Campaigning flies high in the House

 The election campaign that is seemingly getting into full swing, particularly in the Colombo Municipal Council area, made its way to the chamber of Parliament this week in the form of two adjournment debates. The legislators cutting across the political divide of the House, probably in their eagerness to hold sway in the campaign over one another, took up the issues concerning the Colombo voters during these debates.

The government, apparently in its interest to highlight the issues of Colombo people as a political ploy for vote catching, moved an adjournment motion on Tuesday to praise the development and city beautification work being done within the municipal area by the Urban Development Authority coming under the purview of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The ruling UPFA tried to capitalize on this situation for electoral gains whereas the main opposition UNP pounced on the government in this respect with the usual allegation that innocent, poor city dwellers were being relocated ,in the name of development, for the grabbing of their valuable lands by the state to be leased out to  foreign investors.

The government’s speakers were at pains to convince the House in every possible manner that people would not be evicted at any cost in the name of  development drive launched as part of the plan to make Sri Lanka the wonder of Asia, the ambitious  development programme of the ruling coalition.

Colombo is considered the traditional strong base of the UNP. Even when the party was routed in the large swathes of the country, it retained Colombo.  Yet, this year, the party is facing a fierce and rigorous campaign by the UPFA hell bent on establishing   its political authority over the municipality.

The UNP also had valid points to counter the government’s arguments. True, hundreds of families cited as squatters were removed from their original places of residence in areas such as Kompanna Street in Colombo. It has inflicted fear among such people in other areas of Colombo, who form a sizeable chunk of the city’s vote bank, that the same fate will befall them anytime soon under the present regime.  The arguments, coupled with political wit of the members, were centred on this point. Not only during this adjournment debate but also during the question time, the opposition tried to fix the blame on the government on this matter. 

On one occasion, it was UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake who directed a question at Housing Construction and Engineering Services Minister Wimal Weerawansa about the eviction of city dwellers. The MP cited examples in this regard, yet the Minister assured that all the 60,000 slum dwellers would be provided with better housing within the city limits. Since the assurance was given in the august assembly, the eyes are now focused whether the Minister will live up to his promise in the future.

Apart from this issue, it was noted this time that the government dodged answering some questions placed on the Order Book, and no one could understand the rationale for postponing responses to them.

There was a question by UNP MP for the Kalutara district Ajith Perera about the annual income of the Law College and fees being charged from students. Also, he asked whether there was any plan to increase fees in future. Yet, the government asked for time to answer this question for the sixth time. The question had come on the Order Book for the sixth time. 

There cannot be logical reasoning for such a delay in answering a question of any nature in Parliament. The delay leaves scope for anyone to interpret it as an attempt by the government to conceal certain financial irregularities at the Law College from the public eye. 

Also postponed was the answer to the question on the release of gold reserves by the Central Bank to be taken out of the country.  The postponement of answers to questions on various topics speaks volumes about the lethargy, inefficiency and reluctance of the subject ministers to share public information.  It is true that they should be given ample time to prepare detailed and comprehensive answers to the questions raised by the MPs. But, the inordinate delay in this case is unacceptable.

The parliamentary question time is the prime time for the revelation of information important for the general public to know, especially in a country like Sri Lanka where the Right to Information Bill is yet to be enacted.

There is no legal provision for the public to raise questions and get whatever information they need from the state institutions. People are interested to know the amount of money spent by the state in the construction of the access road to their village, for the building of a community hall or the development of a playground.

The least MPs can therefore do is provide answers. Information revealed in terms of answers to questions necessarily reach the masses through media, and the public responses triggered can help solve a lot of issues such as corruption and malpractices involved.

For example, in recent times, it was revealed how Rs. 40 million had been spent to mend a road of four km in the Kurunegala district. Following this revelation during question time, a Presidential order was given to investigate how such a colossal sum of money was spent.  

On Wednesday, Parliament passed three important bills – Finance Business Bill, Money Laundering (Amendment) Bill and Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Financing Bill. The last two of them seek, among others, to cripple the LTTE’s fund raising activities outside the country.

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