slash prices of ten essential goods and increase of public sector salaries, earning brownie points ahead of polls. Yet there are continuity measures that the public, especially the private sector will look for. Good governance has to be bolstered by consistent policies. For example attempts by the previous Budgets to rationalise Sri Lanka’s knotty tax system and improve State revenue has to continue. Another aspect is improving the environment for investment, especially foreign inflows as well as increasing allocations for education and healthcare. One possibility is that defence allocations will be significantly reduced. Many will also be concerned about the fate of massive infrastructure development projects that were initiated by the former government. Cash doled out to the highways, aviation and ports departments will make for interesting reading. Despite the 100-day deadline it could send hints of what the Government’s long-term plans may be once they clear the parliamentary election hurdle. This week will also hold international implications for Sri Lanka. Jayantha Dhanapala, President Maithripala Sirisena’s Senior Adviser on Foreign Relations, will go to Geneva, today for talks with UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Dhanapala is going as a special emissary of the Government to discuss the ongoing probe into war crimes allegations by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Last year, the investigators requested permission to enter Sri Lanka for the purpose of their work. The previous Government rejected their proposal. The Commissioner is expected to present to the UNHRC an update on the progress of the probe during the council’s 28th session in March, which will be crucial to the Government’s first and possibly most significant engagement in its short time. Even though a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been mooted based of restorative rather than punitive justice, it is unlikely to make significant inroads ahead of elections. Commissions established by the previous Government such as the one on disappearances will also need to have their roles re-evaluated and the work already done integrated into the larger reconciliation framework. All this will fill in new dimensions ahead of UNHRC in March. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera will also take wing to the European Union in an effort to delay banning of fish imports from Sri Lanka. Needless to say the next few weeks are crucial for Sri Lanka but it will still only be a beginning.