Heading Towards Wonder Of Asia
- A jumbo Cabinet
- A nation struggling for survival
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
A nation battered by the continuously increasing cost of living is also burdened with maintaining one of the largest Cabinets of ministers in the world.
The increase in the number of Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers at last week’s Cabinet reshuffle has increased the expenditure of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has pledged to make Sri Lanka the ‘Wonder of Asia’ has managed to achieve this feat by maintaining the largest Cabinet of ministers at a massive cost to the nation.
Regional super power, India has only a 33 member Cabinet of ministers while Pakistan has only 19 and Maldives 17. Even the US has only 11 Cabinet Ministers.
Sri Lanka on the other hand boasts of a Cabinet of 67 ministers.
Ironically, the government is increasing public expenses at a time when the sky rocketing cost of living has prevented some families from even having three square meals a day.
With a loaf of bread nearing Rs. 100, an egg costing around Rs. 17, a plain tea at Rs. 20 and vegetable prices soaring to over Rs. 200 per kilo, only a few families can actually consume three meals a day – a possible reason for the under nourishment of the younger population of Sri Lanka.
The Census and Statistics Department last week announced that the cost of living index had risen to 170 points in January from 168.6 in December 2012.
In effect, the value of the market basket has risen to Rs. 47,600 in January from Rs. 25,344 in 2006 when the Rajapaksa government first assumed office in 2006.
The country currently has a 6.2 million workforce in the private sector and 1.2 million in the public sector, which depend on salaries for survival.
On the other hand a 6.5 million-strong farming community and another group of self-employed persons are also battling for survival whenever the cost of living records an increase.
Interestingly, the minimum wage of a public sector employee is Rs. 11,730 and the private sector is a little over Rs. 7,000.
Therefore, given that the market basket has increased to Rs. 47,600 in the month of January, the nation is living in the red every month since the earnings of the working masses do not commensurate the expenditure.
It is in this backdrop that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has increased the number of Cabinet ministers to 67, deputy ministers to 28 and two non-Cabinet ministers.
The new appointments are expected to cost an additional amount of money to the government, which is in turn collected from the people.
According to a response tabled by the government in Parliament following an oral question posed by UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake, a Cabinet minister is paid a basic salary of Rs. 65,000 per month, a deputy minister is paid Rs. 63,500 per month and a parliamentarian is paid a sum of Rs. 54,285.
Karunanayake told The Sunday Leader that the monies spent on maintaining ministers and deputy ministers, amounts to millions of rupees per month once the additional perks and incentives provided to them are added.
He observed that an additional Rs. 400 million would have to be incurred to maintain to new appointees to the Cabinet and the new deputy ministers.
“What do 67 Cabinet ministers do? It is only for their political survival,” Karunanayake observed.
It appears that the general public does not seem to be aware that these expenses are funded by the direct and indirect taxes imposed on them by the government at a steady pace. It has been observed that this government will tax even a beggar through indirect taxation.
Meanwhile, head of the National Trade Union Centre (NTUC) K. D. Lalkantha said that the people have been affected by the Rs. 10 increase for a litre of petrol, Rs. 150 increase for LP gas, the drastic increase in vegetable prices and the 12 percent VAT slapped on supermarkets at the 2013 budget.
“The tax on the supermarkets has resulted in the overall price increase of commodities sold there. Supermarkets are no longer for high-income earners and are most often frequented by middle-income earners. Therefore they find it difficult to purchase the same commodities they would have purchased earlier,” Lalkantha observed. He added that it is often the fixed income earners who suffer the most due to the increasing cost of living.
Lalkantha explained that the cost of expenditure for a family of four in January 2006 had been estimated at Rs. 25,344 (a cost of living index unit had been valued at Rs. 180).
However, the current value of Rs. 47,600 has been calculated by multiplying 170 index points by Rs. 280, which is the new value of an index point in the cost of living index. Lalkantha added that the government has once again conspired against the working masses by not permitting the Census and Statistics Department to Gazette the new value of Rs. 280 for each cost of living index point.
“The failure to Gazette the new value has resulted in many public and private sector companies calculating their cost of living allowances for workers at the old Rs. 180 per index point,” he pointed out.
Lalkantha also observed that the government must identify a new production process that is in line with the climate changes taking place in Sri Lanka. For instance, if due to extreme weather conditions resulting in longer periods of drought and shorter periods of rain, then perhaps it may be necessary to increase paddy-harvesting seasons and not limit them to the yala and maha seasons only. In the case of vegetable cultivation, the government should examine the possibilities of preserving vegetables during high yield periods in order to supplement shortages as a result of inclement weather.
“Under the current system both farmers and consumers are suffering due to the lack of will and insight by the government to rectify the production process in order to bring about a stable economy,” he stated. Sermons on development by the government are futile, when the people are starving Lalkantha stressed.