Walking the Talk | Daily News

Walking the Talk

The President and the  Prime Minister attending religious observances in Anuradhapura
The President and the Prime Minister attending religious observances in Anuradhapura

Flanked by the Tri-Force Commanders, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the Nation for the first time at the Ruwanweliseya sacred premises in Anuradhapura after his oath-taking ceremony a year ago.

“There are a heap of responsibilities before us. We have got a lot to do within a short span of time. If there is a will, nothing is impossible. There is no challenge that we cannot win. We have a vision to build this country. As the Executive President, I never hesitate to use my powers for the benefit of the country,” the President said towards the end of his 15-minute speech.

A year has flown by, but the above words remain solid. At this time yesteryear, there was no clue that a health crisis of this magnitude was waiting to befall. Four months later, COVID-19 started playing havoc, creating an avalanche of troubles in many spheres, but President Rajapaksa, demonstrating his resoluteness and leadership qualities, was able to pull the entire State mechanism, including the defence establishment, together in no time to weather the storm.

Coming from a military background, the President is naturally inclined to get the support of the Security Forces whenever the public service needed an extra hand to deliver the expected outcomes. The Security Forces have gone the extra mile to make sure that all the tasks hitherto assigned to them are performed in a manner that anybody can hardly complain.

By way of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the President has taken more powers to his hands and has thus taken full control of the vehicle in which he has assumed the driving seat. A strong leadership to steer the country in the right direction was what the people lined up for at the Presidential Election a year ago, and the President, who was elected with a clear and powerful mandate of the people, has lived up to those expectations even amidst extraordinary challenges.

Difficult years are far from over and a rugged road lies ahead. How he handles the vehicle and all its passengers and which way he takes them will tell his story in the years to come.

PM turns 75

The President was in Anuradhapura over the weekend engaging in religious activities as he completed one year in office. In Ruwanweliseya, the President, his spouse Ayoma Rajapaksa and Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva were seen attending religious observances on Friday.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his spouse at Ruwanweliseya

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his spouse joined the President in Anuradhapura the next day as a Seth Pirith chanting with the participation of 500 Buddhist monks was conducted at the Mirisawetiya sacred site seeking blessings on the country and its people during this difficult time precipitated by the COIVID-19 pandemic.

The President’s first year anniversary coincides with an important milestone of Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s life. This political personality, who has made history by performing the impossible, turns 75 today. An astute politician to the core, he has been in active politics for two thirds of his life, tasting both the sweetness of power and the bitterness of electoral defeat. After his defeat in 1977 and 2015, he retreated only to make a more powerful political comeback within a brief period.

He received a special place in the country’s political spectrum through his leadership role to end the LTTE terrorism, which scourged the country for three long decades. Even opposition politicians acknowledged this fact. Premier Rajapaksa celebrates his 75th birthday as a matured and well-seasoned politician who continues to enjoy popular support.

Economic hurdles

The President’s Media Division announced that President Rajapaksa would make a special Address to the Nation today at 8.30 pm. This statement will be simultaneously aired on all television and radio channels and also streamed online. One can expect this to be a moment of reflection on the past year’s performance of the Government and an assessment on what remains to be achieved in the coming years.

At the same time, the Government’s economic blueprint for the next year was announced in Parliament yesterday. Prime Minister Rajapaksa delivered the Budget speech in his capacity as the Finance Minister kicking off the three-week-long Budget debate.

The Budget was aimed at stimulating the economic activities in the country amidst the COVID- 19 pandemic, while continuing the relief measures and incentives to the needy people and the affected sectors.

The country’s economy and fiscal management were in bad shape even before the Coronavirus outbreak due to years of political mishandling and short-sighted decisions. On top of that, COVID-19 has come as a hard blow to our debt-ridden economy. The Premier told Parliament last week that the COVID-19 related expenses have cost the Government nearly Rs. 70 billion from March to November.

A considerable share of this cost had been to provide the Rs. 5,000 allowance to the families who had lost their livelihoods as a result of restrictions on movement. Earlier last week, the President pointed out that the daily expenditure to conduct PCR tests exceeds Rs. 60 million. Providing quarantine facilities, tracing close contacts and improving healthcare facilities have also consumed a lot of money.

Now that the Government has presented Budget 2020 and Budget 2021, giving the big picture of the country’s economy, the Parliamentary debate will be an opportunity to evaluate the budgetary proposals and the myriad challenges on the fiscal front.

Press gallery closed

Unfortunately, Parliament’s doors remain closed to media personnel during the Budget presentation due to the COVID-19 related health risks, and the journalists were asked to follow the live streaming of sittings. Parliament authorities took this decision as five Parliament correspondents, who were present to cover the debate of the 20th Amendment, were later found to have contracted COVID-19.

Parliament is sitting regularly from today for the Budget debate, but the media personnel are still barred from entering Parliament even though many of them had undergone PCR tests. The Parliament correspondents were irritated over this decision and they had already written to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on the matter collectively.

For Parliament reporters, it is not just about reporting Parliamentary speeches. It is about subtle observations that the fixed cameras would not show. At times of agitations, which are quite common in our Parliament, the camera is usually focused on the Speaker. It is through the journalists in the press gallery that the public gets to know the full story.

It is widely said that “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” The Press Gallery has a special place in Legislatures all over the world. ‘Leaks, scoops and scandals’ that influenced the public debate had often come from Parliament correspondents. It is in this light that Parliament authorities will have to reconsider their decision on closing the press gallery for days or weeks or as they termed “until further notice.”

Landmark Court ruling

Meanwhile in the Court Rooms, a landmark judgement was delivered on Monday with regard to environmental justice. Ruling that the clearing of forest land belonging to the Kallaru Sanctuary situated north of Wilpattu National Park was illegal, the Court of Appeal ordered MP Rishad Bathiudeen to reforest an area equivalent to what was cleared for the re-settlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at his own expense.

A two-judge bench of the Court of Appeal made the above order applying the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle. Handing down a 14-page verdict, pursuant to a writ petition filed by the Centre for Environmental Justice in 2015, the Court asked former Minister Bathiudeen to pay the full cost of that tree planting programme to the Forest Conservation Department within three months.

“The Constitution says that it is a fundamental duty of every person in Sri Lanka to protect nature and conserve its riches. This includes public officials and representatives of the people. In view of this constitutional duty it would be a travesty of justice to require the State and consequentially the tax payer to bear the costs of this programme when the 7th Respondent (MP Bathiudeen) was instrumental in getting the reserved forest released for the re-settlement of the IDPs,” the Court observed in its judgement.

This Court order was a significant win for environmentalists who fought hard for environmental justice.