By Nisthar Cassim
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa yesterday expressed confidence of completing his ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ vision for Sri Lanka in the next three years despite losing the first two with COVID-19 pandemic induced setbacks.
Speaking to a select group of editors at a luncheon, Rajapaksa listed priorities from his vision were boosting local economy thereby minimising imports, rapid transformation to greater reliance on renewable energy and a green sustainable agriculture.
He said that considerable progress has been made already in these three areas despite challenges and he is determined to realise the full vision in the next three remaining years.
Rajapaksa said that the global pandemic and its consequences were beyond his or the Government’s control. Nevertheless, the Government was successful in its vaccination drive thereby averting a worse disaster in terms of deaths and infections.
As of yesterday, the country’s cumulative COVID-19 case count rose to 584,107 of whom 559,684 have recovered. Death toll from COVID has risen to 14,901.
The President implied that with COVID situation under control prospects for revival in the economy, tourism as well as foreign reserves were better. “We had the highest tourist arrivals for a single day amounting to nearly 5,000 on Christmas day,” Rajapaksa said, adding that December is likely to finish with around 75,000, a record for a post-COVID month.
Speaking on the foreign exchange crisis, the President explained that when he took office the reserves were around $ 7 billion and Sri Lanka had debt servicing worth $ 6 billion per annum. “Every successive government has rolled over debt and for servicing foreign exchange receipts were used.
“However, no one saw the pandemic coming and the end result was the country losing $ 10 billion in foreign exchange earnings due to the collapse of tourism for two years. Additionally, our remittances declined too whilst exports faced a setback in initial months,” he recalled.
In this context as a measure to save foreign reserves, he said unnecessary imports including vehicles and luxury items, had to be suspended.
“In parallel, we also focused on discouraging import of items which can be produced or grown locally,” the President said, citing several products including tiles, ethanol and saffron. “Due to this move, the local sugarcane farmers are benefitting and sugar mills are active. The income of dairy farmers and growers of minor agriculture crops have increased. All these people form a large community and no one is highlighting these benefits,” the President opined.
He also said that more companies have begun manufacturing tiles and sanitaryware. “I understand the shortage which is due to the suspension of imports. However local industry also must step up capacity and production since a favourable environment has been created,” President added.
It was also pointed out that favourable policies of the Government as well as resilience of the private sector have led to exports rebounding to record levels.
Rajapaksa also said that only following his election, paddy farmers got a big boost firstly with free fertiliser and secondly the guaranteed price was increased from Rs. 30 to Rs. 50 per kg. “After a thorough study of the value and supply chain, we agreed rice could be sold at Rs. 96 per kg. During this period the paddy farmer community benefited substantially but this wasn’t highlighted. However, it was disruptions in the market that we had to resort to imports,” the President added.
Focusing on his thrust towards organic farming, Rajapaksa said that originally the plan was to approach it in a phased manner starting with 30% of agriculture in the first year and a further 30% in the next and so on. However, he alleged that agriculture officials had bungled it out of misunderstanding and there had been misapplication leading to an increase in chemical fertiliser. The President said eventually a total ban was slapped to rectify the situation.
Alleging that agriculture officials had not been overly cooperative either, Rajapaksa said he was committed to sustainable and organic agriculture and with greater education of farmers and support of agriculture officers, this vision will be realised.
He also expressed his commitment to boost renewable energy stating that Sri Lanka spends $ 360 million per month on oil imports, part of which goes to produce thermal energy and the majority for use by motorists. Separately $ 3 billion is spent annually on coal.
“As a country we have given a global commitment not to build anymore coal power plants but phased it out as well as reduce the use of fossil fuels. Renewable energy is the future and herein too stakeholders need to be educated properly,” the President said, adding that a pilot project to set up 7,000 small solar energy units had elicited a response for only 150.
President also stressed that given the unprecedented pandemic and its impact on the socio-economy spheres, the media must play a positive role as a key stakeholder towards ensuring development in the country. However, he said, the media is free to expose corruption or lapses within the Government.