COLOMBO: The allocation for defense is the highest in Sri Lanka’a Appropriation Bill for the financial year 2017. According to military experts, defense expenditure is likely to continue to top the list for the foreseeable future, given the entrenched security mindset created by a 30 year armed conflict with Tamil separatists.
The allocation for the Defense Ministry for 2017 is LKR 284 billion (US$ 1.9 billion) Though somewhat lower than the allocation in 2016, when it was LKR 306 billion (US$ 2.4 billion), it is still the single largest claimant to budgetary funds.
The Appropriation Bill was presented to parliament on Thursday by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. It is likely to undergo changes as MPs debate it ,but the allocation for defense is unlikely to come down as both the government and the opposition are keen that the armed forces should be kept in fine fettle.
This is partly also in recognition of the yeomen service the forces had rendered by ridding the country of terrorism and separatism. In fact, the unofficial but de facto opposition called the “Joint Opposition” owing allegiance to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is in the habit of making an issue of any perceived slight or undue pressure on the armed forces. This has made President Maithripala Sirisena declare time and gain that he will never let down the Security Forces.
However, a lot of people who do not want the country to be held hostage to the bitter past of war and militarization, would like it to develop economically by spending more education, health and social services to take on the tasks of development. They regret that allocations for nation building are much smaller.
Allocation for the Ministry of School Education for 2017 is LKR 76.9 billion (US$ 526 million). However, for 2016, this amount was LKR 185.9 billion (US$ 1.2 billion). LKR 163 billion has been allocated for Ministry of Higher Education and Highways. The Heath Ministry also gets LKR 163 billion (US$ 1.1 billion).
Military experts justify the higher allocations for the Defense Ministry on grounds of sheer necessity. The bulk of the outlay is for recurrent expenditure, like maintenance of properties and equipment, salaries and pensions. Very little is allocated for capital expenditure.
There were serious concerns about the value of having 300,000 persons in the forces after the war ended in 2009, and the numbers were brought down to about 262,000. Further, reduction is difficult as the armed forces are seen as a major avenue of employment for school levers from the villages.
However, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is interested in modernizing the three services even though war ended seven years ago and there is no known enemy lurking in the vicinity. Government is keen that Sri Lankan military personnel are well trained to serve in UN Peacekeeping Operations.
The Air Force urgently needs to replace its ageing fleet and look to meeting future scenarios. The government is keen on making the brown water navy into a blue water navy by offering its services to guard the sea lanes from the Gulf to the limits of the Indian Ocean.
Though no new acquisitions have been made yet, because of a shortage of money, plans are afoot to modernize the Air and Naval forces.