Budget by Gazettes, prices soar, shock treatment for people
Political Column, Sunday Times
Nov 24, 2013

"It sounds like an election budget," remarked Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage when President Mahinda Rajapaksa, briefed ministers at their weekly meeting on Thursday morning about his budget speech.

Rajapaksa's response was only a guffaw. Other than that, during a meeting which lasted less than half an hour, he discussed a 13-page document (with two annexures) he circulated among ministers. It incorporated what he called "some salient features" in the "National Budget - Budget Speech 2014" and explained how some of the fiscal and other measures came to be formulated.

Rajapaksa said "the projected high economic growth is expected to support a high revenue performance" next year. He announced that he had issued orders under eight different Gazette Notifications to give "effect to important proposals." They are the Excise (Special Provisions) Act, the Port and Airport Development Levy Act, the Customs Ordinance, the Telecommunications Levy Act, the Special Commodity Levy Act, the Import and Export Control Act and relevant finance Acts. He sought the approval of ministers to present the budget in Parliament also for 16 other related matters. If the convention in the past has been to brief ministers on the highlights ahead of the Budget Speech in Parliament, this is the first time Rajapaksa, as Minister of Finance, gave them a written brief. More importantly, this is the first time he obtained covering approval for all the measures from the Cabinet of ministers before presenting them in Parliament.

Among the 16 related matters was one authorising Treasury Treasury P.B. Jayasundera to take "appropriate steps" including the issuance of relevant Circulars, Gazette Notifications and operating instructions to the relevant line ministries and agencies, giving effect to the Budget proposals. Another was to present in Parliament the related Amendments to the Appropriation Bill 2014, including Revenue and Expenditure figures in the Summary of the Budget 2014 and to revise the borrowing limits as set out in "Gross Borrowing Requirements in 2014" and to effect any consequential amendments to the draft Budget Estimates. According to a table compiled by the Department of National Budget and Department of Treasury Operations and circulated to ministers, the "total revenue receipts and grants" amount to Rs. 1,495 billion. However, the "total payments including Debt repayments" have been worked out to Rs 2,599 billion.

The strategy behind the new moves unfolded only when a confident Rajapaksa ended reading his budget speech. The references to what the proposed Gazette Notifications (arising from the eight statutes) referred to came only as an annexure to the Budget Speech. It was not part of what Rajapaksa read out. Hence, neither ministers nor parliamentarians were aware which item under those statutes and others were being increased. They began to unfold only on Friday when one Gazette Notification after another came to be public. More are to unfold. That the presentation of national budgets in Parliament has lost its lustre is all too well known. For some time now, the country's fiscal policy has been implemented by a process commonly called 'Budget by Gazette'. If indeed most of the fiscal measures have come ahead of it, perhaps there is only one difference. This time, it has remained unpublicised during presentation of the budget and came thereafter.

A few examples of what emerged on Friday as well as yesterday: Duty increases on a number of imported consumer goods including sugar, Maldive fish, salted dry fish (including sprats), chick peas (kadala), green gram (moong), vegetable oils and fruits. Needless to say these increases would lead to a further spiral in the cost of living hurting most the lower income groups. Also increased are prices of cheese, sausages, different varieties of pasta, soups, cereals, butter, margarine, building materials including cement, steel products, padlocks and hinges. The duty on the import of used cars has been raised. The Customs are busy working out the rates. Duty on import of three-wheeler scooters has also been raised. More increases in prices of other commodities are due. The rise in consumer prices, the Government explained, was to protect the local industry. However, some of the items are not produced in Sri Lanka whilst the others locally produced are inadequate to meet the domestic demand. More details on the budget appear elsewhere in this newspaper.

Rajapaksa told his ministers that "the preparation of the budget was based on a consultation process that began at ministry level even before starting the formal Budget cycle in July this year. I conducted several meetings to undertake a needs assessment of various stakeholders of the economy, such as Trade Union representatives, farmer representatives, women entrepreneurs, self-employment categories, business organisations, trade chambers and bankers. My visits to several line ministries to review progress helped to further consolidate medium term planning. On my instructions, a team of Treasury officials visited each line ministry to discuss their budget estimates and development programmes…."

Boycotting the Budget Speech were the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which functions as the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) in Parliament. Former UNP Chairman, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had 'informal' consultations with the JVP. He did not elaborate. The claim was contradicted by the UNP's Gampaha district MP John Ameratunga, who said "they took their decision and we took ours."

The JVP's Propaganda Secretary Vijitha Herath said, "We decided not to take part in the presentation of the Budget. It has turned out to be a mere formality of submitting a document to Parliament. All other things are done outside it." He said the party made the decision by itself and had no contact on the matter with other opposition parties.

However, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) did not join the boycott. Behind-the-scene moves to persuade the TNA, the same way the UNP agreed with the JVP to keep out, did not materialise, said a source engaged in the discussions. Rajapaksa was seen asking TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan from the Well of the House to come over for tea during the customary break. However, he did not speak to any of the TNA parliamentarians who gathered there. One of those present asked Rajapaksa whether to ask Sampanthan to come and speak with him. "I am the President. If they want, let them come and speak with me," he replied. It was early this week that President Rajapaksa asked Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran to become the co-chair of the District Co-ordinating Committee (DCC) for Jaffna. Whilst in all other Districts, the Government Agent or the Provincial Secretary chairs such meetings, in Jaffna it has been presided over by Minister Douglas Devananda, who is also the leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). Chief Minister Wigneswaran told the Sunday Times, "I have made no final decision to accept it or not." Other TNA sources said the acceptance by the TNA would amount to endorsing policies contained in Mahinda Chinthana (Thoughts of Mahinda), the basis for most development programmes in the North. Some of the NP councillors were not in favour. When Rajapaksa was returning to his car after the Budget presentation, both Devananda and Northern Province Governor G.A. Chandrasiri were among those seeing him off. Conspicuous by their absence at the tea party were a number heads of diplomatic missions from western countries. Most of those present were from Arab nations.

Thursday's Budget, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times "is not an election budget." He was alluding to growing speculation that a presidential election is likely early next year. However, the Southern and Western Provincial Council polls are slotted for early next year. His remarks ran counter to the belief by some ministers that a presidential poll was still likely next year and that the budget was intended to set the mood for it. If astrological considerations, which most Sri Lankan politicians solemnly adhere to, are to be considered, it will not be until 2015. At least this is what President Rajapaksa's astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena suggested in an interview with a Sinhala language newspaper.

Though he did not say whether it would be presidential or parliamentary, Abeygunawardena declared that an election where all Sri Lankan voters would go to the polls will only be in early 2015. Of course the forecast seems to run counter to remarks Rajapaksa made to senior members of the Central Committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He told them to be prepared for either a presidential or parliamentary election. The party's General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena was to declare later that there were no plans to hold such elections next year. Denials during such situations are not uncommon and have at times turned out to be moves to misdirect the opposition.

"This Budget is like taking the Sri Lankan people to an electric chair. The mounting prices they have to confront are fatal," Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times. He said the Budget only sought to ensure one per cent in the country became richer. "It also clearly reflects how bad the economy is," he said and asked: "President Rajapaksa has presented nine budgets. What is the result?" However, Rajapaksa told his ministers and later in Parliament that the "economy continues to progress steadily." He declared that economic growth would exceed seven per cent this year and move towards 7.5 per cent to eight per cent from 2014 to 2016.

Soon after Rajapaksa returned to 'Temple Trees' after presenting the Budget Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned to congratulate him on becoming Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth. Earlier, Afghan President Hamid Karzai sent him a message of congratulations. In a move to help Commonwealth countries cope with human rights issues, the 98 point joint communique issued after the CHOGM in Colombo refers to a decision to assist members (Item 39) "to build capacity to work with the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) and implement the accepted recommendations with the assistance of the Secretariat as appropriate."

The reference has drawn the attention of sections of the Colombo-based diplomatic community. They point out that the UN Human Rights Council set up by the General Assembly in 2006 makes no provision for "accepted recommendations" for the UPR. A follow-up resolution before the Council in 2007 states: "recommendations that enjoy the support of the State concerned will be identified as such. Other recommendations, together with the comments of the State concerned thereon, will be noted. Both will be included in the outcome report to be adopted by the Council." They point out that on March 15 this year; the UN Human Rights Council adopted the Outcome of the Universal Periodic Review on Sri Lanka. Thereafter, on March 21 this year, it adopted a resolution promoting reconciliation and accountability. They opine that the latter resolution takes precedence over the earlier one in the same session and should be viewed as an amendment.

The Outcome Report on Sri Lanka identifies the National Action Plan and the recommendations that enjoy the support of the Government of Sri Lanka. This has been set aside by the subsequent US-backed resolution which noted: "1. the National Plan of Action does not adequately address all the findings and constructive recommendations of the Commission; 2. the National Plan of Action and the (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation) Commission's report do not adequately address serious allegations of violence of international human rights law and international humanitarian law."

Source: Daily Mirror - Sri Lanka

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