Reminiscences of a PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT - Sunday Observer Editorial Supplement

Multi-pronged development, focal point of Govt plans

Before the year is over, Sri Lankans will be able to go on a journey that a few thought was possible even a decade ago. Physically, the journey begins in Colombo and ends in Galle and takes maybe 90 minutes. But the journey is not only physical – it is also a massive transformation in the Sri Lankan mindset, for Sri Lankans will now feel that they are truly on a rapid path to development. When the Southern Expressway opens, Sri Lankans will realise what they have been missing all these years. After all, an expressway network is a sine quo non for attaining developed status.

This expressway and indeed others such as Colombo-Kandy and Colombo-Katunayake expressways were on the drawing board for decades. But all previous governments lacked the political will and commitment to go ahead with these massive development projects, even if the funds were available from foreign donors and local sources.

This is a hallmark of the present administration under President Mahinda Rajapaksa – it is not reluctant to go ahead with projects that are crucial to the country’s development despite various objections raised by parties with vested interests.

Welfare projects

And unlike the previous governments, the conflict was not cited as an excuse to halt or go-slow on development and welfare projects. Among the other projects that have leapt off the drawing board to the ground are Upper Kotmale, Norochcholai, Sampur (power), Hambantota Port and Airport, Oluvil Port, Colombo Port extension (transport), oil and gas exploration and the development projects specific to the North and the East under Northern Spring and Eastern Resurgence programmes.

In nearly all of these cases, the projects had been postponed by various Governments due to lack of commitment, not necessarily funds. As for the North and the East, the present Government also removed the biggest obstacle to development – LTTE terrorism that raged on for nearly three decades. That was perhaps the biggest example for the Government’s steadfast commitment to a given cause.

Although short-term measures could be popular, the Government has instead chosen to focus on long-term development under a comprehensive 10-year master plan. This means that the results may not be immediately visible.

The benefits usually flow steadily in a decade or more.

That is a holistic approach to development which is essential for a country that aspires to be an Asian miracle.

Middle income country

The next generation(s) will benefit immensely from these projects, even if the present one does not. Sri Lanka is well on its way to becoming a Middle Income country with a Per Capita Income of at least US$ 4,000 by 2016. New vistas in power, transport and communications will transform the outlook of the entire nation. Sri Lanka has become the favoured destination among savvy international investors, stock market and project wise.

Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama remarked at a parley recently that Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries that has requested the IMF to delay the granting of the next tranche in its US$ 2.6 billion facility.

Sri Lanka’s sovereign bonds are being snapped up at an incredible rate. Poverty levels have been reduced drastically. School attendance is near-universal.

Health indices are on par with those of the developed world.

Oil and gas reserves

The North and the East are being rapidly integrated to the rest of the economy, which will boost the country’s indices further. The discovery and eventual exploitation of oil and gas reserves off the country’s coast will be a huge boost to the economy.

These are the results of a far-reaching, prudent economic policy which aims for the equitable distribution of resources among all nine provinces. Colombo and Western Province are still on top, but the other provinces are catching up fast.

That is an ideal scenario – even the North, the East and Uva shall be equal to the Western Province in terms of development, education and income levels.

Investors too will see the benefits of locating their industries out of Colombo if the infrastructure levels are on par with those of Colombo.

It will also lead to job creation, further reducing unemployment, which has already decreased to record levels. Youth in all areas will thus be able to contribute meaningfully to the national development drive.

The administration has placed emphasis on the youth population, which at five million is the highest ever in Sri Lankan history. This includes four million schoolchildren.

Part of the Government’s plans for the equitable distribution of resources to all provinces is the upgrading of at least one school in each major township to the level of a popular school in Colombo. This should end the mad scramble among parents for the best schools in Colombo for their children.

If your local school is as good as a big school in Colombo, Kandy or Galle, why not take advantage of it ? The Government’s plans also address the needs and aspirations of youth who are unable to get into universities, which have limited spaces. After all, youth frustration has led to two insurgencies in the South. It is thus very important to secure higher educational and employment opportunities for these youth. Vocational and other job-oriented courses are offered islandwide for students who are unable to enter traditional universities.

Another approach is working with the private sector to secure employment for graduates and others after a training programme centering on the work ethics and needs of the private sector.

The youth who gain skills also have another avenue – foreign employment. Within the last five or six years, the Government has found new markets for our skilled labour, including South Korea and Italy in addition to the existing markets in the Middle East. Recently, nearly 10,000 youth passed the Korean language proficiency examination, a prerequisite for finding employment in that country. The Government is engaged in talks with several other countries to find more such openings for youth.

Youth population

This will also enable more males to find jobs abroad. Right now, females comprise the majority of 1.5 million Sri Lankans working abroad, who collectively remit nearly 3 billion dollars back to the Motherland every year.

The Nation can never forget another very vital segment of our youth population – the members of the Security Forces who eradicated terrorism two years ago.

But now, the Government faces the challenge of transforming the Forces to act according to peacetime requirements while remaining ever vigilant on any renewed threat to that hard-earned peace.

The youthful members of the Security Forces have now become active partners in the development process all over the country, but especially in the North and the East, emerging after decades of strife and darkness.

Their experience, vitality and patriotism are being harnessed effectively to build a better tomorrow for all Sri Lankans. All Sri Lankans must necessarily participate in the development process if we are to achieve ‘fully developed’ status. That is the aim of Mahinda Chinthana programs such as Gama Neguma (Village development), Maga Neguma (road development) and Divi Neguma (Livelihood development through agriculture).

These programmes call for a participatory approach to development, whereby villagers get an opportunity to voice their opinions on and actively contribute to the project work. This gives them a sense of belonging to the development process in their own areas.

Development per se cannot uplift livelihoods without an attendant spiritual component. The Government has taken many steps in this regard during the last several years through concepts such as Mathata Thitha (full stop to drugs, tobacco and alcohol). This has drastically reduced the problems associated with the abuse of these substances. The Government has also extended assistance for the expansion of Dhamma schools, since the foundation for a virtuous society can be successfully laid from the younger generation. These are far reaching measures which will have a positive impact on the country’s journey towards becoming a front-ranking country in Asia.