The Budget Speech delivered last week, Mr Speaker, lays down a range of imaginative and constructive policies which it is an honour to support. The hallmark of great Liberal governments at a time of social change was the pursuit of reform that promoted opportunities for all, and this is the basic principle behind the proposals laid down in the budget speech. Amongst those of immense importance are the commitment to promote school enrollment amongst low income families and the determination to improve transport facilities for this purpose. Twinning this with mechanisms to ensure connectivity to market places is symptomatic of the understanding that social services must also aim at empowerment, not simply the provision of handouts.

It is also important that health care services be extended. I have noted the comparative excellence of the Ministry of Health in not just restoring, but also improving, services in areas affected by conflict. The concern the budget speech makes clear for expanding such services to areas in need is most welcome, and also the understanding of the need for people participation in improving conditions, as exemplified in the proposal to intensify knowledge sharing programmes on child nutrition. In this regard the development of the dairy industry is a timely step, and I hope the strides made in this regard over the last couple of years will be taken further. The same applies with regard to poultry farming, and recent emphasis on this, and the concerted efforts made through the Divi Neguma initiative, provide a model of policy innovations that have been carried out with practical efficiency.

In regard to this work with regard to the livestock industry, I am glad that the innovations of the late Mr Saviamoorthy Thondaman are remembered, and the collapse of that initiative is evidence of the need to ensure policy continuity whatever the political compulsions of individuals or governments. On a related issue, let me, on a personal note, thank His Excellency for recognizing the practical work done by Sabaragamuwa University with regard to artificial insemination, and hope that Agriculture Faculties nationwide will adopt a similar creative approach in their research and teaching.

I hope Mr Speaker that we will see similar commitment on the part of other research organizations also to other areas in which the budget targets innovations. Forestry and environment conservation are vital in the context of rapid development, and the resources the budget provides must be supplemented by the many institutions government now funds for scientific research. The same I need hardly say goes for the development of alternative energy sources. In this regard mention of gliricidia cultivation is welcome, and I hope that we can ensure that agencies working on livelihood projects in the North in particular provide some assistance in these areas. I should record in this regard, Mr Speaker, the ready support of the Japanese government for such useful work, and I hope the programmes they are supporting through the Gandhi Centre, with their emphasis on empowerment of rural communities, can be replicated elsewhere too.

I need hardly add, Mr Speaker, that emphasis on agriculture is vital, given the need for food security. The attention given to fisheries and aquatic resources is most welcome, and in this regard I must congratulate the Ministry of Fisheries on the support it has provided to fishermen nationwide, despite the difficulties of the post war situation and the continuing incursion of fishermen from India. Problems in this regard, and efforts by some in the South too, who had not worked in the area previously, to take advantage of the difficulties of those in the North who are trying to get back to their traditional occupations, are constantly raised at Divisional level meetings, but there is universal appreciation of the sympathy and support of the Minister in promoting fair settlements.

The support given to inland fisheries reminds me, Mr Speaker, of the seminal work done in this regard by His Excellency the President when he was given the portfolio of fisheries, which was a subject with which I assume he was thought to be unfamiliar. I recall at the time remarking on the energy he devoted to the subject, and the innovations he introduced and, as with the backsliding with regard to livestock development, it was a pity that what he achieved then was not built on. I hope however that the current commitment will help us make up for lost time. In this regard, the programmes initiated to develop fish ponds in the North are another achievement that should be recognized.

With regard to agriculture, it should be recognized that, despite the difficulties caused this year by the drought, progress in the North has been fantastic since resettlement began, and this is appreciated by local communities. At the same time, this should be accompanied by skills training, as was noted by a lady in Musali who mentioned the need for training in marketing. I hope therefore that the welcome encouragement of small enterprises is accompanied also by training in marketing and entrepreneurship development, in particular for value addition for agricultural products. Since I hope to speak later in the debate in Committee on Education, I will not say much in this regard, except to note the crucial need, as registered in the budget speech, to do much more with regard to human resource development.

Given the importance of Agriculture, Mr Speaker, I welcome the support that will be provided for irrigation. In this regard I hope very much that the Ministry ensures consultation of farming communities, and proper follow up and maintenance with regard to the various projects that have been and will be implemented. I have written a couple of letters in this regard on the basis of worries expressed by farmers in the Eastern as well as Northern Provinces, and I hope the Minister will ensure swift attention to the problems mentioned. Though of course decisions must be made by the technical experts in the Ministry, it is vital that affected communities are consulted, and kept informed of progress. One difficulty in ensuring this I suppose is that responsibility is exercised at different levels, which is why we must ensure better coordination between Central and Provincial Ministries. I hope that the structural changes needed to ensure this will be implemented swiftly, with the needs of local communities, and their right to be consulted and informed, being the key factors that administrative reforms should fulfil.

I am delighted, Mr Speaker, that the question of devolution should have been discussed in a budget speech, because for too long we have been dealing in this regard with dogma that takes account of neither financial nor practical realities. I believe that reform is perfectly possible within the framework of the current Constitution, provided we work on the principle of subsidiarity, which was the basis on which the Liberal Party first promoted devolution, when discourse on the subject was dominated by those committed to domination of geographical areas by one ethnic group or the other.

The simple fact that governance should be about people, not about the power of politicians, has been forgotten for too long, and I hope we can work rather on the principle of uniform National Policy – which the Constitution lays down as applying to all subjects – developed through consultation of all interests, along with implementation through units that can best promote the interests of the people within them. In this regard I welcome the move to develop the potential of local authorities, and I hope the current responsibilities they fulfil are expanded to ensure more precise attention to basic needs. Health and nutrition, education and training, roads and transport, are best understood and promoted at local levels, in conformity of course with policies and programmes developed at national and provincial level.

Efficiency and effectiveness demand that duplication should be avoided, and responsibilities must be clearly defined. The financial savings this would ensure are considerable. At the same time, we should apply the same principle to central government too, and work towards reducing the number of Ministries, as well as Government Departments, since these are not only an unnecessary burden on the people whose taxes fund them, but also on officials who often do not act because responsibilities are divided.

This has been a problem, Mr Speaker, in the effort to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Plan, and I am sure those in charge of implementing the LLRC Action Plan have the same problem. I am glad in this regard that the budget speech pays due attention to this aspect of developmental needs. The stress on training and human resource development for the Police is most welcome. For years I have argued that are armed forces in general behaved with exemplary decency in the midst of a war against terrorism of vicious intensity, but the same could not always be said of the police. In the last couple of years however I have noted increasing professionalism on the part of the police, and the enormously positive attitudes to them now of the people I meet at Divisional Secretariat meetings in the North and East are testimony to the change that has taken place. The police in general do a commendable job in difficult circumstances, and the commitment not only to improving their capacity, but to giving them decent conditions in which to work, is timely.

The commitment also to fast track the Reconciliation process is welcome, though I would also suggest that some funding should be devoted to ensuring that the good work that is done is communicated systematically. The website of the Peace Secretariat, along with the website of our Mission in Geneva, helped to refute unfair allegations during the period of conflict, and we must ensure that all our Missions have websites with similar communicative capacity in a context in which we are still victims of unfair allegations. For this purpose a dedicated website should be developed in Sri Lanka, and I hope the Presidential Secretariat will be provided with both financial and human resources to do this.

Finally, Mr Speaker, whilst congratulating His Excellency on the range and relevance of the initiatives outlined, I should strike a cautionary note, in registering the need to establish mechanisms to ensure implementation of these excellent ideas. Last year I remember welcoming the suggestions with regard to Prison Reform, but unfortunately very little was done in this regard. I appreciate the efforts of the Ministry in this regard, but concerted action was needed, in particular with regard to sentencing policy, but coordination in this regard did not take place. The tragedy that took place last Friday at Welikada suggests that, when good ideas are advanced, they should be implemented quickly. I can only hope then that the good ideas in this Budget Speech are implemented swiftly, efficiently and efficaciously.

 12 November 2012

Part I  – Daily News 17 Nov 2012 –

Part II –  Daily News 19 Nov 2012 –