Budget par excellence

Whenever we speak about a Budget the name of Ronnie de Mel invariably comes to mind. That is because he created a record in politics by presenting 11 successive Budgets in Parliament without a break.

A pioneer who introduced the open economic policies to the country he brought in several revolutionary changes by introducing accelerated development and granting several relief measures to the public.

Here are excerpts of an interview held with former Finance and Planning Minister Ronnie de Mel regarding the 2019 Budget:

Q: How are you keeping these days?

A: Now I am a pensioner. I am spending my retirement watching cricket matches, reading books and looking after my properties.

Q: Are you happy about the role you played as Finance Minister back then or have you any regrets?

A: I am happy not only about what I accomplished as Finance Minister but also about all accomplishments throughout life. I am happy to have retired from politics at the right time.

Q: You created a record by presenting 11 successive Budgets. What do you feel about it?

A: A cricketer plays boundaries to give his side a winning stand rather than to hit a century for personal glory. It is the same when I was made Finance Minister. I never thought I could manage to present a single Budget. The national economy had deteriorated and the country was really bankrupt. But I thought I should make a try. I was lucky to win the confidence of international leaders and bring in funds to the country.

Q: If any other Finance Minister broke your record, would you like it?

A: Records are not epigraphs. The current record is presenting 11 successive budgets. Mahinda Rajapaksa came close to it. But could not equal or break my record. Sometimes Mangala or any other future Minister may break my record. But I hope and pray that as a representative of the Matara district Mangala will be able to break my record.

Q: Wasn’t your Budget Speech very long during that period?

A: That was the trend during that period. Not only in England but even in India the Budget Speeches were very long. Now it is concluded within about two hours. Things change with the changing world.

Q: Why did you select your estate bungalow to prepare your budget at that time?

A: I could not do it at my office or my residence because they were busy and crowded places with supporters streaming in. When you listen to their grievances you cannot prepare a Budget with a peaceful mind. Therefore I relegated that responsibility to my wife Mallika and secretaries and retreated to my Geekiyanakanda Estate Bungalow in Bulathsinhala to prepare the 11 Budgets I presented.

Q: Why only Geekiyanakanda was preferred?

A: It is a house situated in solicitude within a picturesque plantation without the city hustle and bustle. The atmosphere enables you to work with a peaceful mind. But the fundamental Budget work was accomplished at the Ministry.

Q: Can Sri Lanka be transformed into another Singapore?

A: If there’s proper economic management we will not only be able to equal Singapore but even surpass it. It was not merely economic policies which helped develop Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yu took drastic action against bribery and corruption.

Q: Aren’t certain people critical about the open economic system today?

A: There is no point in blaming the open economic system. Criticising it is baseless. I fearlessly say that the open economy developed the country rather than destroyed it. Thanks to the open economy, our production sector including industries, agriculture and exports as well as all spheres of activities of the people had improved.

If not for it, the people would have been still waiting in long queues opposite cooperatives and shops to purchase basic commodities. Sometimes the country would have been in a situation like in Venezuela. The country is shining today due to the open economy. As its architect, I take great pride with a sense of humility.

Q: There are allegations that indigenous industries had to put up the shutters due to the open economy?

A: That is a total fallacy. If those industries continued to exist, no one would have purchased their products today. But the production industries which evolved according to modern social needs with value addition are still doing well.

Q: But hasn’t the open economy resulted in cultural degeneration?

A: We cannot develop the country by depending on diehard ideas. Cultural standards that existed 100 or 200 years ago cannot be maintained today. We should keep pace with modern trends in the world. If not, we will be languishing in the same status. Realistically speaking, development can be seen in economic, social and cultural spheres today. But since there is some social deterioration, it has gained attention.

Q: Hasn’t the open economy created more social divisions?

A: As the then Finance Minister I apportioned funding for all sectors on an equal footing. I provided funds to Premadasa for building houses, gave funds to Lalith to build the port and develop education. Provided adequate funding for the Mahaweli scheme and gave funds to Ranjith Atapattu to develop the health sector. I treated all ministers with the same spoon by allocating funds without any discrimination. Every Budget introduced by me had proposals for the upliftment of investors, industrialists as well as the general public.

I accept that there may have been some shortcomings. No country in the world has had a 100 per cent successful government as regards development. When a country is developed with investments and industrial progress it must benefit the people. A country can never be developed with income disparities.

Q: What is your opinion about this year’s Budget?

A: The Finance Minister has taken great pains to balance investment, development and social welfare programmes and it should be appreciated. All strata of society have received some benefits and I consider it a good feature.

Q: Certain quarters allege that the Budget lacked any proposals to develop the economy.

A: That is a baseless allegation. The Budget has many positive proposals to create a new business community and young entrepreneurs. The Enterprise Sri Lanka programme is one such example.

Q: Critics have labelled the Budget as a deceitful one which will plunge the country into an economic trap. They also maintain that the Budget has no single proposal to uplift economy. Your comment?

A: They have the freedom to express their opinion.

Q: What are the other proposals in the Budget which you appreciate?

A: Actually the best option for a country like ours is to develop the export sector. That will help reduce the balance of payments. The Budget proposals consider this aspect though belated. While we develop industries it is important to encourage the production of raw materials needed locally. If raw materials are imported, benefits gained from industries will be limited.

I see important proposals to encourage the production of latex needed for rubber-based industries. This will encourage local growers.

There is another good proposal to assist the Cinnamon industry. The proposal to grant scholarships for students excelling in examinations to study in foreign universities is also a good proposal which will assist village schoolchildren.

The proposal to double the tea and rubber subsidy is another welcome proposal which will provide solace to people in the tea and rubber industry. The proposal to grant low-interest loans to fishermen to purchase multi-day boats is another salutary proposal. The six per cent interest housing loans granted to expatriate workers is another good feature. Special attention has also been drawn towards rural development.

However much a good budget is presented, the deficiencies and shortcomings in the implementation of its proposals cannot be presented.

Therefore the Finance Minister, the Ministry Secretary and other officials should carefully monitor the implementation stage. Successful results could be obtained if a group of learned and efficient young MPs are deployed to monitor follow up action. I feel that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s astute leadership, dedication and supervision will be vital in this connection. If that happens, people will be able to reap the benefits of the budget easily.

Q: Do you see any weaknesses in the Budget?

A: The lack of sufficient attention to the agriculture sector is one weakness. It is the duty of those responsible to identify such weaknesses and rectify them in future. I highly appreciate the measures taken to grant another salary increase to public servants amidst various difficulties. Similarly, public servants too should show a positive response by providing a better and more efficient service. I sincerely hope that the Finance Minister would be able to perform his responsibility well by granting benefits all around by overcoming challenges.


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