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Closure of Public Utilities Commission – Cutting off the nose to spite the face?

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by Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

A news item, in The Island of 03.12.2020, described an attempt being made by the Government to close down the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) and to absorb its technical staff to the Department of National Planning, Ministry of Power and to the Treasury, on a directive of a letter supposedly sent by the President’s Secretary to the Secretary to the Treasury.

 

BUDGET SPEECH 2021 AND LETTER OF PRESIDENT’S SECRETARY

The letter further says the decision was taken in line with the budget proposal referring to the PUCSL and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) “to create an efficient work environment to implement power generation plans that have remained unimplemented for years”. Though the President’s letter says that this decision was taken, in line with the Budget Speech, what the Budget Speech says is, “I also propose to amend the Public Utilities Commission Act and the Ceylon Electricity Board Act, to allow the rapid implementation of projects”. There is no reference to closing down of the PUCSL in the Budget Speech.

The letter (circulated in social media, and tabled in the Parliament) says that “I am advised to instruct you to take necessary procedural steps to close down and consequent steps to absorb the technical staff to other relevant organizations”. A missing part of this letter is that it does not say who advised the President’s Secretary to send a letter instructing the Treasury’s Secretary to close down the PUCSL. It certainly cannot be the President to make such an unwise, illegal step. Does it mean that the proposal to close down the PUCSL is an initiative of the President’s Secretary or was there a hidden hand behind this move? If that is the case, the President should remove his Secretary rather than closing down the PUCSL.

 

DELAYS IN IMPLEMENTING POWER PROJECTS

While the Budget Speech wants the PUCSL and the CEB Acts to be amended to implement power projects rapidly, the President’s Secretary says the PUCSL has to be closed down to create an efficient work environment, to implement power generation plans, that have remained unimplemented for years. Both documents are trying to put the blame, for delays in implementing power projects and plans, on the PUCSL. In a country, any decisions taken at the highest level should be evidence-based. Otherwise, the country cannot progress. In this instance, both parties are misled and erred in their decisions.

The writer has published extensively on the status of our power sector, in particular on the role of the CEB in causing all these delays. The reader is referred to The Island of 27th and 28th December 2018, and of 28.03.2019, written on this topic. The CEB took over 10 years to finalize plans to build a 500 MW coal power plant, at Sampur, which eventually had to be aborted, partly because of this delay. Then, it took over four years to finalize, awarding a contract to build a 300 MW gas power plant, at Kerawalapitiya, on BOOT basis. The CEB is solely responsible for these delays and they have nothing to do with the PUCSL. The details of these delays are explained in the above two articles.

 

REQUIREMENTS TO BE MET BY GENERATION PLANS

The CEB also has to comply with the provisions in the original Sri Lanka Electricity Act No. 20 of 2009, according to which the Minister shall formulate general policy guidelines on generation expansion, taking into consideration the requirements for electricity in Sri Lanka in order to attain national targets for sustainable economic growth, among others. The current policy guidelines, on the Electricity Industry, approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, specifies that 50% of electricity generation has to be met from renewable sources. The National Electricity (Amendment) Act 31 of 2013 indicates that the PUCSL is required to approve the generation plans, prepared regularly by the CEB, before implementing.

The Amended Act also says that any proposals to build a new generation plant shall be based on the Least Cost Long Term Generation Expansion Plan and approved by the PUCSL. The “Least Cost Long-Term Generation Expansion Plan” has been interpreted in the Act as a plan prepared on the basis of least economic cost and meeting the technical and reliability requirements of the electricity network of Sri Lanka which is duly approved by the Commission. Here, the “economic cost” means cost taking into consideration the cost of damage to the environment and human health caused by the generating unit, which are referred to as cost of externalities.

 

DELAYS IN APPROVING THE CURRENT PLANS

When the generation plan is submitted for approval to the PUCSL, it is therefore necessary for it to verify whether the two above mentioned requirements, which are imposed by the Act, are satisfied. The Plan for 2018-37 submitted to the PUCSL for approval, had two cases, one based mostly on coal power and another a no-coal based case. The Plan had not accounted for cost of externalities. The PUCSL proposed to the CEB that it should consider a low-coal based case as it would reduce the cost of externalities, but the CEB was not willing to revise their Plan. The dispute dragged for nearly a year and the matter was resolved after the (former) President intervened who changed his earlier stance of “no-coal” to “yes-coal” just to accommodate the request of the CEB possibly for fear of action by the CEB Trade Unions.

 

The CEB’s current Plan for 2020-39 was submitted to the PUCSL, in May 2019, but yet to get approval. The correspondences that were exchanged between the PUCSL and the CEB, on approving the CEB’s Plan, is found in the PUCSL website https://www.pucsl.gov.lk/lcltgep-2020-2039/. The PUCSL has drawn the attention of the CEB, repeatedly, that the submitted Draft Plan does not conform to the Cabinet approved Guidelines with regard to having 50% of generation from renewable sources, and also it does included cost of externalities, which are the requirements of the Act.

The PUCSL sent its observations to the CEB, in October 2019, requesting them to revise it as described above, but the CEB sent a Plan, in March 2020, sans the revisions suggested by the PUCSL. Hence, the PUCSL repeated its request in May 2020, and to date, there is no information as to whether the CEB has responded. In a last weekend weekly paper, the Chairman of CEB was reported as saying that “a number of electricity projects were delayed due to the delay in getting a response from the PUCSL”. Instead of trying to blame the PUCSL for delaying electricity projects, without giving specifics, why doesn’t he pull up his officers for not revising the Plan, as requested by the PUCSL, under the powers vested in it, enabling it to conform with the Act?

Fundamentally, preparing least-cost a long-term generation plan, valid for 20 years, hence based on past prices of power plants and fuel, specifying the type of power plants that need to be installed at different time periods to generate electricity at least cost, is something not sound. This is because no one could say with reasonable accuracy what their prices will be and their availability in the future. What the Plan can forecast is the capacity of power plants to be installed year by year for meeting the future demand for electricity, during the next 20 years. The actual type of plant, and the fuel, should be determined only after calling for bids, keeping the type of plant and fuels open, but specifying the requirements for performance and environmental impacts in detail. Once the bids are evaluated, it will be possible to say which option provides the least cost generation, at the time of installing the plant.

 

PRESIDENT’S TARGET ON RENEWABLE ENERGY SHARE

 

It is noted that the renewable share, in total electricity generation, as given in the draft Plan, is only 36% by 2030. The CEB has a long way to go in reaching the President’s target of 70% for this by 2030. It appears that the PUCSL insisting that the CEB conforms to the requirements of the Act and trying to get the CEB to work towards achieving the President’s target, is the crime it has done to have it closed down. It is the responsibility of persons serving as advisors to the President, and the Prime Minister, to place before them the correct information rather than to mislead them. Otherwise, only the country will stand to lose its reputation when such wrong decisions get circulated, internationally, and the country becoming a laughing stock.



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Features

Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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