President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited opposition members to tea after he had presented the 2011 Budget in Parliament last Monday afternoon. Asked if tea was being served “with or without sugar” by UNP member Dayasiri Jayasekera, the President replied, “with sugar.”
But despite the tea, helapa and sandwiches served at the customary post-Budget tea party where the President rubbed shoulders with opposition and government members alike, the criticism levelled against the Budget by opposition legislators was anything but sweet.
President Rajapaksa who has shunned the traditional briefcase tied with a red ribbon carried by previous finance ministers preferred to carry his Budget speech and proposals in a file since taking office in 2005. It was the same style this time around as he entered the Chamber to a standing ovation by government party members. Standing in a floodlit Chamber the President spoke for a little over two hours in which he detailed the various development projects undertaken by the government as well as future plans for the country. He started off on a personal note by telling his brother Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa that the image of their father the late D. A. Rajapaksa who occupied the seat once as the Deputy Speaker comes to his mind.
The end of the war seemed uppermost in the President’s mind and at the onset he paid tribute to the “brave men and women in our security forces who paved the way for this journey forward.” He announced that Rs. 3,000 million would be disbursed over three years to address their economic difficulties while an allowance of Rs. 100,000 would be paid per family for every third born surviving child of armed force personnel, to promote their family environment.
While this and most other proposals announced by the President went down particularly well with government members who were keen to show their support by thumping their tables from time to time, what most were waiting for was the announcement of a salary hike for those in the public sector. But that came towards the end of his presentation and while government members showed support for the proposal, it was met with a lot of heckling from opposition members who asked what had happened to the promised Rs. 2, 500 pay hike.
|Tea talk: President Rajapaksa tells Gayantha Karunatillake he welcomes his criticism.
Pic by Gemunu Wellage
The President said he had given serious thought to salary related issues of public servants but reasoned that an increase of Rs. 100 a month for salaries and pensions would cost the state coffers Rs. 1.9 billion annually. Instead what they were granted was a five per cent monthly non pensionable allowance along with a Rs.600 cost of living allowance from January.
Somewhat contradictory to his reasoning, just minutes before, the President said the government proposed to recruit 10,000 graduates in different fields next year, a move which would inevitably inflate an already bursting-at-the-seams public sector and push up the sector’s salary bill further.
A few hiccups aside, Budget day went off comfortably for the ruling side. The President did his part mingling with opposition members. He inquired from DNA MP Sunil Handunnetti about the injuries he had sustained when he was attacked in Jaffna recently and paid a compliment to UNP Galle district MP Gayantha Karunatillake saying that he welcomed constructive criticism of the UNP member.
Among those who skipped the tea party were Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and MP Mangala Samaraweera who on his way out told journalists at the scene that the Budget was a “fairy tale” .
While the President will now have a seat permanently allocated to him in Parliament, not everyone seemed happy with the new post--Cabinet re-shuffle seating arrangements in Parliament.
One in particular was Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sumedha Jayasena who occupied a front row seat till Budget day. With the SLMC’s entry into the Government and its leader Rauff Hakeem getting a Cabinet portfolio, he was allocated a front row seat, pushing Minister Jayasena to the second row much to her displeasure. Although Minister Hakeem himself hasn’t been vocal about the seating plan, he may not be too pleased either given the fact he is flanked on one side by JHU monk MP Aturaliye Ratana Thera and Minister Wimal Weerawansa on the other. The phrase politics makes strange bed fellows is commonly used but this seating arrangement seems to be a perfect practical example of the saying.
The debate on the second reading of the Appropriation Bill -2011 got under way on Tuesday and as expected while government members praised the vision of President Rajapaksa in formulating a Budget with the national economy in mind; it came in for criticism by the UNP, the DNA as well as the TNA.
UNP MP Ravi Karunanayaka who opened the debate said the expectations of the public sector employees for a pay rise had been dashed while there was no relief for the rising cost of living. “Where is the relief promised to the people? What the public have got are increased electricity rates and no relief to tackle the increasing cost of living,” he said.
DNA MP Sunil Handunnetti said that the President had proposed the setting up of several funds for pensioners, private sector employees as well as migrant workers but all the monies thus collected will go to the treasury. “Today the Treasury is more bankrupt than the people,” he charged.
UNP National List MP D.M. Swaminathan said the government must explain to the citizens of the country why the Rs .2, 500 pay hike as mentioned in the election manifesto was not fulfilled adding that unwanted expenditure incurred by the government was one of the main reasons for the failure to live up to its promises.
He also said the recurrent and capital expenditure allocated to the District Secretariat of Hambantota had gone up by Rs.59,325,000 for 2011 from last year and stands at Rs.437,475,000, while Jaffna District Secretariats have been allotted Rs.395,500,000, about Rs.37,375,000/ more than last year while in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi District Secretariats, the increases were less than for Hambantota.
Much of the criticism from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members was directed at the high allocations made to the defence sector, despite the end of the war.
Meanwhile Galle district UPFA MP Chandima Weerakkody was unanimously appointed as the new Deputy Speaker after Priyankara Jayaratna the previous incumbent holder was appointed Minister of Civil Aviation.