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Budget Foibles

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 27 November 2011 12:14 No Comment]

Last week the UNP tried to re-enact Tahrir in Parliament with the government side playing the Egyptian military. It was a pathetic display.

Firstly, the main opposition party behaved like street protesters rather than, say, Members of Parliament who could have actually changed the budget. Worst, the government side behaved like schoolyard rowdies and thugs. It is all the more tragic because billions of taxpayer rupees were allocated that day, while our politicians were debating about who pushed whom.

While this government makes noises about actual governance, it is clear that they are a party of Mervyn and Duminda Silvas, thugs and toughs, cultivating the dark side of politics for power. Their response to dissent from the UNP was to push and shove, because that is the calibre of politicians we have got.

The UNP, on the other hand, remains a shameless farce. Instead of actually opposing the government, they just made a sad show of it and stormed out. Did they change anything in the budget? No. Under Ranil, the UNP has become known for walking out of votes, not running in elections and then crying foul. They have not even tried, and as many times as he is charge sheeted or protested against, this dictator of the opposition will not leave.

The UPFA is even more shameless, but in a much more sinister way. Still MP Duminda Silva is the poster boy of their ethos – rape, murder and break the law -  as long as you bring in the votes. He has finally been charged, but only after the government whisked him out of the country. Their circus distracts us from the bigger issues which they ram through a Parliament of schoolboys, unopposed.

This budget shows unprecedented borrowing from China, around $600 million USD, or about 40 percent of all foreign financing. This is up from the single digits (percentage) in 2004 and even 2008. The line by line ministry breakdown also shows a huge expenditure on vehicles, salaries and personal emoluments. With interest payments and support payments for politicians, there is precious little left for actual policies or projects for the people.

Around 20 percent of all Ministry or Department spending is labelled ‘vehicles’. They are just buying cars to get around and… do what? There remain numerous redundant ministries (including a Minister for Productivity) that seem to destroy more value than they create.

While the post-war military is amply funded with around Rs.230 billion. By contrast, vocational education – Mahinda’s answer to a generally crumbling system – receives only Rs. 8.6 billion. Rs 95 billion is allocated to primary and secondary schools. It seems that the best option for our youth is entering the Army, to fight… the Maldives?

With all of Mahinda’s investment priorities, he is ignoring the past investments that enabled Sri Lanka to survive even 30 years of war with our Human Development Index relatively intact. Past socialist governments made terrible decisions on the economy and ethnic relations, but they did fund health and education.

Despite the JVP and LTTE brutally culling generations of Sinhala and Tamil youth, the nation still emerged with a functional workforce. Rather than investing in the people of Sri Lanka, Mahinda is borrowing to invest in infrastructure and guns. Not that these are things we will not need, but in 25 years, what will we do with natural gas deposits which we lack the engineers to operate, or guns we have nowhere to point to?

While millions around the world protest against growing inequality, Mahinda is working to create more inequality here. By parcelling up land and assets for big developers, by evicting slum-dwellers he is enabling big dollar gains in the economy without small pocket benefits to the people.

Mahinda also seems determined to continue his quixotic tilts at improbable goals. While few believed he could end the war, his obstinacy proved right there. He seems to think he will also be proved right on his newest mission, to make Sri Lanka a regional hub. In his budget speech he proposed making Sri Lanka a hub for sports and legal services. Nevermind that both are colossally mismanaged here. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that manages to lose money on cricket and one of the sadly many that use the veneer of a legal system to prosecute political opponents (like Sarath Fonseka) and let political criminals go (like Duminda Silva).

His focus (or his son’s) on sports almost bore bad fruit with the loss of Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games. India’s last games embarassed and impoverished the nation, though it at least left some infrastructure for New Delhi. Mahinda proposed a virtual bid for Sri Lanka, planning to make a bankrupting investment in his home district of Hambantota. Not content to have a port that no one uses, Mahinda also wanted to leave unoccupied hotels, conference centres, swimming pools and public transport systems for posterity to not use. Mahinda’s myopic focus on Hambantota is beyond embarrasing, it has become detrimental to the rest of the country. While regions like Matara and the North Central Province develop naturally without government attention, Mahinda chooses to invest in a district that shows no visible gains. If, for example, the Commonwealth Games had been proposed for a major city like Jaffna, that could have built much needed infrastructure for non-virtual human beings, and furthered the cause of reconciliation. That national interest was ignored, and the Commonwealth rightly rejected the bid.

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