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Editorial

When generosity leads to trouble

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Saturday 11th September, 2021

The incumbent government undertook to ensure that the law of the land would apply equally to all citizens. But the quarantine law is being enforced selectively. An elderly person was taken into custody in Jaffna, on Monday, because a large number of people who gathered near his house to receive Rs. 2,000 each from him did not follow the health regulations. People behave in a similar manner elsewhere as well when they collect money distributed by the government as pandemic relief, but nobody is taken into custody. What the health officials and the police should have done in Jaffna was to facilitate the distribution of cash by controlling the crowd instead of taking action against the Good Samaritan. We are reminded of King Kekille’s court. (Legendary Kekille always rushed to the wrong conclusions in hearing cases, punished the innocent and set the guilty party free.)

Philanthropists like the Jaffna man and his son, who is reported to have sent funds to the tune of Rs. 20 million, from overseas, for distribution among the poor families in the area at the rate of Rs. 2,000 each, deserve praise and worthy of emulation. They have come forward to help fellow citizens in these troubled times unlike the conscienceless wealthy Sri Lankans who fleece pandemic victims by jacking up prices of food items, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and private hospital charges. How low they are prepared to stoop in profiteering has become evident from the sheer amounts of goods hoarded in their warehouses. If the super-rich in this country parted with a fraction of their wealth as pandemic relief, the poor would not hit the sack on empty stomachs.

The funeral of a wealthy gem businessman was held, the other day, amidst a large gathering that included government and Opposition politicians, but nobody got arrested for violating the quarantine law. Is it that in the government’s book, all are equal before the law but the wealthy are ‘more equal than others’? When a conman called Dhammika Bandara sold a herbal syrup, some months ago, touting it as a cure for Covid-19, thousands of people converged on a hamlet in Kegalle to buy it, but the police did not swoop on the culprit, who had government backing.

Those who masterminded the Treasury bond racket and the sugar tax scam under the previous government and the current dispensation respectively and caused losses amounting to billions of rupees to the state coffers have gone scot-free. No serious effort has been made to bring back former Central Bank Governor Arjun Mahendran from Singapore to stand trial over the bond racket, and the sugar tax scam has gone uninvestigated. The government and the Opposition seem to think that the two mega rackets have cancelled each other out; they have stopped flogging the issues as if they had reached an understanding thereon. Mahendran was allowed to leave the country, and the police are now colluding with the present government to open escape routes via Hulftsdorp for the ruling party crooks who have stolen public funds. The Attorney General’s Department has withdrawn cases against some lawbreakers much to the dismay of the law-abiding citizens who expected them to be thrown behind bars.

Those who plunder the national wealth are let off the hook while legal action is taken against the kind-hearted people who share part of their wealth with the needy. It is hoped that the police and judicial officials will be lenient in handling the generous souls who may unwittingly violate the health regulations in trying to ameliorate the suffering of fellow citizens. In one of her fabulous songs, Nanda Malini, pointing out the absurdity of that law that punishes the progressive people who are on a mission to change the country for the better, questions the purpose of having a legal system and a judiciary —kumata erata adhikaranaya, neethiya saha vinisuran? One also remembers Mr. Bumble (in Dickens’ Oliver Twist), who says the law is an ass – an idiot.



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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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Editorial

Riprap and riff-raff

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Saturday 25th September, 2021

Sri Lankans, troubled by lockdown blues and thirsting for entertainment, must be thrilled to watch, on television, some government politicians, engaged in turf wars, wash dirty linen—loads and loads of it—in public. An SLPP politician from Polonnaruwa has got down and dirty with his bete noire from the same district.

State Minister Roshan Ranasinghe has accused SLPP MP and former President Maithripala Sirisena of trying to sabotage a government plan to build a walking path on the riprap or ralapanawa of the Parakrama Samudraya, Polonnaruwa. An ardent supporter of the project, he has gone ballistic on several occasions during the past few days, and torn into Sirisena and his family. The latest allegation he has levelled against the Sirisenas is that they have encroached on the outermost boundary or the thavulla of the Parakrama Samudraya although the former President is now campaigning against the walking track project on the grounds that it will affect the antiquities in the area.

Even those who may not see eye to eye with State Minister Ranasinghe on the walking track project will agree that something must be done about the many illegal constructions in the Parakrama Samudraya reservation; they include a hotel owned by Sirisena’s younger brother, Dudley. No action has been taken against the wealthy and politically influential encroachers all these years. If only Ranasinghe had taken up this issue before falling out with the Sirisena family.

Ranasinghe is hitting the Sirisenas where it hurts most; one may say, with apologies to the Bard, hell hath no fury like a politician whose interests are threatened. He is on a campaign against the rice millers who are hoarding paddy, manipulating the market and making huge profits at the expense of farmers and consumers. The Sirisena family and its relatives own most of the large-scale rice mills in the country. But Ranasinghe is likely to abandon his campaign against illegal constructions on the tank reservation and the Millers’ Mafia if the former President extends his support for the jogging track, or the government leaders intervene to reconcile the warring parties. There’s the rub.

The thavulla of the Parakarama Samudraya must be resurveyed urgently and all unauthorised buildings thereon pulled down immediately without compensation. The Sirisenas who claim to be so concerned about the tanks in Polonnaruwa and antiquities in the area will not be in a position to protest. After all, this is exactly what the Rajapaksas were planning to do after Sirisena’s defection from their government, in late 2014, to run for President. The then Opposition claimed that the Rajapaksas had the Parakarama Samudraya filled to its full capacity, and part of Sirisenas’ hotel on its thavulla inundated. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 presidential race saved the day for the Sirisenas! Otherwise, the Millers’ Mafia would have been crushed and the hotel demolished. Now the Rajapaksas and the Sirisenas have closed ranks for expediency, and Ranasinghe is fighting a losing battle.

The need for protecting the Parakrama Samudraya against encroachments has been felt for a long time, but successive governments have ignored it for political reasons. (Sri Lankan politicians will not hesitate even to sell the tanks built by kings to a foreign company if the right prices are offered.) Those who are genuinely concerned about the safety of the Parakrama Samudraya, which is part of the country’s heritage, must campaign hard for preventing its bund from being damaged and having its thavulla fully restored.

Buddhist monks may be divided on the walking path project, but there is no reason why they cannot unite to have the Parakrama Samudraya thavulla saved if they really love the country and its heritage. It is hoped that they will act independently to ensure the safety of the tank’s thavulla and riprap without siding with the political riff-raff at war.

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