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    A journey towards developed status

    January 15, 2020

    It was just two months ago that nearly seven million voters gave a mandate to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to put the country on the correct track. Since then, President Rajapaksa has taken a series of measures that have earned him plaudits and public trust. His approach to governance was elaborated on in his Policy Statement delivered in parliament on January 3.The most obvious feature of his presidency is his hands-on approach. Never one to oversee things from an air-conditioned room in his office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made several unannounced visits to places such as the Narahenpita Economic Centre, the National Hospital and the RMV to see for himself how officials serve the public. Although somewhat unnerving to his security detail, the President was in the midst of the public who had come to these institutions. The President listened to their grievances and promptly instructed officials to take remedial measures. Later, when the relevant minister went on a follow-up tour of the RMV, most services had been streamlined.

    Leads by example

    The other main feature is that he leads by example. He pruned his own security detail and the number of vehicles in the motorcade, which naturally meant that other ministers had to follow suit. Now it is common to see VIP vehicles stopping at traffic lights, whereas earlier they would have whizzed past the red light, leaving other motorists scrambling to get away. He also drastically cut down on the number of delegates on foreign trips, urging ministers to do the same. Moreover, the VIP lounge at the Bandaranaike International Airport will strictly be for the use of foreign VIP guests – the President used the normal channels when he flew to India on an official visit.

    His visit to India was very productive. In Narendra Modi, India has a leader with unquestioned patriotic feelings and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s patriotic tendencies are well known. The two leaders formed an instant bond, which augurs well for the diplomatic and trade ties between the two neighbours. In fact, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intends to have excellent diplomatic ties with India and all other friendly countries.

    He seeks a reset of our foreign policy priorities strictly in accordance with the Non-Aligned Policy that Sri Lanka practiced some time ago. There will be a renewed focus on Asia and Africa in this endeavour, which may have been neglected as Sri Lanka veered more towards the West under the previous regime. The coming week will be a busy wee for the President, with top envoys from Russia, USA and China making official trips here.

    Diplomatic ties and trade are essential, but foreign investment is another factor that can enhance our links with the outside world. Just a few days after he was sworn in, the Port City land was officially recognized as part of Sri Lanka’s landmass. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has since instructed officials to revamp the Board of Investment to give a better one-stop service to prospective foreign investors. The BoI has since then signed a few investment deals with millions of dollars for the Colombo City alone. However, he has not forgotten local investors either, giving them a series of concessions including tax cuts.

    Tax cuts

    In fact, just a week into his presidency, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a series of tax cuts for the public as well as commercial entities. Unable to recover the funds lost through the Bond Scam, the previous regime had slapped a plethora of taxes on the public and businesses, which were detrimental to the country’s growth.

    The VAT was brought down to just 8 percent, as opposed to 15 percent earlier. Many other taxes and duties were eliminated altogether in order to streamline tax collection and afford relief to the public who were burdened heavily by the existing tax regime. Not only taxes, the President has focused heavily on all aspects of the economy, which was in a moribund status when he came to power. An economic growth of around 6 percent is planned for the medium term, which will spur social empowerment and development.

    One major allegation that bedeviled the UNF administration was its almost complete lack of a viable approach to development. The Rajagiriya flyover was perhaps the only project they completed. Having begun the Central Expressway project with much fanfare with a 2019 deadline, the project is still in tatters with no end in sight – literally.

    Thus one of the first tasks of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was to instruct Highways Ministry and RDA officials to expedite this project as well as begin other projects such as the Ruwanpura Expressway. The UNF Government also completely neglected the power sector despite ominous warnings of a power crisis. Hence, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has drawn his attention to starting several new power generation projects, with a special emphasis on the renewable sector, mainly wind and solar. The President has also spoken of the need to develop our mineral and gem resources and of course, agriculture, on which much of the country depends on for employment and food. The Ocean Economy too should be developed, said the President, who has noted that Sri Lanka’s sea area is 23 times its land area.

    An educated and skilled workforce will be a sine quo non for development to take off in all these sectors. Some areas that need modernisation, such as agriculture, are suffering because young people are not venturing into these sectors. This was one area that he focused on extensively in his Policy Statement. Education thus becomes a pivotal factor in producing a skilled workforce. Hence his focus on education in the policy education, with a particular emphasis on funding education and work opportunities for the nearly 150,000 students who are left out of the formal State university system every year, as they can accommodate only around 30,000. The President also addressed the issue of the mismatch between university courses and job market requirements.

    “We have to pay special attention to ensuring that our future generation will become productive citizens by nurturing them with the required knowledge, skills and abilities. The opportunities young people have to pursue higher education and technical education should be broadened. The infrastructure facilities needed for this must be developed within a short time frame. The number of students entering tertiary education can be increased through more effective utilization of the capacities of state universities and other higher educational institutions. Some of the courses taught in universities today are not in consonance with market requirements. In the near future, we intend to introduce short-term courses to equip our university students to meet the needs of the modern job market, which they can opt to attend whilst pursuing their current courses of study,” said the President.

    National security

    For all this to happen, the country’s security must be ensured. The tragic events of April 21 was a bolt from the blue for Sri Lankans who enjoyed 10 years of peace following the end of the conflict in the North and the East. The incident exposed the glaring lack of certain security measures and lapses in the sharing of intelligence. Thus the restoration of national security was one of the main campaign pledges of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Since assuming office he has taken a series of measures to bolster national security, such as revitalizing the intelligence apparatus and keeping the Armed Forces in a state of readiness to face any internal or external threat to the country’s sovereignty. He has also turned his attention towards making Constitutional changes that would ensure a far greater degree of national security.

    “In our policy, National Security occupies the foremost place. We will take all necessary steps to make our motherland a safe country free of terrorism, extremism, underworld activities, theft and robbery, extortionists, the drug menace, disruptors of public order, and the abuse of women and children. Our primary purpose is to create a productive citizen, a happy family, a disciplined society and a prosperous nation, the President stated in his Policy Statement.

    One cannot expect miracles in just two months, but if the track record of the past two months is any indication, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency will be defined by an all-new, refreshing attitude to work. He is among the people when and where it matters and has shown a steely determination to make Sri Lanka a developed nation, an objective which he alluded to in the Policy Statement. It is now up to all Sri Lankans to rally round him to make that wish come true.



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