Buddhism should retain its current status-Daya Gamage Minister of Primary Industries
By Shaahidah Riza
Minister of Primary Industries Daya Gamage noted that he personally would not like the compromise on the current status of Buddhism in the country. He went on to note that the Interim Report by the Constitutional Assembly is being misinterpreted by the Joint Opposition who misinform the public that the factors indicated in the said documents are definite and went on to note that certain groups of people were assessing it through a communal perspective. Speaking to Ceylon Today Gamage reiterated that the recently released Interim Report is just a document of a myriad of ideas that has been placed before the public for discussion.
Excerpts of the interview:
The Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act was recently passed in Parliament. However, civil society has concerns that the Bill was passed without adequate consultation. What is your view?
A. Everybody knows what Mahinda Rajapaksa did when he was in power. He took the country to polls. He also used State resources for election campaigns. This was reflected in the Sil Redi case. There is nothing wrong with distributing Sil Redi, but it should not have been done during election time. This is the way they won all the elections. They made a lot of promises and created a lot of expectations and won votes. There are certain number of people who vote for SLFP and a certain people who vote for the UNP. In between that voter base, they only need 10 per cent more to win the elections. As a country we are losing a lot of time and a lot of money by holding elections at different times. My personal view is that it is better to have all elections simultaneously - Presidential, Parliamentary and the Local Government polls. It will be much easier. Everyone will be working together, and for the next five years they will be developing the country. The Opposition also can criticise or work together and let the people decide whom to elect in the next five years. At present even if you get into power it is very difficult to work with the last system. We also can do the same as the former government. But ours is a Yahapalana Government and we will not stoop to that level.
So are you suggesting that civil society is overreacting with regard to their concerns? They claim that there was no consultation when the aforementioned Bill was passed.
A. How can they make such a claim? Party leaders agreed. The Joint Opposition is concocting a drama for the media. We have to respect the Judiciary. Supreme Court indicated that we have to get a two-third majority-150 votes. So we have to get the 150 votes. So a two-third majority agreed to the Bill with the Amendments. This wasn't a simple majority; it was a two-third majority.
We agreed with concerns of all people, especially the small parties such as the SLMC, and ACMC. We have given them also the chance to win. A lot of Amendments were put forward and everyone agreed to them. UNP was accused of delaying the elections.
Actually UNP does not want to delay elections. After we won the Parliamentary elections, if we had the Local Government and the Provincial Council elections we would have won with a huge margin. But we didn't want to do that. We know that the people of this country are fed up with elections. Now the people want to see some development. People are not that bothered about elections. They defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa and voted for Maithripala Sirisena. All educated and intelligent people know what this Government has done. People are actually worried as to why those who committed crimes in the previous Government have not been put in prison. But we can't meddle with the Judiciary. We have to expedite the cases, but the Judiciary has to work it out.
Internally, there are people within the party who are concerned about it, so the minister who is in charge of justice also gets blamed.
The interim report contained various proposals, which indicate that the parties, especially the major parties such as the UNP and the SLFP will have to reach a compromise of some sort. What aspects are the UNP willing to compromise?
A. The interim report has not been released yet as a conclusive document. This is giving the public a chance to know the proposals and to get all of their ideas. After we subject the proposals to an expert whetting it will be put to party approval. There are so many types of people who are making various comments about this. There are communal Sinhalese and communal people from other communities as well, who look at this through a communal lens. We cannot implement or pass it without the contribution of others. Most of the people do not want to compromise the position of Buddhism in the Constitution. Even I don't want to compromise. Buddhism is a philosophy which a person from any ethnicity can follow. Buddhism has been given the foremost position, and this has been accepted by the minority parties as well. So I don't think there will be a problem, because the respect will be given to other religions as well. The respect which is given to Buddhism in the Constitution should be kept as it is.
The fact that SLFP is split is a well known factor. However, recently two prominent UNPers Minister John Amaratunga and former MP Joseph Michael Perera had a public spat. Then, there was the case of Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa, as well, who drew the ire of the UNP. So is it safe to assume that all is not well with the UNP, too?
A. All is well with the UNP. Only thing Wijedasa Rajapaksa did was to dismiss collective responsibility. When we agree to something in the Cabinet, and if there was one Minister who didn't agree, he has to maintain the collective responsibility and express the same opinion of all ministers to the public. If the majority of people, be it the Cabinet or theParliament, agree to one aspect, all must agree to it.
A certified price of Rs 900 has been deemed for one kilogram of pepper. However, there are other countries exports that are affecting pepper farmers. What is the current situation?
A. I got the approval from the cabinet to pay Rs 125 per kilogram as a subsidy. At the moment we are stuck. We are wondering how to distribute the money to the correct farmer. This is a practical problem. There are only about 100,000 people involved in the pepper industry. They are pepper farmers, pepper collectors, pepper processers and pepper exporters. The subsidy must be given to the actual farmers. The farmer has already sold his pepper. Not all small farmers do the processing. The raw pepper has to be dried in the sun. This can be done through a machine as well. So the people who have machines are generally big companies. There are a few Indian companies which collect and purchase the pepper and they decide the prices. This time the Vietnam pepper crop was good. Therefore a lot of companies purchased from Vietnam. But there is a racket also involved. Pepper is not coming into Sri Lanka. But the fraud is with the documentation. Anyone who imports from Vietnam has to pay 102 per cent duty.
If its Sri Lankan pepper it is duty free to India. Even if the Vietnam pepper price is 4,500 dollars, with tax it will come to 9,000 dollars. If we get that amount, and our pepper is better than their pepper then we can secure the Indian market. Actually we are exporting 80-85 per cent of pepper to India. So that the few companies in Sri Lanka that import from India do the processing.
Some importers from India make a deal with the shipping company to get the country of origin from Sri Lanka. The country of origin is given from the Commerce Department of the Government of Sri Lanka. I called them to my ministry and spoke to them.
I also penned a letter to the CID and the Police.
I even spoke to the Customs. I asked as to how they can issue letters indicating the country of origin as Sri Lanka for Vietnam pepper? The pepper does not come here, but perhaps in the shipping company they do the change of documentation. Perhaps they get a forged certificate or an original certificate from the department indicating that the country of origin for the Vietnam pepper is Sri Lanka. This is completely beyond my control, and I have written to the Indian High Commission. India put a restriction seeking a quarantine certificate. Still in the Indian market we get a better price due to our FPA agreement. But even within that if fraudsters attempt chicanery, it is completely beyond my control. Prices will stabilize by next month.
I told all farmers to keep their pepper in stock. We don't have a mechanism to purchase this pepper. As a Government organization it is very difficult, the Government will lose a lot of money. In fact 70 per cent of pepper has already been collected and now it's not in the farmers' hands. If I give this subsidy through the exporters or the collectors it will not go to the actual farmer. Now we are working on a system to make sure the money goes to the actual pepper farmers. Now that we have started a registration process that compels all the farmers to register with us, then we can determine the real farmers.
Can you tell me about the agriculture sector modernization project done by your ministry?
A. We got about 1800 project proposals. Through our staff we have selected about 600-800 proposals. We have interviewed and completed the selections process and given them the green light to submit their elaborate proposals. Some of these proposals are ready to go to the World Bank for final approval. We will be starting at least 150 or more projects this year. We are expecting to create more than 200,000 jobs through this modernization project and we can add value for exports within about three or four year's time.
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