(Excerpted From the “Sunday Times”Political Column)
In the midst of a Cabinet reshuffle, Sirisena had some bad news for Wickremesinghe at Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. He said the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) should be wound up. The CCEM set up on September 23, 2015, meets every Wednesday at Temple Trees and is chaired by the Premier. All matters related to economic development including foreign investment are discussed and decided upon by it. Thereafter, only the minutes of the CCEM decisions, which are sketchy and brief, are forwarded to the Cabinet for endorsement. They often contained only “the decisions taken” and did not give fuller details. This prompted SLFP Ministers to dub the CCEM as a parallel cabinet. More often than not, ministers approved the CCEM decisions without knowing fuller details or by glossing over material before them.
One such case took place on July 5 last year when the decisions taken at the 74th meeting of the CCEM were submitted by Premier Wickremesinghe for endorsement by the ministers. A document titled Updates to the National Physical Plan June 2017 was among those tabled. This contained the National Physical Planning Policy. Dealing with major infrastructure projects, particularly road networks, the document included a map of China’s One Belt One Road project but carried no comment. It is not clear from the document whether the intention was to link China’s OBOR to Sri Lanka’s road network. OBOR is development strategy proposed by the Chinese Government and it focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries.
At the ministerial meeting Sirisena embarrassed Wickremesinghe by producing a catalogue of decisions taken by the CCEM which were non-productive.
One case in point he stressed at length was the setting up of a so-called Volkswagen factory in Kuliyapitiya. He said it turned out there was no involvement by Volkswagen though CCEM had granted approval. Even he had been misled into taking part in the opening ceremony. Wickremesinghe explained that Volkswagen was experiencing financial difficulties and hence delayed the project. However, the German car manufacturer not only denied formally that it had no plans for a project in Sri Lanka but also withdrew its agency from a businessman who was associated with this so called project. This was to give rise to jokes that the ‘investment’ was for a hoax-wagon project. As reported last week, Sirisena earlier told a meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) that all decisions of the CCEM should be channelled through the Council.
The call by Sirisena to disband the CCEM did hurt the UNP leadership. A four member delegation led by Premier Wickremesinghe and including Ministers Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera and Kabir Hashim met the President on Thursday. They appealed to him to permit the CCEM to continue to function. In fact, its meeting on Wednesday took place with Wickremesinghe in the chair. Sirisena declared that he would consider their representations and would make his decision known.
UNP Minister Rajitha Senaratne also told the ministerial meeting that there were inordinate delays when matters went before the CCEM. He later told Wednesday’s news briefing “There was a major discussion (at the Cabinet meeting) regarding CCEM. This was because it takes time for a decision to be taken. We decided that all our development projects should be completed in the next one and a half years as in the last six months nothing is going to happen. If we were to complete them in one half years, how do we do it? We will need to select the projects that immediately concern the people.
“The next was how we reduce the time taken to make decisions. There were two suggestions: One was to scrap the CCEM and send all memoranda to the Cabinet and thereafter if necessary appoint a Cabinet Sub Committee. By this, delays could be avoided. The other proposal was to take all national level major projects to that Committee and bring the smaller decisions directly to the Cabinet. The Prime Minister too agreed to this. What happens now is that all projects go to that Committee and only thereafter come to the cabinet. It takes time. There was agreement on this. However, a decision will be taken in future as to what the major projects are.”
As Minister Senaratne points out, in the past many decades, the Cabinet of Ministers only forwarded memoranda for discussion at the weekly meeting. On issues which were considered complex, ministers decided on a Sub Committee comprising some of them. Such a body studied the issues involved and reported back to the Cabinet for final approval. A departure came under the yahapalanaya (good governance) Government when a Cabinet Committee on Economic Matters (CCEM) was established, of course with the approval of the ministers. Sirisena now wants it disbanded. Either he has realised three years into his office that it has become a parallel Government by itself or he wants to clip Wickremesinghe’s wings.
One of the two key players involved in the CCEM exercise is R. Paskaralingam, a former bureaucrat who was invited back from London to take the job. The octogenarian was a right hand man of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa and was his Finance Ministry Secretary. The other is Charitha Ratwatte, a close associate of Wickremesinghe who functions as Economic Advisor, also a former Treasury Secretary (2001-2004).
Some of the procedures followed by the CCEM also came in for criticism. In one such instance, it was the CCEM that invited former Chinese Ambassador Xi Xianliang and urged him to ask companies in his country to bid for the Hambantota Port. The result has been a new deal with China. The previous one was under the Rajapaksa administration when loans were obtained from China for the project — a move that forced the Government to incur vast amounts as huge loan repayments. Though the new project has led to the generation of foreign exchange, the process that denied bidders from other countries has remained an issue.