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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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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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Features

LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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