By Thameenah Razeek
Parliamentarian Ven. Athuruliye Rathana Thera, said the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022 has no vision and no objectives that correspond with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Election manifesto, and also it is a very conventional Budget that each and every Government has produced without hurting the public.
He stated that, while the Budget appears to be a people-centric Budget, it does not meet the country’s future plans, such as promoting renewable energy by 2030 or how to reduce the debts that have been indicated, and people are confused about how Sri Lanka will meet its goal of renewable energy by 2030, if it has not given a small hint on that.
“The Budget should talk about how they are trying to promote renewable energy by 2030, what they are trying to prepare with the Yugadanavi Agreement with an American Company, and also how they are going to reduce the country’s debt with this Budget proposal,” he said.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Do you believe the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022 delivers what people expected?
The Budget is not so horrible that I should object to it. However, the Budget has provided no remedy to the current issues. The single and major fault I find in the Budget is a lack of vision to overcome the situation we are facing, as well as a lack of a proper plan, and this is a pretty traditional Budget. However, we are facing a situation that no one has ever experienced before, raising the question of whether Budget 2022 is sufficient to address the crisis.
What do you mean by ‘No vision in Budget 2022?’
We expected the Budget to outline a strategy for overcoming the large-scale problem we are currently facing, as well as what should be done in the coming year. The Budget provides no solution to this problem. After all, there is no obvious method to solve the challenges.
If you were given the opportunity to submit Budget proposals for 2022, what would you include?
We have submitted proposals in a variety of situations. We are willing to share our thoughts with them at any time, but we do not believe the Government is in a position to listen to us.
Why do you believe the Government is unwilling to listen to your proposals?
At this time, I do not believe the Government is open enough to welcome other people’s views or desires. There is no longer an appropriate person to contact when we need something done or have a request. Because when we need to make a proposal, we cannot go directly to the President, and as you can see, at least four to five people are in charge of one subject.
The President took office promising to develop a people-centred economy in the country; why aren’t they seeking professional guidance on how to do so?
One of the main reasons for the issue erupting in this manner is the Government’s sluggishness in requiring others to offer their views to the table. Despite the fact that there are many representatives and experts available to provide proposals and ideas to meet the goal of overcoming this crisis, the Government did not take the necessary steps to bring everyone together in one place to discuss the crisis economically and socially.
What is your objection to the US company’s participation in the Yugadanavi Power Plant?
We should start by emphasising that upgrading diesel-powered power plants to LPG-powered power plants is a fantastic idea. However, no foreign business is required for this.
Do you believe there is a significant demand for additional LNG power plants to be built in Sri Lanka?
No, we do not need to build additional LNG power plants at any cost; instead, we should combine our demands; similarly, at peak hours, such as afternoons, we can use solar electricity directly and then store it, which saves money. Importing gas, according to this, is unjust.
How did Yugadanavi’s contract with New Fortress come to light in order to overcome the Forex crisis? Do you believe it will help in that regard?
We are importing gas, which requires us to invest more dollars in importing, exacerbating the issue. How can this be a solution to the currency crisis? Why do we import gas through a foreigner and pay our money to another country when we have conventional power plants?
Is not this in line with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pledge to generate 70 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030?
Why, if we are moving toward renewable energy, do we need to invest significant sums of money on importing gas and signing large-scale projects? If our main goal is to achieve 70 per cent renewable energy by 2030, we should prioritise solar and wind power. Wind and solar power could be used in a really good combo. There is no estimate for this, and we were hoping for such recommendations in the Budget, which was just a pipe dream. If the Government is serious about renewable energy by 2030, it should state in the Budget that it will import vehicles that run on battery power.The battery will be charged by solar electricity, which means the energy will be ours, allowing us to save US dollars. We should have a discussion about the energy parameters within the context of the contentious gas tale.
Did the Finance Ministry rush into the agreement with New Fortress Energy?
The transaction itself raises questions from all sides. Three Cabinet Ministers have stated that they know nothing about the transaction, which is so dubious at this stage. There were recommendations made to the cabinet about the deal, and it was revealed that the Cabinet of Ministers had not discussed it.
According to the Cabinet Paper, the Sri Lankan Government will have the monopoly on gas imports after five years.
According to the Cabinet Paper, the gas monopoly is with a US Company and will be changed in five years. But, in reality, we will not be able to do so since by that time, the US firm will have completely taken over the land by repairing their pipelines. This means they are unlikely to hand over the gas monopoly to the Government. That means we can create a situation in which individuals are forced to buy gas from only one firm.
The President’s pledge is linked to the global challenge of combating climate change. As a Sri Lankan who works tirelessly to promote a green economy, do you believe we are doing enough to combat climate change?
According to the United Nations Climate Change Resolution, 35 per cent of pollution is caused by oil and coal, while the remaining 30 per cent is caused by bad agriculture, especially large-scale maize cultivation. The Government’s proposal for this should have been included as the major Budget line in the 2022 Budget.
Is it acceptable to develop roads, motorways, and playgrounds in a country where poverty is unbearable?
If we look at the surroundings of Colombo, we can observe that there are numerous concretes in the metropolitan regions. Based on our technical knowledge, rather than constructing a motorway, we could have improved public transportation and traffic safety. The Governments in power in 2010, as well as in 2020, had no concept of poverty. The Government has borrowed money to construct a concrete jungle across the country. The next step is that loans be supplied to Sri Lanka to elevate highways, and it is far easier to broaden road lines than to build a highway.
So, you are suggesting that building a highway is not important in a country with skyrocketing debts and a massive poverty line?
Yes, because the railway tracks that were laid during Sri Lanka’s time as a British colony are still in good working order. People no longer require highways or other large-scale development projects. The people, as stated by the President, require long-term growth. The Government should have improved public transportation facilities and expanded railway and road lines. This will actually work to reduce traffic congestion as well as carbon emissions, making it an excellent start toward our 2030 renewable energy goal.
Do you believe that the Government’s and President’s decision to ban organic fertiliser failed at some point?
We spend about USD $500M per year on fertiliser imports. If we can produce fertiliser in Sri Lanka, we can save money. However, I pioneered the marketing of organic fertiliser for almost 20 years, and I feel that it should not be rushed. The usage of organic fertiliser has the potential to launch a revolution. This cannot be completed in one fell swoop. Despite the Ministers protests, the cabinet paper was made public right away.
The President, recently, criticised the authorities in charge of promoting organic fertiliser for failing to engage farmers and advise them on organic fertiliser. Do you believe there is an issue at ministerial level?
It is evident that the ministers are making contradictory remarks. They each condemn themselves while sitting on the same side of the room. Another issue is that the ministerial roles and authorities are separated. Using Agriculture as an example, the ministry is divided into four sections. This has hampered ministers, as they are unable to make decisions as a Government. It is sometimes suspicious that this has occurred for someone is benefit.
Are you indicating the ministers do not know what they are doing?
Yes, the ministers in charge are unaware of the situation. The Health Minister is clueless about health, and the others are as well. There is no scientific process for allocating ministerial responsibilities. Ministers can only function at the executive level if they are knowledgeable on the subject at hand. This is beyond the President’s comprehension.
As the first member of the organic fertiliser industry, what should have been done in this regard other than imposing a blanket ban in the first place?
What we had to do was choose a plot of land and conduct a trial with organic fertiliser. The trial should be undertaken on semi-farmers in Gampaha, Kalutara, and Matara, so that if the trial fails, there would be no widespread fear. So, if the experiment is a success, the process should be repeated. We should have done this this year so that we could demonstrate the farmers that the organic fertiliser trial was a success, and the farmers would believe us.
Did not you campaign for this under the Yahapalanaya Regime?
We had a scientific system last year, and if it had functioned at the time, we would not have had to deal with these challenges. We never stated that we would be 100 per cent committed to organic fertiliser.We announced that we will grant funding to farmers, and they will be able to choose between organic and chemical farming.
Do you mean to claim that utilising chemical fertiliser is not a problem?
Yes, our problem is not with chemical fertilisers in general. We face difficulties with herbicides and pesticides. To solve the problem, we must engage in systematic transplantation. This will necessitate the use of two machines. The first type is a paddy transplanter, while the second is a manual transplanter. We will not have a pesticide or herbicide problem. So, if this is done correctly, officials will not be able to claim that organic fertiliser or other problems have arisen. Because 90 per cent of Government officials believe that organic fertiliser implementation is impossible.
Did not the Government take steps to compensate farmers or encourage them to use organic fertiliser?
When I visited the villages, I saw that the majority of the farmers had not received the Rs.12,500 compensation, nor had they begun creating organic fertiliser or cultivating. None of the decisions are known to the Agricultural Research and Production Assistants. The entire project is being implemented in a haphazard manner.
According to remarks and rumours, you pioneered the President’s choice and advised him on it. Is this correct?
No, but it is true that I desired organic fertiliser to be promoted, but I never instructed the President to do it in this manner. President stated to me that he intends to do such things. If I had suggested the ban on organic fertiliser, I should have been given a responsible post in the Government dealing with organic fertiliser, which I did not obtain. Despite the many obstacles, I worked with farmers to fulfil the President’s vows, but I cannot do it alone.
Pix by Udesh Ranasinha