Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As Sri Lanka suffers from extraordinary heat, the Government’s decision to impose nation-wide power cuts excepting Colombo city and other ‘privileged’ locations where parliamentarians reside, speaks not only to its witless actions in respect of a major crisis but also imputes a ‘selectiveness’ that has deadly import in an election year.
A Government that cannot ‘govern?
Tellingly, a disgruntled householder in Chilaw exclaimed this week when asked for her reactions by a television, ‘power and water are two basic things that a government is supposed to supply to its people. If it cannot do even that, then what use is it?’ Hardships due to decreased water levels in the reservoirs and the absence of rain are natural and indeed annual occurrences that we ought to be prepared for during these months. But instead of a national sustainable energy policy comprising renewable power solutions as an important part thereof, the public has to suffer major corruption in state bodies responsible for energy generation that goes unchecked and bickering public servants who are as bad as politicians in foisting the blame on each other.
Meanwhile imbecilic political statements offering short term solutions are rife. This week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe asserted that Temple Trees would be powered by generators, which example ought to be followed by others. So is the private supply of power the answer to a brazen political failure to initiate additional power production facilities or solar powered alternatives during the past few years and to tackle the well known ‘power mafia’ in the country? The lack of transparency and accountability on the part of officials in the energy sector is well established.
Neither is the public interested in politicians cackling over each other’s failures as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did a few days ago when he said (wrongly) that the country did not have to undergo electricity crises during his time. ‘In his time’, as we may recall, persistent allegations of gargantuan corruption as well as environmental protests dogged the construction of the Norochcholai Power Plant which was also subjected to constant breakdowns after its commencement in 2011, one very recently. As in the case of the Rajapaksa-initiated Uma Oya project with Iran which resulted criminally in the drying up of water sources in Bandarawela, sub-standard material had been used in the construction of Norochcholai with the full knowledge of former Ministers fattened by massive ‘commissions’, as alleged at the time but with those responsible not being hauled to court.
Questions that have larger import in an election year
On top of the political swindling of the public coffers which is bad enough, there is additional inequity this time around. Colombo and other ‘privileged’ areas are exempted from power cuts imposed on other locations, supposedly on the basis of optimal self-generation. This begs the question as to how many state or private/household units in the capital are indeed powered by electricity for their own use, either through generators or by a third-party under a power-supply contract? On the other hand, if the logic is that Colombo should not suffer power cuts due to impact on city-based businesses and industry, reduced power cuts could be imposed. But why should the capital be exempted from otherwise nation-wide power cuts altogether?
Ironically, the ‘less than equals’ who are financially hit by the power cuts pay taxes and contribute to the public coffers far more diligently than rascally ‘high earners’ in Colombo most culpable in evading taxes or parliamentarians who squander public funds but do not attend parliamentary sessions for the budget vote. So in the name of all that is holy, why are selected suburbs in which Ministers and politicians live, also exempted? These questions have a larger import, impacting negatively on the Government in an election year.
There is a terse saying among rural folk to the effect that it is always, ‘Colombata kiri, apita kekiri,’ which loosely translates to declaring that state policies invariably privilege Colombo, giving the city ‘milk’ while others get the sour ‘kekiri’ (snake cucumber). What is happening now is precisely that, shamelessly and without pretense. This taps into and reinforces the image of the governing United National Party (UNP) as ‘elitist’, particularly under its present leadership which is demonized, fairly or unfairly by that label. This is deadly imagery which the Government, the Prime Minister and a largely incompetent Cabinet should take heed of.
Imbecilic utterances by Ministers
These inequities cannot be explained away by graceful apologies issued by Minister of Power and Energy, Ravi Karunanayake or indeed, by his promising that power cuts will not be imposed during the New Year, next month. These are sops thrown to the populace, scornfully recognised as such. And the Minister may be well advised not to add insult to palpable injury by nonchalantly asking angry citizens to keep two lights switched off in their houses to preserve electricity.
This statement is somewhat akin to the Rajapaksa-era Minister of Education Bandula Gunawardena saying that a family of three could have three square meals and two cups of tea a day for Rs.2500 a month. This asinine assertion was mocked for years thereafter. Similarly, the Power and Energy Minister’s injunction to householders will be added to the peoples’ encyclopedia of stupid political sayings, to be jeered at in perpetuity.
But deadly bumbling of ‘yahapalanaya’ politicians have an additional edge by buttressing the perception that this is a Government which has no thought for the common citizen. While the UNP may justifiably crow about winning the constitutional battle last year, a formidable electoral battle lies ahead. The gains of defeating that unconstitutional capture of power by the Rajapaksas are all but frittered away now, with the opposition skillfully capitalising on popular fury, intensified by the former President’s brother symbolising the ‘strong man’ solution to ‘yahapalanaya’ ills. These are not matters to be complacent about.
Continuing of brainless bumbling
Meanwhile, the Government’s brainless bumbling continues with the expenditure heads of two Ministries (Megapolis and Home Affairs) being defeated in Parliament as Government parliamentarians were not present in the House when the vote was called. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe airily brushed off this astonishing lapse by saying that the expenditure heads will be presented again and that ‘the Government will not collapse.’
On the contrary, that ‘collapse’ is inevitable if not right now, then in the looming polls if ‘yahapalanaya’ absurdities continue. The larger question is about the accountability of the government given the huge amount of public funds expended on maintaining the House. Presence of the government members on the floor of the House when the quorum bells are rung during the budget debate is the minimum. The consequent resignation of the assistant chief government whip is a footnote. Far sterner measures need to be evidenced in regard to absent and errant parliamentarians. But doubtless, that will not happen.
As each Government succeeds the other, with one set of corrupt rascals safeguarding their equally corrupt predecessors, ‘kekiri-eating’ citizens must suffer. This seems to be the unfortunate story of a ‘Dhammadeepa’ which has become anything but the ‘isle of the blessed.’