As readers know, auctioneers conclude a sale saying “going, going, gone!” with a hammer blow to signal that the final bid has been accepted and whatever’s on offer is sold. We may well adapt the analogy to the impending power cut hanging over our collective necks like a Sword of Damocles with “coming, coming, came!” Thankfully it has not yet come, but the fuel supply situation is threatening thermal electricity generation as the dry season has set in after a year of good rainfall, nay floods, and replenishment of the hydro power generating reservoirs cannot be expected until the next monsoon breaks. So it’s a case of waiting for the sword to fall as the tightrope walk continues with the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) unable to find the dollars to pay for its fuel and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) demanding hard currency to keep even a meager supply of diesel or furnace oil going to power thermal generation.
Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila and Power Minister Gamini Lokuge are at each other’s throats in a war of words where both sides are right. CPC can’t procure supplies without the hard currency that is demanded by its suppliers. The CEB has no dollars and an economy wracked by the worst ever foreign exchange crisis that anybody can remember is in no position to find them. That apart, it is already neck deep in debt to the tune of billions to the CPC for past supplies. Kaata kiyannada (whom to tell?) as the pithy Sinhala idiom goes. We have previously said in this space that Gammanpila is right in his assertion that it is better to suffer 90-minute power cuts daily now rather than endure much longer blackouts down the road. But the powers-that-be, as always, know better and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) has now got into the act and is determining, almost on a daily basis, whether the CEB has enough fuel to make do, and to continue at least for now without load shedding. The last edict was issued on Thursday with PUCSL decreeing that as power demand falls over weekends, the CEB can manage to continue as is till Monday when another assessment will be made.
So the merry merry-go-round keeps spinning and a government, with its back to the wall with inflation at a historic high and the rupee at a historic low, desperately trying to keep the power supply going in what seems to be a futile effort at preventing further damage to its already plummeted reputation. There is no escaping the fact that its popularity is deeper in the dumps than that of any predecessor despite being popularly elected only two years ago. No doubt Covid-19 is responsible for much of the woes the country is grappling with, but not all of them as repeatedly pointed out by both experts and drawing room and kopi kadey pundits. Regular contributor Sanjeewa Jayaweera has, in a commonsense article we run in this issue of our newspaper, focused on the many reasons of why we are in the present predicament. The situation is grim and the reality harsh. There is neither a quick or cheap fix nor any way of escaping the reality. Threadbare as the cliché is, we have to grasp the nettle with, as always, the taxpayer picking up the tab.
As Jayaweera has pointed out, the CEB does not collect its dues in dollars. Let alone dollars, its overdue bills are now running at over rupees 45 billion and government agencies/institutions not exposed to disconnection like common or garden mortals are among the biggest culprits of non-payment. Television viewers are treated to a nightly diatribe from opposition politicians and trade unionists berating the government for what has already gone wrong and gloomily forecasting that worse is to follow. Not that the people don’t know that already. As is the norm in this so-called democratic socialist republic of ours, strikes are being freely threatened even by those who should know better like CEB engineers. These worthies have just succeeded in having the very recent appointment of a new acting general manager reversed. CEB Chairman MNC Ferdinando, a former Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Energy, recalled from Australia to head the Electricity Board has resigned pleading “personal reasons.” The public will judge how true that is given that the now canceled acting appointment would not have been made without clearance from the top. The people are ot fools and have been recently treated to the spectacle of the Chairman of Litro Gas suddenly removed at the behest of the finance minister reappointed the same day on a presidential order! Who can deny that this country is not treated to first rate entertainment by its leaders.
Electricity tariffs have not been revised since 2014 and it is claimed that consumers are charged Rs. 16 per unit when the cost of generation runs at Rs. 24. Whether this is accurate, though claimed by an expert at a recent TV talk show, we don’t know. There are various tariffs, charged on a sliding scale, with upper-end consumers paying more for high consumption with the less affluent domestic users protected by a lower charge. Then there are different tariffs for industrial users and (at least once-upon-a-time for religious institutions). The relevant figure should be the average charge per unit and whether the above figure is average or not is uncertain. What we do know is that generation cost includes the notorious corruption within the CEB, no doubt interest on its staggering debt, transmission leaks and what have you. But government is understandably hesitant about imposing new loads upon already burdened people who wouldn’t care about long-term implications if they are spared instant rate hikes.
Fuelling flame of public anger
Monday 23rd May, 2022
Long lines of vehicles are still seen near filling stations in all parts of the country although the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) insists that there is no fuel scarcity. Most people have to wait for long hours to obtain petrol worth about Rs. 6,000 each. They are left with hardly any time for work. Government politicians and state officials keep giving assurances, but the people do not seem to take them seriously.Fuel rationing has not yielded the desired result due to hoarding, which intensifies the supply chain stress. Hoarders must be severely dealt with; mere warnings will not do. The government should seek public assistance to nab hoarders, and those who provide information that leads to arrests should be rewarded.Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, addressing the media, on Saturday, revealed something that must have sent a chill down the spine of every law-abiding Sri Lankan. He said he had been reliably informed of two recent incidents, where the JVP and the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) interfered with the fuel distribution in the Gampaha and Matara districts, respectively. He said a JVP politician, leading a mob, had stopped the unloading of diesel at a filling station in Weligama, ordering that no diesel be sold unless petrol was available. The students’ outfit had asked a filling station at Kiribathgoda to issue fuel only to the persons it named, the Minister said.
Minister Wijesekera’s claim makes one wonder whether an organised group is all out to disrupt fuel distribution in a bid to stoke public anger to advance a sinister agenda. Let the police and intelligence services be urged to sit up and take notice. The JVP and the IUSF owe an explanation.Minister Wijesekera has warned that the filling stations where workers are roughed up will stop issuing fuel forthwith. There have been many violent incidents where angry customers set upon filling station workers, and action must be taken to prevent violence, and ensure the safety of workers.
Similarly, Minister Wijesekera has to take action against the gas stations where fuel is not dispensed efficiently. Most of them have only one pump attendant each to cater to hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles. They have no sense of urgency, and seem to derive some perverse pleasure from the suffering of the people waiting in long queues. They must be ordered to minimise delays without provoking the public.
Stale toddy in new pot
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not seem keen to steer the country out of the current crisis. Most of the newly-appointed ministers are square pegs in round holes with very serious allegations against them. You cannot win steeplechases with donkeys, can you?
When Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, it was thought that the President was serious about making a course correction. But he has not been able to extricate himself from the clutches of his family, which continues to promote its interests at the expense of the country. He is at the mercy of the SLPP, which is controlled by his sibling, Basil.The government has succeeded in dividing the SJB and the SLPP dissident group by making some of their members accept Cabinet positions. But wheeling and dealing, and crossovers cannot make a blundering government stable, much less help hoist the country out of the current economic mire. What is needed is a truly multi-party government, and certainly not another SLPP administration with some greedy defectors from the Opposition, in its Cabinet. Unless the President cares to heed public opinion, and put together a team capable of infusing the people with some hope and ameliorating their woes by reviving the economy, he will have to brace himself for the landfall of the second wave of the tsunami of public anger, which will be far more destructive than the first one, which led to the ouster of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaska.
What if Gota won’t go?
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, like all politicians, is fond of publicity. He may perhaps be like a former outspoken UNP minister in the 1965 UNP administration, Mr. IMRA Iriyagolla, who once famously said that “bad publicity is better than no publicity.” Despite the heavy demands on his time and energy, he has been able to find space for Western and other television stations to discuss the current situation in our island nation where the political and economic turmoil continues unabated. The premier has been praised in many quarters for coming clean on the situation confronting us all. He went public on the whole depressing story and, in the bargain, cracked a couple of jokes for the television cameras. He even told a BBC journalist to learn her history saying Churchill came to office in 1939 – actually 1940 – with just three supporters. We are told that this is not strictly correct as Churchill had the support of the Conservative Party after Chamberlain’s resignation and an International Churchill Society publication says “his time in the wilderness was over.”
Be that as it may, having led the UNP to near zero at the last election and himself taken the one National List seat then secured by the greens after months of procrastination, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s time in the wilderness seems to be also over. Accusations have been made, and will continue to be made, that President Gotabaya’s choice of the single-seat party leader as the new prime minister was nothing more than a strategy of saving his own skin. Wickremesinghe, well schooled in the art of political wheeling and dealing, was assured of the support of the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Permuna (SLPP) which he has now obtained. Several former ministers elected on that party’s ticket took cabinet office in the new administration in the first round of the prize giving and others have since followed. Despite some noises made by the SLFP decrying negotiations with individuals rather than the party, some SLFPers are also on board and, we are sure, there will be more to follow. Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) has not been able to hold its ranks and two MPs from that party have also joined the cabinet. They are obviously not afraid of the disciplinary action already threatened and have piously intoned that they will give all for the sake of the country.
However that be, the problems of the people remain unabated as evidenced by the daily television news visuals and bulletins of petrol/diesel and gas queues. The voice cuts are eloquently damning and ordinary people at the end of their tether don’t care a jot about roundly condemning on camera those who have placed them in their present predicament. That at least is a plus mark for GR because the white vans of the past are now history – although the perpetrators remain free – and people are not afraid to speak out their minds publicly. But that is not changing the situation in any tangible way. There are no dollars to pay for essentials and whether the external support now mobilized after the appointment of a new Central Bank governor and prime minister can ease the present situation in the short term remains to be seen. Some assurances have been offered that at least the petroleum and gas situations will be somewhat eased in coming days. Let us fervently hope that this will be so. But with a price of a loaf of bread going up to Rs. 170 last week where the cost of living is going is not rocket science.
The good news is that some kind of cross-party government is being formed but it will be bigger than what this country needs. The optimistic assessment was that ministers will be restricted to 12 but the word, as this is being written, is that it will be around 20. But there are the state ministers who will also be appointed. The prime minister has gone public that ministers will lose many of their perks and the extravaganza that has for too long been part and parcel of this country’s governing structure will be savagely pruned. There has even been a suggestion that ministers draw no emoluments but whether that will come to pass remains to be seen. Such economies will be wildly applauded by all the people of this country and not only those sweating and getting drenched at the Galle Face aragalaya. The people of Sri Lanka have always resented the gravy train that politics in this country had become and gone on for far too long. Judging by what is said in parliament these days, the MPs themselves are now becoming acutely aware of public opinion in this regard. Speeches on special arrangements made for MPs to obtain fuel and suggestions that the parliament restaurant offering subsidized meals be closed down reflect a growing awareness among parliamentarians of what their electors think of them.
Unfortunately, despite the many political developments crammed into the week that has passed, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not offered even the slightest hint that he will quit the presidency, bowing to the demands of those who overwhelmingly voted him into office two and a half years ago. He may be perhaps waiting for a way for a dignified exit being prepared for him. There have been many mean culpas, the latest from Chamal, the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers who told parliament that MR should have gracefully retired after his second term and avoided the present ignominy confronting the whole clan.
Aiya’s wisdom and Malli’s folly
Former Minister Chamal Rajapaksa has told Parliament that his younger brother, Mahinda, should have quit politics after completing his second term as the President. This is something Chamal Aiya could have told Mahinda Malli in private. Why did he make such a statement on the floor of the House, of all places?
Mahinda is not alone in trouble; all members of the Rajapaksa family find themselves in hot water. Their properties have come under mob attacks, and they cannot move about freely. Worse, they have had to suffer indignities at the hands of angry protesters, who include many of their erstwhile supporters. Whoever would have thought, about a year or so ago, that such a fate would befall the powerful ruling family?
The Rajapaksa family is in the current predicament mainly because it took the masses for asses. The Rajapaksas thought the country was their fiefdom, and laboured under the delusion that they could ride on the sataka of Mahinda, who used to be a political magnet, win elections and continue to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. They did not learn from their humiliating defeat in 2015, and became cocky and arrogant when the people, fed up with the yahapalana rule, elected them again in 2019/2020, for want of a better alternative; they started making up for lost time. Their current rule is like a replay of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015), and what they are facing today would have played out if President Rajapaksa had succeeded in securing a third term in 2015.Chamal’s admonition, as it were, for Mahinda has come too late in the day although one cannot but fully endorse it. He should have prevailed on Mahinda not to introduce the 18th Amendment, which did away with the presidential term limit and restored the executive powers of the President. He was the Speaker at the time. The 18th Amendment became a curse for not only the Rajapaksa family but also the entire country.Did Chamal make a serious effort to dissuade his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR), from introducing the 20th Amendment, which is as draconian as the 18th Amendment, and has boomeranged? President GR has given in to pressure from the protesting public and undertaken to do away with the 20th Amendment and reduce his executive powers.
As a seasoned politician, Chamal should also have protested against the appointment of his younger brother, Basil, as the Minister of Finance. The task of running the Finance Ministry requires a real maven. If a well-versed person had been appointed the Finance Minister and given a free hand to address the economic crisis with the help of experts from the Central Bank, the Finance Ministry and elsewhere, the country would not have gone bankrupt, and the Rajapaksas would have been safe.Chamal should have guided President GR, who apparently thought he could run the country with the help of some retired military officers, whose pathetic performance as public officials makes one wonder how they succeeded in defeating the LTTE, which was described as the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world. The so-called intellectuals who rallied behind GR and made his victory possible at the 2019 presidential election have their critics visiting mockery upon them. Has Chamal admonished the incumbent President as well?
The Rajapaksa family has not given up its efforts to retain its grip on power, as can be seen from the way it is manipulating numbers in Parliament, and causing divisions among its rivals. It has appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and engineered several crossovers from the SJB, and the SLPP dissident group. But what really matters is not dosh-induced defections but public opinion, which is obviously not in favour of the Rajapaksas.
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