By Uditha Jayasinghe
The Government appears to have changed track on scrapping the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) with moves being made to appoint new commissioners, a top official said yesterday.
Following the present commissioners decision to step down after a call from Treasury Secretary S. R. Attygalle on Tuesday, the Government is said to appoint a new set of commissioners shortly with the commission’s Chairman already earmarked. The decision to continue with PUCSL has been welcomed though some are wary about whether the regulatory body will be independent and effective. The move also came under heavy criticism by the Opposition, professionals and civil society.
The incumbent Commissioners who were requested to step down were Chairman Prof. Kithsiri Liyanage, Prof. Kapila Perera, Chandra Ekanayake, Dr. Nishan De Mel and Sadun Gamage. PUCSL commissioners are typically appointed for a five-year term. PUCSL sources confirmed Prof. Kapila Perera and Chandra Ekanayake have already handed in their resignation letters, while the rest are expected to do so within this week.
“The Commissioners were compelled to step down. The Government can choose to appoint new Commissioners but the issue here is that it undermines to the credibility and independence of the PUCSL. When there is a commission whose members can be removed at will, then its power is diminished and its capacity as the power sector regulator is undermined,” the PUCSL source told Daily FT, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Industry stakeholders also said that the Government could have deviated from its plan to remove the PUCSL due to the complexity of the process, which would require new legislation to be approved by Parliament. However, experts also warned that the new Commissioners could support the Government to scrap the power regulator eventually and give greater autonomy to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), which functions as a monopoly.
Officials close to the PUCSL confirmed that at least two power projects proposed by the Government had resulted in a stalemate between the commission and the Government; namely setting up a new coal power plant without a tender process, and moves to change a power purchase agreement for a new LNG power plant after negotiations had concluded.
“Having the PUCSL rubber-stamp the agreements would have smoothened away any legal concerns. A PUCSL that is compliant is easier for the Government than doing away with it entirely,” the source added.
Controversy over the PUCSL erupted after President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera last week wrote a letter to Secretary Attygalle, calling for the PUCSL to be dissolved.
Dr. Jayasundera instructed Attygalle to move ahead with the necessary procedural steps to close the PUCSL and take steps to absorb the technical staff to the National Planning Department and also deploy such staff to the Power Ministry.
Dr. Jayasundera, in his letter, stated that the PUCSL Act would be replaced in due course, and that certain relevant provisions in the Act could be incorporated in the Consumer Affairs Authority Act and Ceylon Electricity Board Act.
Industry experts and Opposition Parliamentarians have warned that scrapping the PUCSL would harm Sri Lanka’s power sector, opening the door to corruption, reduce oversight of the CEB, curtail investment from multilateral agencies, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and undermine public interest.