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Power sector reforms- urgent need to revisit them

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by Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

The government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), in a policy decision made in 1998, expressed its commitment to power sector reforms and embarked on a programme to restructure it by unbundling the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) into separate companies for generation, transmission, and distribution, as reported in the ADB Report on Country Assistance Programme Evaluation: Power Sector Assistance Evaluation, August 2007. To give effect to this policy, a Bill was drafted to introduce reforms in the power sector as far back as 2002.

ELECTRICITY REFORMS ACT 28 OF 2002

The draft titled Electricity Reforms Bill was presented to the Parliament in 2002, outlining sector reforms comprising restructuring of the electricity industry by breaking the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) into several independent state-owned companies to carry out generation, transmission, and distribution functions.

The Bill proposed that independent companies be incorporated for the following purposes:

One company to take over the functions of the CEB relating to hydroelectricity generation and thermal electricity generation,

One company to take over the functions of the CEB relating to transmission and bulk procurement of electricity,

Three or more companies to take over the distribution of electricity, and

One or more companies to take over other functions of the CEB and LECO.

The Bill when presented to the Parliament brought in strong protests from many quarters including the CEB trade unions and other trade unions as well as from several political parties. They saw this Bill as an initial step towards privatizing the CEB and consequently loss of employment for its staff. Once the government gave the workers an assurance that the workers’ rights would be safeguarded, the protests died down and the Bill was passed in March 2002. It was gazetted as Electricity Reforms Act No. 28 of 2002 on 13 December 2002. However, the necessary order to give effect to the Act was not gazetted by the Minister and as a result the Act did not come into operation.

 

ENERGY EXPERT’S RECOMMENDATIONS FOR UNBUNDLING THE POWER SETOR

Prof. Priyantha Wijayatunga, Director of the South Asia Energy Division of Asian Development Bank (ADB) said at the launching of the Techno 2019 exhibition held in July 2019, that “Sri Lanka still needs to go a long way in relation to sector governance, compared to other countries in the region. It is time that we look at this closely so that we do not lag behind. Reforms will undoubtedly help the energy sector and hence the country’s economic development,” (Daily Mirror, 18.07.2019).

He specifically pointed out that improved governance in the energy sector in India and Bangladesh enormously helped conceptualizing and implementing clean energy initiatives, while enhancing their energy security. He highlighted the important role played by independent energy regulators and separation of functions of the energy sector in these countries, which had paved the way for breakthroughs in clean energy initiatives. 

Prof. Wijayatunga elaborated “By now, a large majority of the countries, including many in the developing world around us, have fully unbundled the energy supply industry with a reasonably independent regulatory environment. If we look at South Asia, India and Bangladesh have already significantly advanced and are rapidly progressing in these areas,”.  Further, he noted that “reforms also led to an increase in private sector participation in all sub sectors, including generation, distribution and even in transmission business in these countries”. 

 

RECOMMENDATIONS OF INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS

The GoSL, from time to time, engaged the services of international institutions such as World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to make recommendations to improve the power sector. Among the reports produced from these studies are:

JICA Master Plan Study on the Development of Power Generation and Transmission System in Sri Lanka, February 2006,

Asian Development Bank report on Assessment of Power Sector Reforms in Sri Lanka, 2015,

JICA Report on Electricity Sector Master Plan Study in Sri Lanka, March, 2018, and

World Bank Group study on Sri Lanka Energy Infrastructure Sector Assessment Programme (InfraSAP), April 2019.

The 2006 JICA report observed that “political intervention is making it impossible for the CEB to manage itself autonomously. As a result, its management has been criticized as inefficient by external parties. Moreover, it has piled up a debt big enough to jeopardize its continued sustenance. One of the areas where politics has been heavily involved is the tariff question. Thus far, political considerations have worked against attempts to raise tariffs, and tariff revisions to reflect the costs have consequently been delayed. To put a halt to political intervention in CEB management as well, it is necessary to lay down the proper conditions for corporate business. This is to be done by unbundling the current CEB, which is a vertically integrated government-owned monopoly; making the generation, transmission, and distribution divisions completely independent”. The report further recommended that “a fundamental reform of the sector is absolutely essential for promotion of long-term investment and increase in the overall efficiency. To this end, the government must present a detailed vision and schedule for CEB unbundling, and swiftly complete the reform, which is currently stalled.” But no follow up action was taken by the GoSL towards unbundling of the CEB.

The 2015 ADB report in its concluding paragraph said that “The next stage of reform requires establishing six independent companies out of the CEB’s generation, transmission, and four distribution licensees. The organization culture in the government-owned company LECO needs to be replicated in the CEB’s distribution licensees by creating corporate entities that report to the CEB holding company. The functional business units currently established within the CEB are adequately staffed and organized to enable the formation of six corporate entities. The corporatization need not involve privatization if political decision makers do not wish to involve private capital more fully in the sector, provided the state-owned firms operate as independent commercial companies”.

The ADB report further said that “The electricity sector was proposed to be restructured to ensure increased efficiency, transparency, autonomy, accountability, competition, and financial viability. The CEB functions were to be vertically and horizontally unbundled. For this purpose, the CEB owned subsidiary companies were planned to be established under the Companies Act No. 17 of 1982. The electricity sector was proposed to be restructured to ensure increased efficiency, transparency, autonomy, accountability, competition, and financial viability. The CEB functions were to be vertically and horizontally unbundled. For this purpose, CEB owned subsidiary companies were planned to be established under the Companies Act No. 17 of 1982”.

The 2018 JICA report reviewed and updated the 2006 JICA Master Plan. However, it did not refer to the issue of unbundling the power sector but recommended incorporation of renewable energy projects as well as natural gas in the energy mix for generation of electricity up to 2040 including consideration of financial commitments. It also considered the option of generation with 100% renewable energy sources by 2040, recommending that to meet the deficit of power arising out of continuing high cloud cover for several days, storage batteries need to be installed at an estimated cost of USD 1,000 million.

The 2019 World Bank report says “Apart from a few recent competitive outcomes, the country has not yet been able to develop utility scale non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) projects at tariffs comparable with other projects globally or in the region or to tap into commercial financing and private sector participation in larger scale projects. As part of the preparation of the InfraSAP, two pre-feasibility assessments for potential large scale NCRE park sites were conducted for sites in Pooneryn and Moneragala, respectively, totaling about 500 MW of potential generation capacity”.

“The Solar and Wind power has the potential to further optimize the cost of power in the country. In line with what is being witnessed across the globe (i.e. low tariffs in solar and wind-based generation), it seems reasonable to assume that by opening the sector to international players with adequate incentives and risk mitigation mechanisms in place, a significant reduction in cost of power could be achieved in Sri Lanka. The solar and wind-based generation could be potentially used to replace some of the expensive imported oil-based power, which is currently utilized to offset the low availability of hydro resources” (p. 17).

Though the government sought the assistance from these multilateral agencies for improving the performance of the CEB, it has not taken any initiative to implement them, particularly those on reforms. The CEB is also rather slow in pursuing building of large-scale solar energy systems despite the government giving high priority for them and availability of funding from India on a credit line to the extent of USD 100 million specifically for solar energy project development (See The Island of 03.09.2020)

 

PRE-REQUISITES FOR UNBUNDLING OF CEB

Once the CEB is unbundled, separate companies are to be set up to take over the generation, transmission, distribution and other functions. There will be one company each for generation and transmission and three or more for distribution, according to the draft Act. However, it will be more prudent to have separate generation companies for each of the generation complexes, Kelanitissa, Laxapana, Mahaweli and others including large renewable energy plants. These companies will serve as independent power producers (IPP) and will have to sell the energy they generate to the transmission company, along with other IPPs. Electricity generated at power plants other than from small power plants, is transmitted to grid substations using 220 kV and 132 kV transmission lines.

When the available capacity exceeds the demand, the System Controller will have to decide the amount of power to be purchased from the IPPs based on a merit order system. Generally, plants providing firm output at low cost is given priority according to which power from renewable sources may get low priority. However, with the government policy to meet a minimum of 80% of generation from renewable sources, a mechanism will have to be worked out to accept power from RE sources, possibly by providing storage facilities which will even out their fluctuations.

Before selling energy, it has to be measured to an accuracy of at least ±0.1% using instrumentation which need to be type approved by the Department of Measurement Units, Standards and Services (MUSS) as required by the relevant law. Further, the instruments need to be regularly calibrated by an accredited laboratory. The CEB is already having a Meter Laboratory and this may have to be brought under the control of the transmission company with updated instrumentation serving as secondary standards with accuracy traceable to international standards. This can be verified by calibrating them against the primary standards available at MUSS Department, which is a legal requirement. Every generating unit before being connected to the grid for transmission, needs to go through the metering unit which will monitor the energy dispatched on a daily or monthly basis and transmit the data to the transmission company. It will then pay the IPP at rates agreed to in the power purchase agreement entered into between the IPP and the transmission company, based on the energy dispatched.

For distribution, the CEB has already divided the country into four regional divisions and a subsidiary company, Lanka Electric Company Ltd, covering the Western coastal townships from Negombo to Galle, excluding the city of Colombo. Electricity distribution from 220 kV/132 kV grid substations to the rest of the country is carried out using 33 kV lines which are again converted to 11 kV at load centres for local distribution. The 33 kV or 11 kV line voltage is again converted into 230/400 V for supplying to consumers. Currently, one 33 kV line may extend across two division boundaries, but if these two divisions are to be set up as two independent companies, there has to be separate distribution lines, each covering only one division receiving electricity from one or more GSSs located within the division. It will be then possible to measure the amount of energy transferred to this particular distribution company separately. Hence, certain amount or modifying the distribution system may have to be undertaken prior to unbundling.

 

FINANCIAL VIABILITY OF CEB

The CEB has been selling electricity to most of its consumers below cost price which is around Rs 20 per unit. For example, the tariff for households consuming up to 90 kWh per month is only Rs. 10 per unit for the last 30 units and less for lower slabs. For industries with demand up to 42 kVA and for other industries during daytime, the tariff is below the cost price. The average cost of generation per unit of electricity in 2017 was Rs 20.40, while the average selling price per unit in 2017 was Rs. 16.26. The corresponding values for 2018 were Rs. 19.12 and Rs. 16.29, respectively. These low tariffs resulted in the CEB incurring a net loss of Rs. 47.6 billion in 2017 and Rs. 30.5 billion in 2018 (AR, 2018).

In view of these losses, the CEB has not been able to settle its dues to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for supplying fuel in 2016 amounting to Rs. 12.43 billion and also to settle the payments to IPPs for supplying power which amounted to Rs. 21.52 billion in 2016, according to General Manager’s Review appearing in the 2016 Annual Report (AR). Further, the total long-term borrowings as at end of 2016 were recorded as Rs. 220.5 billion, while that for 2018 were recorded as Rs. 281.3 billion, as given in respective annual reports. This poor financial status of CEB is an impediment for it to raise any borrowings from commercial banks.

The subsidies given to low-end consumers amounted to Rs. 70 billion in 2017 and Rs. 60 billion in 2018 (AR 2018). These were partly recovered by selling to high-end consumers at above-average cost price. The surplus recovered by these means in 2017 was Rs. 15.2 billion and Rs. 20.6 billion in 2018. Had the CEB was operating as a commercial enterprise, the logical measure that would have been done was either to increase the selling price above the cost price for all consumers and also reduce the cost of generation.

Being a government organization, the tariff is determined by the government policy to provide electricity to low-income households at an affordable price and hence the CEB is constrained against raising the tariff. However, this issue needs to be carefully studied and an upward revision of the tariff should be considered, removing the subsidies at least partly. Even for industries, to make them competitive in the global market, the government policy is to supply electricity to small and medium industries at below cost, but this policy too needs to be reviewed.

There is also the possibility to reduce the cost of generation. The CEB has been generating electricity from petroleum oil to the extent between 25% – 35% with the generation in 2017 being 5,000 GWh. According to 2016 Generation Performance Report of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the cost of generation from oil-fired power plants has been between Rs/kWh 22 and Rs/kWh 38. On the other hand, the cost of generation from NG fired power plant is no more than Rs/kWh 15 as quoted in the tender for the 300 MW gas power plant to be installed at Kerawalapitiya. If the thermal power plants presently operating with diesel are converted to NG, the saving is of the order of Rs. 50 billion annually.

 

The Cabinet of Ministers as far back as December 2010 decided to introduce natural gas (NG) in all sectors including power and industries and authorized the Ministry of Petroleum to pursue the matter, but no action was taken either by the Ministry of Petroleum or Ministry of Power and Energy. It is hoped that with the mandate given to the Ministry of Renewable Energy to convert all oil power plants at Kelanitissa complex for operation with NG, will inspire the CEB to give priority for this conversion which will reduce the losses incurred by the CEB.

The other matter that needs to be resolved is the delay in public sector organizations not paying up their bills for electricity on time, and this has caused liquidity problems in the CEB. As a result, the CEB is unable to pay the CPC for the fuel it purchases from the CPC on time and also unable to pay the IPPs for the power it purchases from them on time. With the unbundling of the sector, this system could be improved. Every Distribution Company (DC) should collect the payments due from the consumers on time giving a grace period of say one month. The Transmission Company (TC) should collect the payments from every DC for the electricity sold to them on time and settle the payments due for each of the Generation Companies (GC) on time. The GCs could then settle the payments due for each of the IPPs for the electricity they purchase from them. With the availability of on-line banking facilities and smart metering systems, all these operations could be undertaken without human intervention, other than occasional verification.

 

PRESENT STATUS OF SRI LANKA’S POWER SECTOR

In 1969, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) was established by an Act of Parliament for the purpose of developing and coordinating of generation, supply and distribution of electricity island-wide, taking over the functions of the Department of Electrical Undertakings. By the end of 2018, the total installed capacity has grown to 4,045 MW of comprising 1,400 MW of hydropower plants, 1,137 MW of oil power plants, 900 MW of coal power plants and 608 MW of other renewal energy plants owned by both CEB and independent power producers. The total electricity generation in 2018 was 15,300 GWh, with the per capita electricity consumption 650 kWh, which is only above the least developed countries in Asia. The forecast for generation in 2030 given in CEB’s long term generation plan is around 31,000 GWh.

In 1983, Lanka Electric Company was established as a subsidiary company of the CEB and took over the distribution of electricity in coastal townships between Negombo and Galle, which resulted in reducing the distribution losses. In 2007, the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) was established with the main objective to identify, assess and develop renewable energy resources in the country. However. The SLSEA has been operating more as a regulator than as a promoter of RE projects.

It is noteworthy to compare Sri Lanka’s power sector situation with that of another Asian country, Taiwan, where the population in 2018 (23.78 million) is similar to that of Sri Lanka (21.67 million) and land area (36,200 sq. km) is almost half of Sri Lanka’s (65,610 sq. km). Taiwan’s installed capacity in 2018 was a staggering 44,600 MW comprising 13,000 MW of coal power plants, 16,000 MW of natural gas power plants and 4,500 MW of nuclear power plants, generating 275,500 GWh of electricity in 2018 giving a per capita consumption of 11,585 kWh compared to 650 kWh for Sri Lanka (Wikipedia). The rapid growth of industrialization has been the main driver of the power sector, with a GDP (nominal) per capita of USD 24,800 in 2018 compared to USD 4,100 for Sri Lanka. It will be interesting to find out how Taiwan was able to achieve such high performance in the power sector – whether superior competency and dedication of professionals or correct policies in place or strong political leadership.

 

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY IN SELECTING MAJOR PROJECTS

Unlike in many Asian countries, Sri Lanka has been able to provide electricity to almost 100% of households, which was made possible through funding made available through decentralized budgeting in which provision of electricity to rural villages has been given priority. While the national grid was extended to cover almost the entire island to meet the power demands of every industry, commercial establishment and household, the CEB has not been able to expand its generation capacity correspondingly.

Efforts to build a coal power plant kept dragging for over 20 years at the beginning of the mid-eighties due to the CEB’s failure to initiate a dialogue with the public and concerned parties and vacillating policies of the government. Instead of inviting bids for building a power plant meeting performance and emission specifications from reputed manufacturers internationally and selecting a plant in a transparent manner, the CEB accepted a plant based on outdated technology offered by China on credit. The plant is known to breakdown repeatedly and the CEB is compelled to retain Chinese technicians even today to attend to its maintenance. Though the CEB claims that the coal power plant generates at the lowest cost, when the cost of financing is added, the cost gets more than doubled as revealed by a study undertaken by World Bank team.

On three occasions between 2000 and 2010, Sri Lanka government announced calls for expressions of interest for building thermal power plants on BOOT basis with capacity 1,000 – 1,200 MW, but pursued none. This gives a poor image of Sri Lanka within the international power industry, as the investors have to incur heavy expenditure on site visits and making bid bonds. In one announcement, the fuel option was kept open to solid or liquid or gas and the site to be selected by the investor while in another, the fuel option was specified as coal with the site to be near Hambantota.

In 2005, India offered to build a 500 MW coal power plant at Sampur, near Trincomalee on cost-sharing basis. Negotiations between the Indian party and the CEB kept dragging for five years before the final agreement was entered into and another five years to get feasibility studies and environment impact studies completed as well as other clearances obtained. By that time, the new government had changed its policy to adopt gas power rather than coal power on environmental grounds and the project was aborted. Had the CEB not taken such a long time to finalize the terms and commenced work sooner, the plant would have been built by now. It needs to be stressed that the proposed coal power plant at Sampur was abandoned because the CEB was dragging the project for nearly 10 years. The project took so long to commence work, obviously because it had problems both technical and operational which the CEB was unable to resolve. Hence, it was best to cancel the project and consider a new project afresh.

The latest attempt to build a 300 MW gas power plant at Kerawalapitiya on BOOT basis also got dragging for nearly four years mainly because of the manner in which the project selection process was handled by the CEB. A 500-page request for proposal (RFP) was announced in November 2016 seeking unnecessary details while the more important information essential for making a decision was left out. Such detailed information would have been in order had CEB was paying for the capital expenditure. With a BOOT project, the investor will ensure that a plant worth the money would have been purchased. The CEB will only have to know the price at which energy be sold to CEB and whether the plant satisfies performance and emission specifications laid down by the CEB.

The lack of clarity in the RFP resulted in the matter taken to the courts for a ruling. Though the approval of the Cabinet has already been granted for the project and the new President has directed this project be given priority soon after he was elected, the CEB has still not finalized its acceptance. Instead, the CEB is pursuing building a 300 MW coal power plant at Norochcholai against President’s policy. Incidentally, China was allowed to build a 400 MW gas power plant along with an LNG terminal at Hambantota with no such detailed RFPs announced.

According to a SLSEA Report dated 27.03.2019, several RE projects submitted by investors that have received the approval of the SLSEA since 2016 have been held up as CEB has not agreed to sign power purchase agreements with them, citing a section of the Electricity Act. This includes 101 RE projects with total installed capacity of 3,052 MW comprising 264 MW of mini-hydro plants, 2,028 MW of solar plants, 673 MW of wind plants and 87 MW of other plants, which could generate over 7000 GWh of energy annually. This situation is shown in Fig. 2 in 2018 Annual Report where the growth of energy added from RE projects to the system shows a stagnation between 2015 and 2018, with the value for 2016 showing a drop of 200 GWh compared to other years. It appears that there was no coordination between the CEB and the SLSEA.

 

FLAWED LONG TERM GENERATION EXPANSION PLAN

The CEB during the last few decades has been preparing biennially a long-term generation expansion (LTGE) Plan and the mandate of the Power Ministry specifies that the sector should be developed to comply with the CEB Plan. It is supposed to determine which power technology will be the cheapest in 20 years hence based on current prices. With the cost of generation depending on plant capital cost and fuel prices both of which could vary widely within a span of 20 years, it is futile to make forecasts now as to which technology is the cheapest in 20 years hence and to adopt it. Therefore, to give a mandate to follow the CEB’s LTGE Plan which is highly flawed for the development of the sector, does not make sense. The CEB Plan for 2018-2037 recommends adding 2,700 MW of coal power plants between 2023 and 2037 under Base Case scenario saying it is the cheapest option. However, the 2019 World Bank report cited above says in p. 18 that “coal ceases to be the least cost source of power generation, as cost of power from LNG and NCRE could potentially be lower than US cents 9 / kWh” which is the estimated coal power price.

When the CEB submitted its LTGE Plan for 2018-37 to the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) for approval as required by the Sri Lanka Electricity Act No. 31 of 2013, PUCSL did not approve it but proposed an alternative plan incorporating natural gas power plants in place of coal power plants included in the CEB Plan. The CEB refused to accept this recommendation and the dispute between the PUCSL and the CEB kept dragging for over a year, and the matter was finally referred to the President who gave a directive to the PUCSL to approve the CEB Plan, fearing disruption to the power supply in the country after the CEB Engineers’ Union threatened to resort to industrial action if their demand for coal power plants is not acceded to. This is a clear indication that Sri Lanka’s power sector is being governed not by the PUCSL nor the Ministry nor the Governing Board of the CEB, but by its trade unions. This justifies Prof. Wijayatunga’s statement that “Sri Lanka still needs to go a long way in relation to sector governance”.

 

CONCLUSION

The CEB ha a staff strength about 23,000 with over 1,400 professionals. It is the opinion of several international agencies that this organization be split into several organizations each responsible for different functions undertaken by the CEB, including generation, transmission and distribution. It is expected that such an unbundling process will improve the efficiency, transparency, autonomy, accountability, competition, and financial viability. The CEB has failed miserably in the recent past to increase the generation capacity to meet the growing demand with due consideration for environmental concerns even after granting Cabinet approval for many of them. It has also failed to initiate work on large renewable energy projects for several years, particularly during the last seven months even after the President’s policy of pursuing renewable energy and gas power projects was announced.

Possibly the high inertia of the CEB with its large staff prevents it from being flexible to undertake new projects in keeping with international trends and hence continues to insist on outdated technologies. Hence, it is desirable if the government initiates unbundling of the CEB urgently as recommended by reputed energy experts to make it more flexible. The unbundling will also give an opportunity for the government to get rid of dead wood after giving them a golden hand shake.



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Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole

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By Gwynne Dyer

I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.

The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.

The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.

Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.

Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.

The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.

Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.

Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].

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Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances

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The river we step in is not the river we stand on

By B Nimal Veerasingham

Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.

Peace memorial

This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.

US Foreign Policy

The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.

Fr Eugene Herbert memorial

Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.

Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.

Multi-talented

Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.

Excellence in Basketball

Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.

The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.

Reaching the stars

I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.

The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.

Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.

Last letter

In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.

‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.

The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.

Breaking down societal imbalances

El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.

The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.

This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.

 

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Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs

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By Uditha Devapriya

Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.

In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.

In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.

There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.

Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.

Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.

In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.

Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.

Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.

Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.

Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.

In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.

He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.

Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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