Accountability and power travail

The rain gods have not smiled and the country is now suffering five hour power cuts, double the burden previously on offer by bungling politicians and bureaucrats who allowed a difficult situation to balloon to crisis proportions. Then minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, at whose door much of the blame for the sorry shape of the Ceylon Electricity Board and the woeful inadequacy of generation capacity must lie, gambled on rain that did not come to discontinue the power cuts as part of the desperate vote hunt during the last election campaign. If political considerations were set aside and the then power cuts continued for as long as they were necessary, the duration of the daily deprivation would certainly have been shorter today.

The only good that the ill-wind has blown is that most of the citizens of the country not rich enough to pay for their private generators must grin and bear the discomfort and the inconvenience. The burden has not only been loaded on the poor as is usually the case. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must ensure that members of his cabinet and other privileged people from the president down are not spared the pain of the power cuts at taxpayer’s expense. Most of the last lot had generators as part of their perks of office and that must not continue under the new order. Who can forget the obscene sight of a huge, spanking new generator sitting on the Galle Road outside Temple Trees when we last had the power cuts? It is easy enough for VIPs to plead security and ensure that they do not live in darkness or by candlelight. But now we have a cessation of hostilities and a reasonable assurance, thanks to international opinion against terrorism, that there will be no more assassinations and the other acts of terror that we have long lived with, the VIPs will be safe without security lights. But they probably will not be comfortable without airconditioning.

This country would have had a better bus and train service than the horror that passes for public transport today if the policy makers and implementors used those self-same services of their own creation instead of riding around in air-conditioned and chauffeured comfort. Except for the privileged few, including the political establishment we have already mentioned, most people — patrician and plebeian — feel the effects of the power cuts. That is why public opinion on the subject has built up to a crescendo awakening the responsible authorities from their deep slumber. Those that matter and those who can make a change also suffer the ill-effects of the lack of electricity that most of us take for granted today. It is indeed salutary that those of us privileged to live outside the war zone are given a taste of the daily travail of people living in those areas who have done without electricity altogether for the past several years now. As the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam used to say, "they live in pre-modern times."

When President J.R. Jayewardene liberalized the economy after his 1977 election landslide and set up the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC), the precursor to the Board of Investment (BOI), cheap power was one of the chief attractions those who marketed Sri Lanka’s first Free Trade Zone (FTZ) at Katunayake offered investors. That was a time that our hydro-electricity capacity, developed by visionaries like D.J. Wimalasurendra, who is all but forgotten today, was sufficient to generate the country’s own power requirements and offer electricity to the consumer at a few cents a unit. But the days of paying even a domestic electricity bill without flinching are long past. Much of the hydro potential in the country has now been exhausted and what was once a thermal back-up for dry weather is now a principal source of generation. Dreams of exporting electricity to South India, once articulated by the late Mr. C.P. de Silva, who long held the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Power in the Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake governments, are now no more. On the contrary, there is talk of getting electricity from India.

Rural electrification was a popular vote-catching slogan. While urban dwellers who have long taken electricity supplies for granted have no right to criticize the provision of this utility to those without the convenience, it is obvious that the CEB planners have fallen flat on their faces in working their supply and demand sums. The generation capacity has not kept pace with increased demand and the objections to a coal plant which should have been operational by now have not helped at all. Both environmental and political considerations came into play in that controversy and the result was that nothing was done while the debate raged endlessly. What is clear is that the necessary political will was lacking to implement a project that must eventually become a reality. The result is that a tremendous economic price will continue to be paid in the interim.

A basic problem is that those responsible for colossal failures are not held to account. The Fiat gas turbine at Sapugaskande that has not been working for the past many months is one example. President Kumaratunga re-appointing General Ratwatte as Power and Energy Minister in 2000, despite his abject failure the first time round from 1994, is another. She took a little time over re-appointing him as Deputy Defence Minister. But as far as she was concerned, her uncle seemed to have done alright in his other portfolio. Being a lady who has consistently boasted about her economic management capabilities, from the vantage of the finance ministry she held, did she not see the frightening pass to which both the CEB and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation had been brought to? Except for a cutting remark or two against a former CEB chairman, Her Excellency like the proverbial monkey saw nothing and heard nothing. Accountability, anybody?

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