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Editorial

Heartless traders and headless chicken

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Friday 3rd September, 2021

The prices of all essential commodities have skyrocketed. The government is running around like a headless chicken, having done precious little to control them. It has been left with no alternative but to order raids to seize and confiscate hoarded sugar, rice, etc., and even declare a state of emergency to bring the situation under control. Curiously, the SLPP propagandists claim that there are no shortages. If so, will they explain why the government has resorted to raids and emergency regulations? The need for taking the proverbial sledgehammer out of the toolshed would not have arisen if the government had given the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) a free hand to deal with hoarders and other such unscrupulous elements responsible for creating shortages of food items during a national health crisis.

Traders playing low-down tricks on consumers have emerged so strong as to hold the public to ransom because the government subjugated the consumer protection laws to the interests of its cronies in the business community. One sees no difference between the heartless businesses bent on exploiting the pandemic-hit people and the drug addicts who robbed valuables from the tsunami victims who were breathing their last, in 2004. They are evil personified and must be reined in. Unfortunately, they are the ones who bankroll politicians’ election campaigns and thereby remain above the law.

Sugar, imported at Rs. 97 a kilo, is being sold at Rs. 220, the Opposition alleges. The government waived duty on sugar to help one of its cronies in return for services rendered before the 2019 regime change, and most of his sugar stocks have not been released to the market, we are told. An unusually large amount of sugar was also imported by others when sugar prices dropped in some countries such as India. It is believed that Sri Lanka’s sugar stocks are sufficient for more than two months, and traders could easily halve the price of sugar and still earn a profit. The onus is on the government to prevent consumers being fleeced.

A few months ago, when consumer rights protection groups called for raids on the warehouses of big-time rice millers hoarding rice, Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena said a government could not act like a thug. But, today, he has had to eat his words. If only such action had been taken at least one year ago to prevent shortages of essential commodities.

Much publicity has been given to a CAA raid on a private warehouse owned by a small-time businessman. The government would have the public believe that such businessmen are hoarding paddy and creating rice shortages. But the biggest culprits are in the North Central Province, and nobody dares enter their warehouse complexes. In May 2020, the government made the CAA officials regret having inspected some paddy warehouses in Polonnnaruwa, including those belonging to former President Maithripala Sirisena’s brother, Dudley. The pro-SLPP millers defied the CAA directives, refused to sell rice at the stipulated prices, met the government leaders subsequently and had the maximum retail prices increased. They always have the last laugh. The CCA was left with egg on its face. If the paddy and rice stocks hoarded in the warehouses owned by the government politicians and their cronies are seized, and distributed properly, the rice could be made freely available at much lower prices.

Let the government be urged to summon the political moxie to send a CAA team to inspect the paddy/rice warehouses, especially those owned by Dudley Sirisena and State Minister Siripala Gamlath, in Polonnaruwa. That will be half the battle in helping the hapless public keep the wolf from the door in these troubled times. One only hopes the ongoing raids will continue, and the CAA will not baulk at taking on the pro-government businesses in safeguarding consumers’ interests and rights.



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Editorial

Lucky masterminds

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Tuesday 28th September, 2021

Several persons including a trader have been arrested and remanded over the Sathosa garlic racket. Media pressure seems to have jolted the police into action at long last. Since a judicial inquiry is now underway into the allegations against the suspects, the matter is best left to the learned judges concerned.

One, however, cannot help wondering why no action has been taken against all high-ranking officials of Sathosa responsible for the questionable garlic deal. The internal memos on the purchase of the stock of garlic weighing 56,000 kilos from the Ports Authority and selling it to a private trader will help trace them. Those who signed the memos at issue could be asked on whose orders they sold the entire stock to a third party at Rs. 135 a kilo instead of making garlic available to the pandemic-hit people at the same price. But for the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) intervention, Sathosa would have repurchased the same stock of garlic at Rs. 445 a kilo and sold it to the public above Rs. 500 a kilo, as media reports indicate.

CAA Executive Director Thushan Gunawardena, whose intervention put paid to the efforts of the Sathosa officials to repurchase the garlic stock fraudulently, is now facing a witch-hunt for having blown the whistle. Investigators are barking up the wrong tree. Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena, under whose purview Sathosa comes, has seen red. Why he is so agitated defies comprehension; he ought to go all out to have the garlic racket probed thoroughly and the culprits arrested and prosecuted, instead of finding fault with the media if his hands are clean.

Masterminds behind criminal operations have all the luck in this country. They never pay for their crimes, and their minions become scapegoats.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and other Catholic prelates have been fighting quite a battle for more than two years to have the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks traced, but to no avail. The people who defeated the yahapalana government, expecting the new dispensation to bring the real culprits to justice, are really disappointed. Not even the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the bombing could identify the terror mastermind. It dealt with the issue perfunctorily.

Everybody knows that the mastermind behind the Treasury bond scams has gone scot free. The then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran obviously carried out the illegal operation by abusing his position, but the person who ordered him to do so has not been found out yet. If Mahendran is brought back to stand trial, he will squeal on others. The present government has chosen not to go the whole hog to have him extradited, and the manner in which it is handling the matter smacks of a quid pro quo. While the SLPP grandees were calling for stern action against the Treasury bond racketeers, during their Opposition days, we argued in this space that Mahendran would be safe under an SLPP government because the scammers had links with all major political parties.

The state coffers suffered staggering losses amounting to billions of rupees owing to the sugar tax racket under the present government, which slashed the import duty on sugar so that one of its cronies would stand to gain. After being exposed, it claimed it had done so to bring the sugar prices down. But sugar remains expensive and the SLPP financier is grinning from ear to ear. The mastermind behind the racket has not been identified.

So, the person who masterminded the Sathosa garlic racket, too, will go unnamed, uninvestigated and unpunished, and the intrepid whistleblower will be made to regret having exposed the scam if ministerial barks and police action are anything to go by. How can anyone say this land does not belong to the corrupt?

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Editorial

Lankan ‘patriots’ defending American ‘Fortress’

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Monday 27th September, 2021

Chain snatchers swallow the necklaces they are making off with when they fail to outrun their pursuers, who however beat them black and blue before handing them over to the police for recovering the valuables with the help of laxatives. The incumbent government is apparently in a similar predicament. When it struck a shady deal with a US energy firm, the other day, behind the back of its coalition allies and the public, it may have thought the hurriedly inked pact would be a fait accompli, and its opponents would be left with no alternative but to stop protesting. But it thought wrong; it is drawing heavy fire, and pressure is mounting on it to scrap the questionable deal.

In February, the government had to withdraw from an agreement on the Colombo Port East Container Terminal (ECT), which was to be run as a joint venture with an Indian company and Japan. The SLPP leaders do not seem to learn from their mistakes.

Why there is so much resistance to the shady deal with a US company is understandable. The government scuttled a bidding process and selected the American venture, New Fortress Inc., which will acquire a 40% ownership stake in the West Coast Power Ltd., the owner of the 310 MW Yugadanavi power plant. The US venture will also build an offshore LNG receiving, storage and regasification terminal off the coast of Colombo, and initially supply the equivalent of 1.2 million gallons of LNG to Sri Lanka.

Even those who are supportive of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) are critical of the New Fortress deal due to the absence of transparency and questionable exclusivity. The Professionals’ National Front has condemned the deal, which it says is a threat to the country’s energy security. It has also demanded to know whether the government consulted the Attorney General on the agreement, which, it says, does not come under the Sri Lankan law.

Millions of Sri Lankans who were dependent on Laugfs for cooking gas have been left high and dry. Laugfs starved the market and obtained a price hike, claiming that it was incurring losses, but its gas is still not available. The government is helpless. Given this situation created by a local company, what guarantee is there that something far worse will not happen due to the New Fortress deal? All US companies do as Washington says; their compliance anent the US ban on the Chinese tech giant, Huawei, is case in point.

The SLPP leaders vehemently opposed the yahapalana government’s deal with China to lease the Hambantota Port in 2017. They even staged protests and called the deal a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Today, they are struggling to justify the New Fortress deal while wrapping themselves in the flag. The then President Maithripala Sirisena defended the Hambantota port deal, which he said had to be struck because his administration could not pay back the loan the Rajapaksas had obtained for the project; he is now in the incumbent government as the leader the SLFP, which is opposed to the New Fortress deal.

The New York Times

published an article titled, How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port, criticizing the Hambantota port deal. It will be interesting to see how the US media describes the New Fortress-the Rajapaksa government deal. Will any American newspaper publish an article titled, ‘How the US Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Power Plant’?

When the yahaplana government tried to implement a free trade agreement it had signed with Singapore arbitrarily, Sri Lankan professionals and Opposition politicians (who are currently in the SLPP) launched a successful protest campaign. They called for the formulation of a national policy on agreements between Sri Lanka and other countries and/or foreign companies. It is the absence of such a policy that has enabled government politicians to do as they like in handling state assets.

Sri Lanka cannot exist in isolation and has to work with other countries and foreign ventures, but such deals must be transparent, legal and beneficial to its interests.

Among those who are campaigning against the New Fortress deal are some SLPP constituents. They would have the public believe that they have taken a principled stand on what they call a clandestine pact. What will they do if the SLPP leaders do not heed their protests? They must tell the public what action they are planning to take in such an eventuality. Will they pull out of the government? Or, will they fall in line and stop protesting. Let them be urged to fish or cut bait.

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Editorial

LNG hot potato on Sri Lanka’s lap

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The hottest potato now on the lap of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) is an unsolicited proposal from a giant U.S. corporation, New Fortress Energy (NFE), a NASDAQ quoted company on the New York Stock Exchange, to build a new offshore LNG (liquefied natural gas) receiving, storage and regasification terminal in Colombo. A framework agreement to go ahead with this proposal has already been allegedly signed but very little of this was known to the wider public. Unsurprisingly, allegations that this was done in secret is being widely bandied about. Lesser constituents of the government are unhappy about this proposal and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa who is pushing it on the grounds that it will enable cheaper long-term electricity generation benefiting hard-pressed consumers had a discussion with party leaders of the ruling coalition on this subject last Thursday. What finally emerged there has not been revealed but it is clear that the government is determined to push ahead with the proposal.

Unsolicited proposals are by their very nature suspect. The recent discussions on the project did not reveal who NFE’s local agent is, or if there is any. It is unlikely, if not impossible, that a U.S. based company would make such a far reaching proposal with widespread ramifications without an extensive knowledge of the ground situation. For this a lot of domestic input would have been necessary; and the total picture, obviously, was at the fingertips of the offeror. But there has not been the slightest hint or whiff of a rumour of who the local participant might be. We all know that big projects, the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project is one good example and the Norochcholai coal fired power plant is another, enabled massive commission incomes, probably disproportionate to the work and effort expended in winning the contract for an overseas principal, was earned locally. In the case of most projects, local agents are known by and large. This is as it should be because that is what transparency is all about.

Well documented allegations have been made that the proposal under consideration is a threat to the country’s energy security and would potentially cause enormous losses to Sri Lanka. We do have a National Energy Policy gazetted in August 2019. This is intended to ensure energy security through the supply of reliable, cost effective and competitively priced energy services from diverse sources. Nobody would, or could, quarrel about the push towards renewable energy in place of fossil fuels that are finite and environment degrading. This is the global trend. We in Sri Lanka, having now largely exhausted our hydropower resources that once upon a time gave us very cheap electricity, is now looking at renewables including solar and wind power. But these targets are not achievable in the short term although tight deadlines have been set. It is not possible to immediately dispense with expensive thermal power for which we have, and will continue to pay, a heavy price. That is why the National Energy Policy has identified LNG as the next fossil fuel option for us. But it has made clear that LNG procurement shall be kept under state control in the context of its impact on national energy security.

This policy further establishes that procurement of plant, equipment, crude oil and other fuels as well as power purchase agreements and similar concessions will be made through a streamlined competitive bidding process ensuring transparency and accountability. Critics of the NFE proposal are hammering home the point that all these safeguards will go down the river if the government goes ahead with its plans to sell-off 40 percent of the shares of the state-controlled West Coast Power Private Ltd. (WCPL) to NFE at a price of USD 250 million. The wide-ranging proposal made by the U.S. corporation includes an LNG terminal project together with what’s call a “Floating Storage Regasification Unit” and associated mooring systems and pipelines. There is a high possibility that NFE will supply most of the LNG consumed in the country in the future if this deal goes through. What is most disturbing is the ‘Take or Pay’ (TOP) clause in the proposal that ensures that NFE should be paid irrespective of whether contracted volumes are consumed or not. This is not altogether unusual in Power Purchase Agreements, several of which are already in force between the CEB and small scale independent power producers in business here. Under these arrangements what’s called ‘capacity charges’ are paid. But in the case of a TOP arrangement for future LNG supplies, the costs would be mind-boggling.

Within the last three months there have been two cabinet memoranda pushing the NFE proposal which is strongly supported by the Finance Ministry on the basis that it will enable much cheaper power generation than at present with the foreign investor carrying the capital component of the investment which will benefit the already hard-pressed consumer fearful of having to pay more for his electricity. We are not aware whether there is a cabinet decision to press on with the project although information presently available strongly implies that a virtual fait accomplii has been presented with the framework agreement allegedly already signed in the dead of night. Meanwhile the Energy Ministry is fast tracking the exploration for natural gas in the Mannar basin. What use would any possible strike be if the country’s future LNG needs have already been contracted out?

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