Kath Noble

A problem of power

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 6, 2013

On the reshuffle and what it tells us about how the country is being run 

Harry JayawardenaThat MPs have lost interest in democracy was clear from the impeachment of the Chief Justice. But even the rewards given to those who played important roles in that process reveal just what a state Parliament is in.

Last week’s reshuffle was very limited in scope. The major changes were the elevation to the position of Minister of Petroleum Resources of Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who headed the Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated the charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, and the promotion of Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who led the group of five MPs who handed over the impeachment motion to the Speaker, as Minister of Power and Energy.

They have been rewarded for their service to Mahinda Rajapaksa. But just look at their rewards! The only way in which these positions can be considered rewarding is in terms of the potential they offer for corruption – bribes and jobs for hangers-on.

In every other sense, they are god-awful jobs.

The incumbents are blamed for the regular and egregious failures of the institutions within their purview, which are brought to public notice whenever the prices of electricity and fuel are increased, and then again when these price increases are used to justify increases in the prices of pretty much every other necessity. But the ministers are usually near powerless to make any important changes.

Both sectors are totally mired in corruption, of a kind that only a concerted effort by the Government as a whole could hope to tackle.

When the ministers are from the SLFP, they don’t even get to decide who to appoint to key posts such as the chairmanships of the CEB and the CPC. The President gives the orders, and the appointees know it. They don’t bother about what their ministers say.

Susil Premajayanth, who lost the portfolio of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources last week, faced a lot of criticism over the import of substandard oil, which is estimated to have cost the country hundreds of millions of rupees. Perhaps he was indeed to blame. But it is rather more likely to have been the work of the CPC Chairman at the time, Harry Jayawardena.

Ravaya has alleged that this same man used his position to extract a similarly large amount from the CEB – he withheld oil from the CEB so that it could not operate its own power plants and instead had to purchase electricity from private power producers.

Coincidentally, he is the director of a company that generates as much as 10% of the country’s total power requirement!

Appointing people with such obvious vested interests demonstrates the complicity of the President.

Champika Ranawaka was slightly better off at the Ministry of Power and Energy, as he did at least get to pick his own people. But in a rather unique development in the history of trade union agitation, he was compelled to withdraw them following a strike by engineers.

While this is the kind of activism that the Government is usually very eager to crack down on, including with the use of the military, it for some reason felt that this was a special case.

If the minister is not even in a position to decide who should be the CEB Chairman, what chance does he have of tackling the endemic corruption in the sector, which Ranawaka said when he was appointed was his main priority? (He also claimed that he was determined to make Sri Lanka an energy hub, but we can pretend that we have forgotten that since it was a very silly idea.)

Engineers are now ruing his departure, interpreting it as a sign that the Government is planning on privatisation.

The UNP claims that the reshuffle was done at the behest of India, since Ranawaka was seen as the main obstacle to starting work on the Sampur coal power plant. He probably was delaying it, but there is a bigger story here.

It was not only with regard to Sampur that Ranawaka was raising objections. Ravaya has also reported that he was opposing the handover of the Norochcholai coal power plant to China.

Although China built Norochcholai, it is the Government that owns and operates it. China lent Sri Lanka the money to pay for it, but that loan will soon have to be repaid. The suggestion is that rather than repaying, the Government could hand over the plant instead. As far as China is concerned, this would be great news, since it would have employed its own people, equipment and materials in building a plant that would not need to concern itself with the cost of its output since it would be to Sri Lankans and not Chinese that it would be sold. Meanwhile, its company has positioned itself very nicely to secure a whole range of other projects, many of which may be happening only because it has ‘somehow’ managed to convince officials that they would be a good idea.

It has already been given a maintenance contract for Norochcholai because there didn’t seem to be any other way of stopping the plant breaking down on a regular basis, so it is not hard to imagine the Government deciding that it would be easier still to let China have the whole thing.

The trouble with the power sector is that there is always a lag between when foolish mistakes are made and when the public feels the impact. Price increases of recent years are the result not of what this administration has done but of what its predecessors did or failed to do, in particular the decision to allow private power producers and the terms of the agreements signed with them.

Such concerns are behind opposition to the handing over of Norochcholai to China. It may give relatively cheap power now, but who knows what it will ask for later.

As a joint venture, Sampur is less of a problem, but Ranawaka told the Sunday Times last month that India was demanding an excessive return on its investment and also an excessive rate of interest on the loan that it is giving the Government for its part of the project.

Whether it is to private power producers or foreign countries, relinquishing control of a strategic sector like power is inherently risky.

Just a week before the reshuffle, Minister of International Monetary Cooperation and Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning Sarath Amunugama spoke in favour of privatisation, and Ranawaka shot him down. But now Ranawaka is gone.

Time will tell if that too is a coincidence.

It would seem that his successor at the Ministry of Power and Energy, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, has no particular views about anything, which is fortunate for her, since she would anyway not be allowed to act on them!

The reshuffle has been criticised for adding to the already unbelievably heavy burden Sri Lanka has to bear due to the proliferation of ministers, which is certainly fair. Surely no other country in the world has a cabinet consisting of nearly one third of MPs! The cost is far more than the Rs. 32 million that the Government admits to spending monthly on each one, since this amount is only to pay their salaries and allowances and to provide them with basic facilities.

But while ministers are proliferating, power is continuously being concentrated and centralised. They are there literally only to make up the numbers in Parliament.

The question is when MPs will remember that their emasculation is possible only because they agree to it.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 6th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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