Sri Lankan president under fire over govt expansion amidst economic crisis
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe

Colombo: Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has come under fire from the Opposition over his government expansion with 37 state ministers and with moves underway to appoint at least 12 more Cabinet ministers soon at a time when the island nation is facing bankruptcy.

President Wickremesinghe on Thursday appointed 37 junior ministers, largely representing the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

The 37 new posts are in addition to the 20-member Cabinet of President Wickremesinghe, who took over in late July following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit. Talks are also underway to appoint at least 12 more Cabinet ministers soon.

The Opposition has vehemently condemned the president’s move, arguing that the government could ill afford the expansion at a time when the country is going through its worst economic crisis and the recent tax hikes have heaped burden on the people.

The president and the government have no regard for the suffering of the people who are facing high cost of living, said Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the government isn’t saving much by offering salaries of Members of Parliament (MPs) to the state ministers.

“They are being allowed huge fuel allowances when tuk tuk operators have been allowed only limited fuel,” he said.

Minister of Urban Development and Housing and Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga had said the new state ministers will not become a burden on the country as they are working without any ministerial privileges.

Also since all the state ministers will work on MPs salary, they will not be a big burden to the government, he said.

Wickremesinghe’s office had said the state ministers have been strictly told to minimise expenditure on view of the hardships faced by the common people in the country. There will be no secretaries to state ministers and not even personal staff would be made available to them.

We are willing to follow the guidelines, given the poor economic situation we are faced with, said Shantha Bandara, state minister of media.

The state ministers said they would work for the salary allocated to them as members of Parliament, so there would be less expenditure.

Wickremesinghe was made president by the ruling SLPP members to succeed ousted president Gotabaya. The Opposition, therefore, accuses Wickremesinghe of becoming a “prisoner” of the ruling party.

After assuming presidency, Wickremesinghe’s efforts to form an all-party government have failed. He has, however, managed to rope in a few members from the main Opposition SJB and other breakaway parties of the SLPP coalition.

Sri Lanka has suffered months of rampant inflation, severe shortages of essential goods and widespread protests, pushing it to default on its foreign debt in April.

The country is going through its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948, triggered by a severe paucity of foreign exchange reserves, leaving the country of 22 million people scrambling for essentials.

Earlier this month, Sri Lanka secured a staff-level agreement for a USD 2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even as the country had an arduous task to restructure its debt with its creditors, including China.

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