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Inevitable blackouts on the way



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.

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Trickery and duplicity



Wednesday 17th August, 2022

The SLPP MPs are said to be divided on provision in the 22nd constitutional amendment Bill for the dissolution by the President of Parliament two and a half years after the formation of a government. The ruling party MPs loyal to the Rajapaksas are reportedly demanding that the constitutionally prescribed period be extended to four and a half years, but the dissident SLPP MPs and the Opposition are said to be convinced otherwise; they reportedly favour the current time limit.

Adversity or expediency may make strange bedfellows but they do not necessarily trust one another in cloak-and-dagger politics. They see more devils than vast hell can hold, and are ready to sink their poniards in each other’s back if they feel that is the way they could protect their interests. What happened during the now infamous Yahapalanaya may serve as an example.

The political marriage of convenience between the SLFP and the UNP in 2015 brought a group of highly ambitious politicians together but these elements were suspicious of one another and had their long knives at the ready and put them to good use three years later. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, who won the 2015 presidential race with the help of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, sacked the latter as the Prime Minister and appointed their mutual enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa to that post in a bid to appoint an SLFP-led government at the expense of the UNP.

Sirisena went so far as to dissolve Parliament only to have his executive order quashed by the Supreme Court. He made that deplorable move because he felt that the UNP was undermining him politically.

The SLPP, which made Wickremesinghe the President, seems to fear that he might do a Sirisena in case he falls out with the Rajapaksas.

The 20th Amendment has strengthened the executive presidency, and President Wickremesinghe is far more powerful than President Sirisena was during the Yahapalana government. Ironically, most of the SLPP MPs who voted en bloc for the 20th Amendment, enabling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament after the expiration of two and a half years of its life, are all out to prevent President Wickremesinghe from doing so!

The Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe the President to keep him on a string and have caused the Sword of Medamulna to hang from a saataka over his head. They will not be able to control the President if he can dissolve Parliament, for he will not hesitate to leverage this power in case of the SLPP trying to undermine him. He will be able to use of the ruling party MPs’ fear of Parliament being dissolved to make them fall in line: most SLPP lawmakers know that their chances of re-election are remote.

The only way to prevent the President from exercising his or her power to dissolve Parliament is to move an impeachment motion against him or her. But it is highly unlikely that the SLPP will resort to such a course of action: it has lost its two-thirds majority in the House. Having witnessed the disastrous situation during the latter stages of the Yahapalana government, especially the neglect of national security and the resultant Easter Sunday carnage, one can only hope that the Executive and the ruling party will not be at loggerheads again.

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Heroes and villains



Tuesday 16th August, 2022

The government has delisted some expatriate Tamil groups considered sympathetic to the LTTE’s cause, and drawn heavy flak from a section of the ruling SLPP and the nationalistic organisations that backed it to the hilt at the past several elections. The SLPP leadership has chosen to remain silent on the issue, and it will be interesting to know its stance on the delisting of the Tamil groups that it once demonised. It made Ranil Wickremesinghe the President to do its bidding. Is the tail now wagging the dog?

Why were the aforesaid Tamil organisations banned? Have the factors that led to their proscription ceased to be, over the past few years, for them to be delisted under the present dispensation, which is an extension of the Rajapaksa rule in all but name? If not, what has prompted the government to delist them, and doesn’t its action amount to an admission that those outfits were wrongfully proscribed, or it has acted out of expediency rather than principle or any concern for the national interest, which it claims to protect?

It was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) that initiated action to proscribe some expatriate Tamil groups, claiming that they posed a threat to national security. The SLPP led by the Rajapaksas campaigned on a national security platform at the presidential election (2019) and the parliamentary polls (2020) and secured huge popular mandates to govern the country in keeping with its national security strategy among other things. Does the SLPP think the delisting of the Tamil groups at issue is consistent with its mandates, on the basis of which it continues to rule the country?

The SLPP, which elected President Wickremesinghe, with whose blessings the delisting in question has been effected, owes an explanation to the public.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who represents the nationalistic forces that made the SLPP’s victory possible and are full of praise for President Wickremesinghe for having got tough with the Galle Face protesters and stood up to the Colombo-based western diplomats, to the government’s volte-face on the proscription of the pro-Eelam groups.

Needless to say, when a government does exactly the opposite of what it promises in its election manifesto, for which it obtains popular support, its mandate becomes delegitimised. The key pledges in SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy programme presented to the people and what the government is doing at present are like chalk and cheese, to say the least. One is reminded of a ruse in days of yore; some men, on their wedding days, much to their surprise, found that their brides were the elder sisters of the pretty women they had agreed to marry! Something similar has happened to the Sri Lankans who voted for Gotabaya; they have got Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President courtesy of the SLPP!

The leaders and members of the Tamil expatriate groups that have been delisted will now be able to visit this country. But war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya, who became the President, has fled the country and is in self-exile. President Wickremesinghe has gone on record saying that he does not think the time is opportune for Gotabaya to return home. Speculation is rife that some former LTTE members in detention will be released as part of a political deal the government has cut with the TNA. If the government carries out its pledge to the TNA, those ex-Tigers will walk free. Is it that Gotabaya, as the President, did something far worse than unleashing or supporting terrorism? All the SLPP politicians who were also responsible for bankrupting the country are still in the incumbent government, and some of them are Cabinet ministers although most of them should be behind bars. So much for the change the Aragalaya has brought about!

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To dock or not to dock



Monday 15th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.

There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.

It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.

It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.

Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.

Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.

Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.

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