THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE (1)
Posted on March 12th, 2017
When Mahinda Rajapakse became President of Sri Lanka in 2005, Ajit Samaranayake said the event ‘opens a new chapter in post independence history, where a leader unburdened by either dynastic trappings or the stigma of elitism find himself at the head of a popular movement. His tenure of rule is therefore pregnant with profound possibilities. Rajapakse has shown an instinct for the fight without soiling his hands and has emerged as a formidable leader at a crucial juncture in the country history.’
Rajapakse said in 2010 that he would like to be remembered as a man who loved his country and his people and did his best to serve them. On his return from Jordan in 2014, visibly moved, President Rajapakse knelt down and worshipped the ground after getting down from the plane. All the newspapers carried this picture, with a full page picture of it as the advertisement for Sri Lanka Telecom. Rajapakse should be commended for this. He did what others also wanted to do but did not dare. Two of my university friends, both male, told me, independently, in the 1970s, that when they returned from postgraduate studies abroad, they wanted to ‘fall down and worship the ground,’ they were so happy to be back.
Rajapakse was the least highbrow leader to have led independent Sri Lanka, said one analyst. Dayan Jayatilaka observed that Rajapakse comes across as resolute but affable, more personable, less dangerous. Rajapakse was hard working, had a devotion to duty, good oratorical skills, sociability, and the ability to mix with a wide range of people, said another analyst.
Rajapakse was looked down on by snobs who only admired westernized persons. One Parliamentarian referred to Rajapakse as ‘gode baiya’ or village buffoon. Rajapakse is an ‘infinitely cruder predecessor’ to Sirisena said another. Foreign negotiators, it was observed, did not know how to ‘respond’ to Rajapakse. They were more comfortable with the anglicized elite.
However, if Rajapakse can be persuaded to shave off his beloved moustache, go to a gym and lose weight, give up his comfortable sarong and shirt and get into uncomfortable western attire, he will immediately impress. He has the height (6 feet), colour and the poise which comes from being a seasoned and very successful politician. He is a former head of state with a sound record of achievement.
In 2014, Lakshman Keerthisinghe spoke up in praise of Rajapakse. He said he was moved to write his piece after reading the innumerable, mostly unfair criticism leveled at the government and its leader, Rajapakse. These criticisms, he said, were part of the political agenda set by the USA to destabilize Sri Lanka and set up a puppet regime. Keerthisinghe spoke of the ‘wonder of a single man’s effort to unite the country and develop it from a ‘failed state’ to a middle income country with formidable economic progress never seen before.
Mahinda Rajapakse has been the president for only nine years, continued Keerthisinghe, and within that period of time he has brought about positive changes. The country has not seen such a great transformation in the last 57 years since independence. He has organized and developed every sector of the country, tourism, agriculture, transport, education, IT to the villages , electricity, fresh water, health, towns, train service and also maintained diplomatic relations with the Middle east and Africa. Rajapakse developed a team of ministers, academics, scientists, technicians and the armed forces for this purpose. Rajapakse eliminated terrorism at the same time that he set about infrastructure development. Lastly Rajapakse was not a mafia chief, harboring drug dealers, rapists and criminals, concluded Keerthisinghe.
Rajapakse was a seasoned politician. He had been a Member of Parliament, a Cabinet minister and Prime Minister and was familiar with the mechanics of government. Under Rajapakse, Sri Lanka has managed to haul itself from being a poor country to a middle income country despite three decades of war, said one analyst. No other country that did well had ‘an outfit like the LTTE’ operating on its soil. Also, other Asian countries which enjoyed economic development were dictatorships, whereas Sri Lanka was a well functioning democracy. Several free and fair elections were held.
Rajapakse was a great leader, he ended terrorism and developed the economy, said his admirers. These were very real achievements. Mahinda Rajapaksa had a well thought out nation building plan for the whole country, said Rohana Wasala. N.A. de S Amaratunge said, in 2016, we had a government with one powerful head in 2014. It was doing alright. It had managed to eliminate terrorism, overcoming huge obstacles, local and foreign, a feat no other government in the world has been able to do Corruption and nepotism were rampant but things were better than what we have now.
Dinesh Gunawardene said despite criticism from certain quarters, there was genuine growth in the country and living standards improved. Rajapakse brought tremendous change to the lives of the rural folk. Under Rajapakse, investment increased, unemployment went down and so did the poverty level, agreed Bandula Gunawardene. The transformation of the country brought about by the Rajapaksas is visible said Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda.
The Rajapakse government has been by far the most over achieving government in post independence history said a political analyst. Several mega projects, highways, harbors, airports were started and completed. The economy began to surge impressively, outperforming other more fancied Asian countries on occasion, observed Palitha Kohona. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that achieved UN Millennium Development Goals. Despite the endless allegations, the economic direction and achievements of the Rajapaksa era are plain to see, he said.
‘My government has an economic track record of which I am proud’, said Rajapakse. In 2008-2009 when the entire world was reeling under the worst global depression since the 1930s Sri Lanka were not even aware of this because of the measures that we took to contain the crisis. A healthy economic growth was also maintained. Sri Lanka was able to achieve a per capita income up to US $ 3,280 in 2013. ‘During our rule broadcasts were full of the building of airports, harbors, sports stadiums expressways, road, reservoirs, schools, hospitals and markets’ added Rajapakse.
An enthusiastic supporter of Rajapakse wrote to the newspapers in 2011, challenging the UNP view that the Sri Lanka‘s economy is in a mess. Sri Lanka has had more than 8% growth for two years consecutively in 2010 and 2011, he said. Our unemployment rate is just 4.2% the lowest in our history. Poverty levels have plummeted and today it is less than 5%. Every two minutes a motor cycle is registered, every three minutes a three wheeler is registered, all newspapers carry more advertisements than before, there are more than 105 telephones for every 100 persons, imports are mainly of small cars which shows that these are bought by the middle income group who did not have cars before this, rural electrification had taken place rapidly and election coverage is gone up from 72% to 92%. There are more than 10,000 kilometers of concrete village roads that have been constructed over the past four years, the writer concluded. (Island 5.4.12. p 9)
Sri Lanka obtained favorable social rankings during Rajapakse’s tenure as President. Sri Lanka was described as the star performer of SAARC in 2014. Sri Lanka ranked above almost all SAARC countries in many of the international economic evaluations. Only India was ahead of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka led in life expectancy at birth, infant and under five mortality rate, maternal death, total fertility rate, access to improved sanitation and infant immunization indicators.
Sri Lanka was placed 73 out of 188 countries in the UNDPs Global Human Development Report 2015. It was the only south Asian country in this bracket. India and Bangladesh were in the medium category and the rest in the low category. Sri Lanka was ranked 31 in Youth development index compiled by the Commonwealth secretariat for 2015. India was 133, Singapore 43. Sri Lanka had ranked highest in South Asia on the Environmental Performance Index of Yale University for 2014. Sri Lanka ranked 11 out of 38 countries in the global midyear Pollution Index for 2015.
By 2010 Sri Lanka had achieved 95% birth registration, while neighboring India only had 50%. Sri Lanka has been placed first in the world in breastfeeding during an international survey conducted in 2016 among 121 countries. Sri Lanka achieved WHO’s malaria free country Status for the fourth successive year in 2016. It is the second country in the world to achieve this. National Blood transfusion service of Sri Lanka had won the 2012 global award for NBTs in Developing countries, awarded by the International Society for Blood Transfusion, coming first among 78 developing countries.
There is no disagreement over the fact that the Rajapaksas got together and defeated the LTTE. And paved the way for peace and economic development. This was not done by any of the previous leaders. If certain others had been in power, the country would have been divided by now said N.A. de S Amaratunge. The previous four executive presidents could not take bold decisions to eradicate terrorism and the problem dragged on for nearly 30 years.
Victor Ivan said Rajapakse’s decision to go to war and implementing that decision successfully is of such magnitude that it can be described as the biggest achievement of any political leader since independence. Rajapakse faced tremendous pressure from the west, specifically USA and the EU to stop the war, but he refused to give in. The war was won, defeating a formidable terrorist outfit singlehandedly and without the need for outside intervention. Elsewhere such an achievement would have been considered laudable, observed Tamara Kunanayagam.
Eelam War was won in about 2 ½ years with team work and leadership. While this was going on, infrastructure developments, such as 7 fly overs, three harbors, one airport, 222 bridges, and over 24,000km of roads, stadiums, economic canters and cities were built or renovated within 4 years. A feat unachieved by any other nation excluding Singapore, said Manisha Fernando.
No country in the world has resettled 283 displaced civilian and rehabilitated 11,500 of the 12000 terrorist and successfully reintegrated them back into society. Any other country would have prosecuted the LTTE leaders, members and helpers for the terrorist crimes they have committed or supported. The economic development, especially in the north and east is unprecedented, said Rohan Gunaratne.
The Rajapakse government is reproached for triumphalism, and the positive humanitarian achievements, the rescue and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of IDPs, near 100% completion of demining by the army, the rebuilding of road, bridges, and essential infrastructure in affected areas, the retraining and release to society of former LTTE combatants have been ignored, observed Sarala Fernando. Countries pass through three phases after the end of a war. Emergency phase, transitional phase where schools etc have to be rebuilt and the development stage. We went through these three phases very rapidly, observed analysts.
After the war Mahinda Rajapakse launched a massive development programme that ‘took the country into the fast track of growth’. An unprecedented programme of infrastructure development was begun, with special emphasis on rural electrification and road development.
In electrification, Upper Kotmale hydro power plant was completed in 2013 and Norochcholai coal fired power plant in 2014. It was very expensive but it has paid for itself and rendering enormous service, said Rajapakse. A plant at Sampur was planned. Electricity was provided to rural areas through several new rural electrification projects island wide. The total electrification level reached 97.6 per cent by July 2014, said Central Bank. The last major blackout was in 2009.
The road network improved and expanded magnificently. Everybody could see this. Sri Lanka’s first three expressways came up in Rajapakse’s time. Colombo – Katunayake expressway completed in 2013 reduced travel time from Peliyagoda to Katunayake to just 20 minutes. Southern Expressway, Colombo to Galle, commenced in 2011 and was extended to Matara in 2014. Travel time to Galle was reduced to just one hour from the usual three hours. Outer Circular Highway connected the Southern Highway, Colombo – Katunayake Expressway and other major roads, such as A1, A3, and A4.
Several A grade roads were improved. Padeniya – Anuradhapura National Highway (A28) opened in 2013. Nugegoda to Homagama (A04) road section was completed at a cost of Rs.989 million in February 2013. Improvements to Ratmalana- Nalluruwa junction section of Colombo – Galle Road (A2) and Peliyagoda to Ja-Ela section of Colombo -Puttalam Road (A3) started in 2013. Rehabilitation of Peradeniya – Badulla – Chenkaladi (A5) Highway Project. Project was to start in 2015. Junctions such as Pelawatte, Miriswatta, Ukwatta, Nawala, Piliyandala and Kaduwela had traffic lights installed. Flyovers such as Veyangoda flyover were constructed.
About 2,200 km of rural access roads were upgraded. Lunugamvehera- Kataragama gravel road was upgraded to a 17.2 meter wide four lane highway. Kalugama- Vilkatupotha road was widened and raised to prevent flooding. Roads under improvement in 2014 included PIliyandala bypass, with signalization, Ekala Kotadeniyawa road pedestrian overpass in front of Horagasmulla School at Minuwangoda, and Pannala Roundabout. Rajapakse had ordered the Road Development Authority to build drains and walkways along the roads to make them safer and more pleasant for pedestrians All roads in the future , will have high quality pavements said Gotabhaya in 2012.
Bridges were also repaired, parallel to road development. It was intended to reconstruct 100 – 150 bridges annually. 163 bridges had been identified for strengthening. 38 bridges were improved by 2014. Polduwa Bridge on Sri Jayewardenepura road was completed and open for the traffic on September 2014. Nawala Bridge on Narahenpita-Nawala-Nugegoda Road was widened. There was a program to build 210 bridges countrywide to link villages with towns. Polwatte oya bridge, in Matale Dambulla, Weddawala bridge at Weddawala, Hapuvida bridge near Lower Rattota in Matale, Kuda oya bridge at Ethiliyawewa in Balahuruwa, Wellavaya, were included in this program.. The rural bridges in Kegalle were completed.
The road projects were funded by donors such as Government of Korea, Government of France, Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Asian Development Bank, China Development Bank , Saudi Fund for Development , Bank of Spain and HSBC. Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided USD 800 million and Government of Sri Lanka allocated Rs. 106 million for rehabilitation of rural roads. Veyangoda flyover was done with financial assistance from Bank of Spain. ADB gave additional funds for the proposed Southern Expressway link roads. This project commenced in February 2012 and was scheduled for completion in January 2015. Total length of road is 58.4 km.
Mahinda Rajapakse said he did not borrow money for egoistic projects, as alleged. Some projects were long term projects which need a long gestation period. Rajapakse responded to the criticism that the superhighways had been overvalued. He pointed out that all costs associated with large projects are scrutinized by a technical evaluation committee and a Cabinet appointed tender board and everything had to finally get Cabinet approval. Express ways and high ways are planned to accommodate the growing traffic demands of the future as well.
No project can start without a consultant. The consultant designs the project, sets the standards and supervises its implementation form start to finish. Also, in the construction industry every firm sub contracts. There is no contractor in the world that does not do this. The sub contractor cannot contract to third parity. Even standard practices in the construction industry have been presented as abuse, he observed.
Rajapakse said his critics used a standard rate of cost, saying that in 2010 the average cost for a two lane highway was Rs 75 million per kilometer. The actual costs were way beyond that. Road projects could not be costed like sugar or dhal which can have an average market price. Every road project is unique and costs differed. A highway erected on columns across marshy land will increase costs. Costs increased when there was leveling of hills, blasting through rock, filling of marshy or low lying land, building of bridge and culverts, payment for acquiring the land .the width of the road and the number o lanes, also affected costs.
For the Kegalle by-pass land had to be acquired from private owners. It was a completely new road, 2.4 km long, with two lanes 12.5 meters wide. If also had a long bridge, culverts and reinforce concrete retaining walls ranging in height from 1.5 to 12 meters. This road passed through a hilly area with low lying marshy land. Gabion walls were needed. Jaffna-Punalai-Point Pedro road was widened to four lanes with a width of 19.3 meters and a 2 meter paved sidewalk on either side. Construction material had to be brought from Medawachchiya and Vavuniya and earth and sand form Kilinochchi resulting in higher costs.
All the high ways I built are making money every day and will continue to earn revenue in ever increasing amounts, said Rajapakse . Southern expressway earned a record income of Rs 16 million during the last 24 hours of Christmas Day, 25th December 2015. The usual income for a day was around Rs 10 to 11 million. In December 2016, island said that express ways had yielded a record income of over Rs 26.5 million by way of toll over one weekend. Katunayake yielded around Rs 6.5 million daily. ( to be continued)