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qrcode.26140115Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

In the Votes on the Ministries of National Languages and Social Integration, of National Heritage and of Cultural Affairs, considered in the Select Committee

During the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate, November 19th 2014

Mr Speaker I would like during this Committee Stage of the budget debate, as we consider the work of several Ministries which have been brought together, to register appreciation of the work of a few of these Ministries, whilst expressing the hope that they will be able to do more in the future. It is a pity that we have so many Ministries that some many have to be considered in a job lot as it were, but I shall take advantage of this to suggest the coordination that might make the work of some of these Ministries more effective.

I would like to concentrate most on the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, which has so important a role to play. I must commend the dedication of the Minister and the Secretary, and I am sure he must be delighted that the work he is doing has been recognized by the Ministry now also having the services of a Deputy Minister. I am happy that the new Deputy Minister comes from the Central Province, because with regard to social integration it is perhaps the Tamil community there that needs the most effort to be deployed by the State.

I should note too that in that area it would be useful if government moved swiftly on an excellent idea that had been mooted by the Ministry of Education, namely the establishment of multi-lingual schools in all areas, so that children of different communities could study together. I believe this should be promoted in each Division, and such schools made Centres of Excellence, with children not only being able to go to the same school, but also being able to study in the same class. For this purpose it would of course be necessary to ensure that English medium education was available in all these schools, but this would not be a difficult matter if the Ministry of Education followed the example of the training programmes we set in place when English medium was first introduced, way back in 2001.

In this regard the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration should take the initiative, and encourage the Ministry of Education to move swiftly. In the past few months the Ministry has put forward several suggestions to the Ministry of Education, and this is perhaps one of the best uses of the system of Consultative Committees we have, which are otherwise not very productive. But given the vast responsibilities of the larger Ministry, I believe the Ministry of National Languages must push more effectively, and also develop programmes for the better delivery of language courses throughout the country. Setting in place Language Centres in every Division, using voluntary labour where possible but also providing facilities for paid classes, would be a step in the right direction.

In particular in the North and East, and in the Central Province, such Centres could also prepare students for the teaching of languages. The great complaint of the Ministry of Education, when we ask why the teaching of Second and Third Languages is so bad in rural schools, is that there is an absence of teachers. In particular this is true of Primary Teachers, but of course if there is no foundation, it is impossible for students to catch up, given the way our syllabuses are constructed. But unfortunately there has been no attempt to think outside the box to ensure the production of more language teachers. Here again the Ministry of National Languages, which has such dedicated staff, should take the lead in suggesting innovative solutions. I am sure that, even if the Ministry will not receive funds for such activities through the budget, it can prepare project proposals that will receive ample funding for so laudable a purpose.

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The last series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the North brought out even more clearly than before the failure of the various institutions of government to work with each other. At a previous consultation, which the UNDP had funded as part of an ongoing initiative to improve coordination, I had realized what might be termed the political problem in the areas in which development is most essential, namely the Divisions in which local government bodies are controlled by the Tamil National Alliance.

Some of their members, and in particular the community leaders they had appointed to lead their lists in many places, thus avoiding the general unpopularity of those who had been engaged on either side in the confrontational politics of the previous decades, were willing to engage. But they were not sure if this would be acceptable to their more political leaders, given that it is much easier to complain that to try to work. Conversely, government representatives were not sure whether active cooperation with elected leaders from an opposition party would lead to criticism from those who thought government should belong only to them.

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In his brilliant account of our current economic situation, delivered at the Liberal Party discussion on Economic Reform, Indrajith Coomaraswamy spent some time in discussing the budget deficit, and why it is particularly worrying in the current context.

He noted that the current account of the balance of payments has been in deficit since 1957, while the current account of the budget has been in deficit since 1987. He made it clear that it is not a new phenomenon that government has been borrowing to meet some of its recurrent expenditure and all of its capital expenditure over the last 25 years. But he also noted why Sri Lanka needs now to be even more worried than before about living beyond its means.

A budget deficit is a principal source of instability in the system. High budget deficits lead to inflation by creating excess demand. The inflation differentials between Sri Lanka and its competitors and trading partners that result exert pressure on the exchange rate. But, given the high import component in our basic consumption bundle, it is politically difficult to maintain a flexible exchange rate policy.

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I have looked thus far at the Sri Lankan Parliament, and its failure to fulfil properly the essential duties of a Legislature. These are the making of Laws, and financial oversight, through both the Budget and control of financial expenditure.

Most Members of Parliament do not however understand that these are their main responsibilities. Rather they believe that their principal function is representational, ie that they are in Parliament to represent the interests of those who voted for them.

This is true, but the problem is that they do not understand their collective responsibilities as Parliamentarians, to make sure that laws are made, and public funds are expended, in the interests of the people. Rather, they think only of their individual responsibility, which is connected with the need to continue to be Parliamentarians.

This explains the fact that most interventions in Parliament relate to the individual needs of constituents. There are exceptions in the questions asked by opposition Members, which are intended sometimes to draw attention to general problems, but even they often lapse into personal considerations. The fact that hardly any government Members ask questions is indicative of the general view that policy – and its practice on a wider scale – is not their business.

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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.

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As we have seen, Members of Parliament do not have much of a role to play in the initiation of legislation, which is largely left to the Executive. The same is true of the second principal responsibility of parliamentarians, namely the budget. Formulation of that too is left almost wholly to the Executive. In neither case can we say however that this is inappropriate, since on the whole laws and regulations and financial provision require an expertise that Members of Parliament not involved in departmental duties cannot possess.

In other countries however a distinct role remains in terms of private members’ bills, as well as questions and adjournment motions, through which the occasional significant contribution can be made to discussion of important issues and thus, one hopes, to national policy too. In Sri Lanka however none of these seem now to serve much general purpose.

With regard to private members bills, unfortunately we have an old tradition that such bills are taken up in the order in which they are proposed. Thus an enterprising member can stuff up the space for such bills by putting forward a dozen and more at the very inception of a parliamentary session.

When these bills are clearly intended to score debating points, with no real concern to promote reform, they end up being of no interest to anybody, except possibly the person who proposed them. Thus the first private bill before Parliament in the current session is one that criticizes the assumption by the President of particular portfolios. Since such an assumption is explicitly provided for in the current constitution, and since all previous Presidents have taken on various portfolios, it is apparent that the bill is not really serious. Even the opposition recognizes this, for the bill has hardly been debated, the Chief Opposition Whip working together with government members to ensure that there is no quorum when it is taken up.

So the Sri Lankan Parliament is in the sorry state of not having concluded even one private members bill as yet, almost a year after Parliament was convened. Sadly the same philosophy seems to be followed with the vast majority of Parliamentary questions, another tool that should be used to ensure accountability on the part of the Executive. A large number of questions do not address policy issues, but are used to draw attention to information of a parochial nature.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2020
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