Slash Highways Budget

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A proposal agreed upon at the inaugural All Party Conference (APC) to tide over the current economic and foreign exchange (FX) morass was to revisit Budget 2022.

This was on the basis of a proposal made by UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe (MP) at the APC held at the President’s House, Colombo and presided over by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The APC was a result of a proposal made by the SLFP. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the President’s younger brother, who was also present at this event, proposed to provide ‘Avurudu’ relief to the masses.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe further speaking at this event said, considering the prevailing economic crisis, 50 per cent of ‘Budget 2022’ (Rs 3.18 trillion) already passed in Parliament in December, should be transformed from being a development oriented budget, to that of being a welfare budget.

In the short space of two years and four months the SLPP has been in power, the country is suffering from daily blackouts because the Government of Sri Lanka has no US dollars to import sufficient quantities of the cheap coal, diesel and gas to run its power plants.

Despite no electricity, as per IMF dictates, electricity prices are expected to be raised for the first time since 2013. The price of domestic gas, already increased by 79.17 per cent (Rs 1,182) to Rs 2,675 for a cylinder of 12.5 kgs during the present regime is also expected to be further increased in the near future.

Also, during this short period, the price of a litre of kerosene was increased by 24.29 per cent (Rs 17) to Rs 87 a litre, the price of petrol 92 octane, the type of petrol used by three-wheelers, by 84.06 per cent (Rs 116) to Rs 254 a litre, petrol 95 octane by 73.62 per cent (Rs 120) to Rs 283 a litre, Lanka auto diesel, the diesel used by buses by 69.23 per cent (Rs 72) to 

Rs 176 a litre and Lanka super diesel by 89.55 per cent (Rs 120) to Rs 254 a litre. Commensurately, the basic bus fare unit for an adult was increased by 66.67 per cent (Rs 8) to Rs 20, with a cascading effect on other bus fare rates as well.  

Despite such increases, a number of these items are in short supply, with long queues in fuel stations and at cooking gas dealers being formed to get such supplies and even after standing for hours and being exposed to the elements, numbers of them returning home empty-handed. At least three deaths and one murder have been reported from these queues, making the regime, by such acts of commission and omission, unpopular, underlined by protests and blockades engineered by the frustrated masses.

Therefore, expenditure rationalisation, also an IMF recommendation, is a good move to start with. For instance, Budget 2022 has allocated Rs 250 billion as capital expenditure to the Highways Ministry. As the protesting masses have already said, what’s the point in developing roads when there is no fuel to run vehicles?

Therefore, the first cut in the revised Budget 2022 should be the slashing of the Highways Ministry’s capital Budget of Rs 250 billion to a minimum, possibly focusing on the development of the Marine Drive only, which serves as an alternate road to Galle Road, Sri Lanka’s busiest roadway. Investment in the Marine Drive only in these troubled times makes ‘rupees and cents’ sense, considering the expensive fuel being guzzled by vehicles stuck in traffic on Galle Road.

Incidentally, the biggest capital expenditure in Budget 2022 is on highways at Rs 250 billion.

Meanwhile, the top 12 capital expenditure budgets in Budget 2022 in descending order are Highways (Rs 250 billion), Finance Ministry (Rs 65.05 billion), Defence Ministry (Rs 46.75 billion), Irrigation State Ministry (Rs 44.24 billion), Provincial Councils State Ministry (Rs 40.5 billion), Water Supply Ministry (Rs 32.15 billion), Health Ministry (Rs 32 billion), Education Ministry (Rs 22.15 billion), Agriculture Ministry (Rs 14.56 billion),   Transport Ministry (Rs 14.54 billion), Urban Development Ministry (Rs 13.87 billion), and Rural Roads State Ministry (Rs 10 billion).