By Faraz Shauketaly
Minister of Fisheries, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is a colourful politician who made a name for himself with his powerful oratory and performances in public agitation platforms. He played a key role in the crossover phenomenon when a large number of UNP members crossed over and joined President Rajapaksa. Recently appointed as Minister of Fisheries, Dr. Senaratne took time off to speak exclusively to Faraz Shauketaly about his plans for the Ministry, his family and politics.
Q: Just how long have you been a politician?
A: Since 1972. I have been actively involved in politics for the better part of 38 years. From school days too I was involved.
Q: You switched sides politically. Why did you do that?
A: At the time, it was the best decision. A responsible, well thought out one. When you choose to go into politics, one usually has to decide whether it is for the sake of politics or for the people and country. My choice was for the people and country. That’s the first thing. Secondly, it is the party. The main problem at the time was to safeguard the country as in fighting terrorism or not. The country today enjoys the fruits of that freedom. I am proud that I took that decision. It was a responsible crossover designed to help the country. During the worst crisis the country was facing at that time, the UNP took the wrong decisions. Their crisis is still going on. We have moved on.
Q: Were you also not a close associate, perhaps an admirer of the President? You were his lieutenant when he was in opposition along with those agitation campaigns. You were a key figure in the development of Mr. Rajapaksa in opposition and played a key role in the development of President Rajapaksa. Did these contribute to your decision to cross?
A: It may well have helped but actually I would have assisted him even without joining but I joined because of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is a humanist and that appealed to me. I played a key role in the crossovers and our aim was to join hands with the government in their key desire to fight terrorism. Even when there was a vote of no confidence when Mahinda Rajapaksa was a minister, I spoke eloquently defending the reason why he should not have a no confidence motion passed against him as I believed that he was a true politician.
Q: Clearly then the President’s confidence in you has resulted in you being given a key Ministry.
A: The President has promised a new Sri Lanka and that in five years we must achieve the economic goals. To do that we must increase the per capita income to US$ 4,000 in five years. To do that, we must increase the growth rate to 10 percent and the government has focused on achieving this by developing three sectors – fishing, tourism and agriculture. Fishing is very important and it is a big responsibility. In my previous postings I have proved my mettle, resurrected institutions and delivered what was expected of me. I have shown that government organisations can be competitive not only locally but internationally. This includes a huge contract in Libya for the SEC. So I intend to deliver similar results in the fisheries sector.
Q: What plans do you have to take the fisheries industry to a higher, different level?
A: The first thing is that we have to look after the people of this country. The fish prices are very high and the ordinary people cant afford to have fish. To reduce the prices, I have had to develop various strategies. The main thing to do is to get the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation (CFC) to participate aggressively in the market. Exporters currently supply them with just 5 percent which in real terms is about 1.5 percent. Now I have finalised that the exporters must give the CFC 10 percent for the local market.
Secondly, the other fish non-export ones must be also given to the CFC at a realistic price. This means that we will have a larger stock for the CFC to compete with. I have used the Lak Sathosa outlets as the network of distribution outlets for the fish. Then I have initiated a programme to involve rural womenfolk to get involved in the distribution of fish by using their own homes as outlets. At the same time I have invited 70 multi-day trawlers to be handed over to the CFC to use under their flag for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. The ships will be managed by the foreigners other local crew. 10 percent of the catch will remain with the CFC. All this means that with a greater stock the fish prices will come down and the prices will be stable.
The other stage is to better the standards of fishermen. They have their cooperatives and their funds. I want to gather them under one banner. Put those funds together and we have a better bargaining position with the banks to provide loans, cool rooms, insurance and the use of satellite technology to help with the actual direction in fishing. These monitoring systems will identify availability and help direct fishermen to optimise their catches. This will also help to stop illegal fishing and warn our fishermen against straying into other waters as well.
We also plan on bringing in two mother vessels which will help vessels mid sea. If they are in mid ocean these mother vessels will help with services such as fuel, medical etc. So we plan on a comprehensive investment in this industry.
Q: Is President Rajapaksa very much a ‘hands-off’ President, allowing ministers to get on with their job without interference? The common charge is that there is a lot of interference. You seem to say otherwise.
A: As far as my Ministry is concerned there is no interference at all. He has seen the results and he knows the capability. He knows of my results, my input on land matters and so on. He is aware of my input even within the UNP cabinet. Remember that I brought the Land Policy, the Land Title project and I was preparing to distribute 1.5 million land parcels to the poor people of this country. However, as President and the man who takes responsibility, he does monitor the progress closely.
Q: Your wife has a reputation of being well known across all the political hues as being one who is ever-ready to help when it comes to medical matters. How did she build this reputation for being a medical good Samaritan? How did you manage to ‘net’ her long before you became Fisheries Minister?
A: Sujatha is a doctor by profession and by nature she is a natural welfare worker. Over the years she has developed this desire to help on these matters irrespective of my politics. That’s her nature; being helpful. We met at university of course but due to my politics it was after we passed out that we took the relationship to a different level. My wife runs the Rajitha Senaratne Foundation and is involved in lots of welfare projects. Sujatha is a director at the National Hospital and has her own busy life that runs alongside mine and she is involved with many women’s welfare projects in the district. It is a happy union.
Q: Do you have children and are they also involved in politics?
A: Yes, two. One is a fourth year medical student at the University of Colombo. My elder boy is a natural politician and has been very involved in my campaigns. As a young fellow he is able to relate to the youth in the district. They all come to see me about their problems, which is mainly jobs. My younger fellow is following a course in Aerospace Engineering. I do not actively encourage them in politics but they have followed naturally, by their choice. I am hoping that my second son will gain employment in Sri Lanka with the development of the aerospace industry that is planned, along with the new airport in the South. Both boys will always eventually return to Sri Lanka to serve the nation.
Q: Politically, what do you have to say about the plans to change the constitution to allow the President to contest any number of times? There are charges that this is undemocratic.
A: If anyone says that is undemocratic, that is wrong. Trying to limit the term is undemocratic. Everyone must have a right to seek the mandate of the people any number of times. Dudley Senanayake was PM four times. Mrs B. three times, Nehru four times. JR was too old and did not have time and didn’t want anyone else to have more than he did. So why not Rajapaksa? The people are not bothered about the extension. If the people want to elect Mahinda Rajapaksa more than twice it’s well and good. It is the mandate of the people after all.
Q: Are there plans to reduce the powers of the President in conjunction with plans to lift the restriction of two terms?
A: Yes absolutely.
Q: Given that President Rajapaksa has been an inspirational leader, do you think that he can be the source of inspiration for the UNP to get themselves a leader of similar qualities?
A: The present leader at the UNP is the best for us! It’s too late for the UNP now. They have missed the boat.