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Don’t ignore biomass



In the context of the prevailing cooking gas shortage which has assumed crisis proportions, the government caved in on Thursday permitting Laugfs Gas a substantial price increase while pledging that Litro will continue selling at the old price. This is not going to be possible for very long. Obviously consumers will opt for the cheaper alternative and the pressure on Litro, widely apparent with Laugfs out of stocks, will continue in the short term. As it is Litro is totally unable to cope with the demand with only a fraction of it met. As for Laugfs, “No Gas” labels have sprouted countrywide like mushrooms after the rain and television news bulletins are full of pictures of lines of blue cylinder-carrying consumers waiting for unavailable gas supplies. Laugfs has said that it hope to bring in stocks within a week, while the company’s chairman, Mr. W.J.H. Wegapitiya, has estimated that it will take about a month to bridge the supply gap.

But the chapter will not close even then. With cheaper supplies not get-table, consumers will be compelled to buy the more expensive alternative even reluctantly. But most Laugfs customers will not have Litro cylinders to get refilled. That problem exists even now. Obviously it is only a matter of time – really a matter of short time – before Litro too will be permitted to increase its prices. It, along with Laugfs, has for quite some time being pushing for a price increase. If the government compels a state-controlled company to sell at a loss, eventually the people as a whole must pay the price. It is impossible for any commercial venture to continue selling below procurement prices. However much Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardene keeps saying that businesses that have had good times must live with bad times, that’s not something that’s possible for long.

Although ours is a country notorious for the short memories of its people, many readers will remember there was a price difference in fuel between the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and LIOC (Lanka Indian Oil Corporation) not so long ago. The difference was only a few rupees and LIOC obviously lost business to CPC. But the Indian company which is quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange and has thousands of local shareholders did not care overmuch though their dealers did as it hurt their pockets. That was because the less diesel – particularly – LIOC sold, the better for the company because of the gap between procurement prices and the prices at which they were permitted to sell. Even now motorists may notice that the cheapest 92 octane petrol is not freely available at many filling stations because of what clearly appears to be an effort to push premium products.

It is in the gas shortage context that we draw attention to an article we run in today’s issue of our newspaper. Readers in urban centers will know that the once ubiquitous firewood carts seen on the streets are today almost as rare as the rickshaws of yore. This is because most urban dwellers cook by gas and the once popular dara lipa (firewood hearth) is now no more even in the least affluent homes in the towns. But this is not the case in rural areas where firewood continues to be used as a cooking fuel. The writer of the article under reference, Engineer R,M. Amarasekera, complains bitterly about the lack of attention to biomass in our energy scene which seems to only encompass solar, wind and hydro in the renewable sector and coal and fossil fuel in the non-renewable segment. This engineer who’s a retired as director of the Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA) and has extensive experience in biomass sees this as the “dark side” of the country’s energy sector.

Unlike those living in rural areas, urban dwellers cannot gather firewood and must depend mostly on gas. Today even the once popular kerosene stoves are a thing of the past and there is no talk whatever of the once encouraged energy saving clay stoves. According to Amarasekera, the biomass energy demand in the country ran at 46.2% followed by petroleum (41%) and electricity (12.3%). These are the figures published by the SEA’s ‘Energy Balance’ documentation of 2018, he says. According to these figures, biomass (64.9%) is the main source of energy in households and industry (74.7%). “This highlights its importance as the lifeblood of the rural sector comprising 81% of the total population,” he says adding that it is evident that the burden of meeting rural energy needs have been met by the rural people themselves led by women, and not by the government.

As with other energy sources, biomass has its own problems. Plantations firing tea factory boilers with firewood have woodlots but this is nowhere enough. Smoke inhalation is a problem though Amarasekera says that women who do the cooking in nearly all homes have a life expectancy of over 80 years. Other means of generating energy also have such problems. Solar panels that were expensive to begin with have since become more affordable. Thermal sources (coal, fossil fuel etc.) have enormous environmental consequences. Amarasekera attributes the negative image of biomass to be associated with factors like deforestation, climate change, under-development, poverty and negative health effects. That is correct. But his argument that this image steers policy makers against replacing other fuels with biomass, rather than improving its sustainability, rings a bell. This is certainly worth thinking about.

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More heavy lifting to be done



As President Ranil Wickremesinghe tirelessly stressed, the signing off on the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) with the International Monetary Fund marks a new beginning. “Forget the past and the old games,” he has said seeking the cooperation of both the opposition and the media for a great leap forward. He has made the point that the IMF arrangement of USD 2.9 billion opens the doors for further credit adding up to USD 7 billion from elsewhere. When he met editors and other media heads on Thursday he said we have to continue negotiations with bilateral and multi-lateral lenders as well as private creditors which he admitted would be the most difficult.

The bad news when this was being written on Friday was that unless there is a dramatic change of heart on the part of the executive, the likelihood of the scheduled local government elections in the foreseeable future appears more than remote. There are, of course, a clutch of cases before the courts at present and which way the determinations will go is not clear right now; also in which direction the dice will roll once the courts rule. But it is patently clear that both the president and the government want these elections as much as they want a hole in the head.

There is no need to labour the reason why the incumbent establishment does not want local elections at the present moment. This, notwithstanding SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam’s mealy-mouthed protestations that his party does not wish these elections put off. The electorate is very well aware that these elections cannot mean a change of government. Wickremesinghe is safely ensconced on his presidential throne until Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term runs out in November 2024. Wickremesinghe is constitutionally empowered to dissolve parliament whenever he wishes from now until then. That’s the whip-hand he holds over his SLPP backers who made him president. It will safely ensure that they will not rock the boat during his tenure.

Just as much as the president and his government do not want any election in the short term, the opposition parties are literally panting that these be held soonest for reasons that are all too obvious. The last time the country elected local bodies was in February 2018 and the Rajapaksa party was the comfortable winner. The credit for this within the SLPP was widely apportioned to Basil Rajapaksa, its national organizer. That election victory heralded the coming of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government the following August. This is why the opposition, principally Sajith Premadasa’s SJB and the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP), is striving might and main to have this election one way or another. The present signal is that they will not succeed in this endeavour. But as in cricket, there is no certainty in the outcome.

Though the president requested that the old games must not be played any longer, his supporters don’t practice what he preaches. There was a vulgar display of firecracker lighting, in true Sri Lankan style, greeting the announcement that the IMF deal was through. Everybody and his brother well know that this polluting lighting of strings of firecrackers greeting election results, politicians arriving at meetings and other similar events are funded by the politicians themselves. Some ghouls even lit crackers when President Premadasa was assassinated. We don’t know whether last week’s cracker lighting was a command performance or of old habits persisting. Whatever it was, it was unseemly.

The mere fact the IMF deal is through does not mean that the country is going to emerge from the economic morass in which it is mired. A great deal of heavy lifting remains to be done. The initial benefits cannot be more than a trickle. Possibly the June negotiations down the road may be an opportunity to offer some tax relief to professionals loudly protesting that the new rates are totally unrealistic. We run a letter from a retired Commissioner General of Inland Revenue in this issue who says that in his view, the problem is not with the rate of taxation which is between six and 36% but with the exemption threshold.

He rightly says that given today’s hyper-inflation. high cost of electricity, water and essential food, the Rs. 1.2 million exemption threshold is far too low. He believes that if this is raised to at least Rs. 1.8 million a year, it may be possible to win the unions over and reduce the tax burden on high income professionals. He has said this should not impact on the IMF agreements and the time has come for a compromise between the government and protesters. Clearly the now retired writer will not have access to actual numbers. But given his long service in the tax department, he would have an instinct for these matters.

It is also pertinent to say here that it is time the government makes a statement about the safety of the country’s banking sector. There are many worries on this score particularly after what happened recently in the U.S. and in Switzerland. It is well known that our state banks have been captive lenders to insolvent state-owned enterprises with such loans underwritten by the government. The fact that the IMF deal was successfully concluded, no doubt, is a reassuring factor about the stability of our commercial banking system. Nevertheless, a statement from the government will reassure constituents.

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Political pole dancing



Saturday 25th March, 2023

There is no such thing as national interest in Sri Lankan politics, as is public knowledge. What looks like it is only self-interest in disguise. One often has politicians in this country saying they are promoting national interest, but what they are actually doing is pursuing self-interest. It is against this backdrop that former President Maithripala Sirisena’s claim that his love for the country has driven him to call for a national government to tackle the current economic crisis should be viewed.

Sirisena is full of praise for President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government for having secured an IMF loan, and insists that there is nothing wrong with the conditions on which the extended fund facility has been made available! Sirisena was one of the bitterest critics of the incumbent dispensation, and there was bad blood between him and Wickremesinghe, but he is now backing them to the hilt. What has made him do an about-turn?

Sirisena has chosen to perform political pole dancing, as it were, to humour the government leaders since last January, when the Supreme Court (SC), which heard a fundamental rights violation petition against him and several others, ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million by way of compensation for his failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage in 2019. The SC order prompted those who are seeking justice for the victims of terrorist bombings to renew their demand that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena, as recommended by the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday terror strikes. Sirisena is now at the mercy of President Wickremesinghe, who alone can prevent the Attorney General’s Department from taking criminal action against anyone.

During the final stages of the Yahapalana government, Sirisena wronged Wickremesinghe, having secured the coveted presidency with the latter’s help in 2015. He stooped so low as to join forces with the Rajapaksas in a bid to sack the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe although he had made a solemn pledge to throw them behind bars for what they had done during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. In an unexpected turn of events, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas are now savouring power together; Sirisena is seeking a political menage a trois in a bid to save his skin more than anything else.

Unfortunately for Sirisena, the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has no need for him. It knows that he is only trying to make a virtue of necessity, for most of the SLFP MPs (elected from the SLPP) numbering 14 have already crossed over! But Sirisena is not likely to abandon his efforts to make himself attractive to the government, given his desperation to avoid criminal action over the Easter Sunday bombings.

If Sirisena’s worst fear comes to pass, he will find himself in jail, and his political career will come to an end in such an eventuality. So, he is doing his darnedest to be in the good books of President Wickremesinghe and the government and will not hesitate to subjugate the policies of the SLFP to his self-interest.

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Unions in govt.’s crosshairs



Friday 24th March, 2023

Hardly a day passes without a labour dispute reported from the state sector. There are signs of public opinion turning against the warring trade unions that resort to strikes at the drop of a hat. The government has sought to make the most of public ire to settle political scores with the trade unions that pose a threat to its interests.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken a swipe at the education sector trade unions that are perennially on the warpath. Speaking at a public event, on Wednesday, he warned that if trade unions continued to ‘hold students to ransom’, the government would be compelled to declare the education sector an essential service. This could be considered a veiled threat.

The most effective way of keeping trade unions with political agendas at bay is to redress workers’ genuine grievances expeditiously. Instead, governments drive them to swell the ranks of trade unions with links to ultra-radical political outfits. So, the blame for chaos in the public sector due to frequent labour disputes should be apportioned to governments.

Workers must fight for their rights. If they don’t, who else will? But they must not ignore their responsibilities. Most of all, they must not test people’s patience. Sri Lanka’s trade union movement has a proud history. Its achievements are many. But it has gone the same way as all other institutions, over the years, owing to politicisation. More often than not, trade unions tend to overstep the line at the behest of their political masters.

The bane of Sri Lanka’s labour movement is that it is dominated by trade unions affiliated to political parties, which use workers as a cat’s paw to advance their hidden agendas at the expense of the public. There are some trade unions that are independent of political parties but they are the exception that proves the rule. They, too, act in an irresponsible manner at times with no consideration towards the public.

Everybody flays politicians for dereliction of duty—and rightly so. But trade unions are no better. It is doubtful whether labour leaders ever make a serious attempt to persuade their members to work hard and help enhance national productivity. The phenomenal growth of shadow education, or private tuition, as it is popularly known, is an indictment of the state sector teachers. Parents have to spend huge amounts of money for their children’s supplementary education. There are many exemplary teachers who are like candles, which burn so that others can get light, but overall there is much to be desired from the public school system.

All political parties including the UNP led by President Wickremesinghe himself have politicised and polluted the trade union movement so much so that politicians steal the limelight on the International Workers’ Day, when workers shamelessly offer their services to political leaders as palanquin bearers, as it were. Politicians craftily use workers to compass their ends when they happen to be in the political wilderness but after winning elections and being ensconced in power, they suppress trade unions. This is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics.

Trade unions in this country are apparently playing the role traditionally assigned to the political Opposition, which is too meek to take on the government the way it should. Why trade unions are in the government’s crosshairs is not difficult to understand. The ongoing battle between government leaders and irresponsible trade unionists is, in our book, a case of sinners casting stones at one another.

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