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House debates Power, Energy and Petroleum Ministries

Pouring oil on troubled waters


A.H.M. Fawzie, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Felix Perera and Sagala Rathnayake

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Our Lobby Correspondent  

It is not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people and houses to the homeless.

- American economist Galbraith

The oil and energy debates in Sri Lanka often tend to get divisive with more insults and verbose dominating discussions as opposed to laying bare electrifying facts and an exchange of ideas.

The Committee Stage debate on the Ministries of Power and Energy, Petroleum and Petroleum Resources on Thursday was doomed likewise, except for the contributions made by three opposition legislators who raised issues concerning the public whereas the two cabinet ministers were seen keenly skirting the issues.

UNP's Sagala Ratnayaka made convincing efforts to prove that the government was indeed overselling fuel, making massive profits while denying the public the benefit of purchasing their fuel at a lower price.

Serving the multinationals

In doing so, he said multinational companies were accorded the benefit of purchasing fuel at a much lower price of Rs. 62.61 while ordinary consumers had to pay Rs.142 for petrol and Rs. 95 for diesel.

"When in government, we introduced a pricing formula that was beneficial to all. We gave consumers the benefit. If this is followed, petrol should be offered at Rs. 72, not at Rs. 142. Likewise, diesel should be offered at Rs. 45 and with government taxes, at the final cost of Rs. 55 not Rs. 95," he argued.

 Arguing that when fuel prices increase, naturally transport and production costs record a corresponding increase, Ratnayaka noted that the country's annual power requirement increased by 5% which was by now less than 1%.

"The increasing demand is a healthy economic indicator. That shows the existence and development of industries and individual economies. The current figure shows that we are in economic doldrums."

No relief for the people

Further, the MP scoffed at the government for being generous enough to offer multinational companies fuel at Rs. 62.61 while people were not offered fuel at affordable prices despite this now being a possibility. 'What's more, the minister loved to claim that the CPC was blossoming whereas the CPC's annual report states otherwise,' he added.

But Minister of Power and Energy, John Seneviratne thought for Ratnayaka it was a case of sour grapes as the government had begun to achieve in the power and energy sector, the kind of development story that the UNP failed to achieve.

The Minister said that Upper Kotmale was working brilliantly and soon it would be completed and the plant would meet part of the country's growing energy demand.

"The UNP anyway speaks with a lot of hatred for the Norochcholai coal power project. The opening speaker tried to pinpoint that it was ill conceived because of the cost factor.  What has to be understood is that we are coming up with novel ways to minimise cost in transporting coal to the power plant itself. There is new technology involved and we are finding solutions to the problem of fly ash," Seneviratne noted.

The Minister noted that it was not possible simply to allow the situation to continue as the present demand and the production costs combined could easily create an energy crisis, and lauded the Sri Lankan engineers who constructed Kerawalapitiya well ahead of time to begin contributing to the grid.

Power generation

"Over 30% of the imported fuel is now being channeled for generation of power. We must break the cycle by generating alternate power and diversification," he noted.

Doubling the attack on the energy sector was JVP Kegalle District legislator Gamini Ratnayake who dubbed the CEB as a den of thieves and the Ministry, a group of inefficient administrators hand in glove with corrupt elements.

Ratnayake's tone did not endear him to government members and particularly the likes of Non Cabinet Minister for Power, Mahindananda Aluthgamage who kept opposing the MP's comments, only to be told that he was a useless Minister known for his lack of decorum than contribution to the nation's growth.

Ratnayake spoke about having to pay a Bank of Ceylon overdraft and a loan to the EXIM Bank for Norochcholai at a time when the money raised for the project had been misused.

"The vehicles purchased for the project itself were being used by the ministers and secretaries which is a despicable way of dealing with tax payers' money," he thundered.

"The vehicles are being used," retorted Aluthgamage to be shouted back by Ratnayake, "They are. But not by the project people but the ministers. You are abusing the vehicles when you have state provided vehicles anyway," he accused.

Financial terrorism

He added that there was 'financial terrorism' as opposed to 'LTTE terrorism.' "LTTE terror aims at devastating the country's economy and when there is government financial terror like this, the LTTE finds its task further eased. The only difference is that financial terror has no spots unlike the LTTE, though it has the same objective of destroying the country's economy."

The government launched its own offensive soon with Fisheries Minister Felix Perera lambasting opposition members.

Launching a vituperative attack on Gamini Ratnayake, he noted that the JVP legislator spoke as if he was electrocuted and found it amusing that those who destroyed transformers earlier, were now talking about buying them cheap.

In a speech that did not deal with the real issues or offer answers, the onetime power minister claimed that the UNP was hell bent on portraying oil hedging in a bad light and what people should understand is that when prices increase, the benefit would come to Sri Lanka.

Announcing a government effort to offer two CFL bulbs free of charge to every single consumer, Non Cabinet Minister for Power, Mahindananda Aluthgamage ridiculed all opposition legislators as disgruntled politicians who are forced to stay in opposition.

"I heard so many lies today that I can't remember. MP Dayasiri Jayasekera said we have fuel for seven months in our stores, but I say with responsibility that we can only store for 28 days and no more. We don't have such immense storing capacity," he claimed.

But TNA's Sivanathan Kishore redirected the debate and claimed, for all the government's rhetoric, the northeast remained weak in infrastructure and that there was an obvious reluctance to provide power to the areas.

No development

Castigating the government for indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, he said there was no point in hoisting a national flag in Pooneryn which was an admission that it was not ruled by the Sri Lankan authorities for a long time. "These are laughable things. Instead, what the state should do is to develop the area, not devastate," he said.

Kishore's argument was that the government had never really wanted to develop the northeast. Successive Sinhala governments have failed to develop, provide infrastructure and meet basic needs of the population as a means to proving Sinhala supremacy in Tamil dominant areas, he said.

"You are fighting the LTTE, we can accept that. But why attack civilians and why can't you provide basic infrastructure to our areas," he demanded to know.

With his customary arrogance that is sometimes a blessing and at times like these a curse, Minister of Petroleum and Petroleum Resources A. H. M. Fowzie simply refused to respond to the many matters raised by opposition benches during the debate dismissing them as 'extraneous' and not meriting a response.

"I will respond only if the questions are raised in good faith. These are figments of their imagination and there is no need to reply queries steeped in hatred and dislike," he said.

No price reduction

The Minister said it was pathetic that the opposition made a ritual of calling for a fuel price reduction when fully aware that such 'fluctuations' would not be possible. "Some of these critics don't bother to attend the consultative committees where these matters are dealt with extensively and are often absent when I reply in parliament. There is no case of corruption or mismanagement, except in the minds of a few disgruntled opposition politicians," he sniped.

Attacking the pricing formula introduced by the UNP, Minister Fowzie said that the formula made the former government offer fuel at a lower price but that was done by incurring a loss.

"The loss was something like Rs. 11 billion eventually and you promote the same formula with us. We can't take that same disastrous path. These institutions have to remain viable and that means, we can't alter the prices merely because somebody clamours for it," he said.

The Minister said that oil when ordered took weeks to arrive and it was not possible to immediately acquire fuel. "It is not like walking into the nearest boutique to purchase a banana! This takes weeks. The best is for those who don't understand the topic not to venture into territories unknown," remarked the Minister, having not answered a single query raised during the debate.

Besides, it was unexplained how the President could reduce fuel prices, even for tokenism, when the Ministry stuck to its guns and refused to lower prices 'under any circumstances.

THE LUCKY ONE

Wimal Weerawa-nsa's National Freedom Front (NFF) is indeed a lucky one, what with instant government recognition as an ally and hence the crumbs that freely fall.

Among the thicker crumbs that fell Weerawansa's way is the plush first floor space allocated for his brand new political party. Other political parties find their offices located on the third floor, but as luck would have it, Weerawansa got the only party office with air conditioning!

 Crooked democracy

Due to the sheer size of the present Cabinet, record breaking and qualifying for Guinness recognition to boot has now caused some 21 ministries to be referred to a special standing committee.

The said committee will present a report that is scheduled for debate on December 7 and the outcome is self-explanatory when matters related to 21 ministries are to be debated in a single day and that too, based on a special report.

Though party leaders have every right to suspend Standing Orders and create mechanisms to deal with situations, this is how ridiculous it can get.

Cleansing toes and souls

A deputy minister with a penchant for being a hot favourite among ladies recently accompanied his legal spouse to a reputed salon. The husband was having a pedicure while the lady went for a facial.

But before the husband was ushered into the men's section, the wife had reportedly said with a sigh to the salon staff that what he needed was not to clean his toes but to cleanse his soul.

Baiz and his matter of privilege

It is not always that the aggressor is rendered victim, and in this instance, Deputy Minister of Provincial Councils, K. Abdul Baiz was the aggrieved party raising a matter of privilege about being hindered by parliamentary police.

The MP has every right to raise a matter of privilege and according to him, he had to drive his own vehicle up to the main entrance with no security and the police officer on duty rudely obstructed him.

Baiz bitterly complained that for over 20 minutes he was denied his security, but in the galleries there were whimpers that why a pistol wielding minister (a fact well documented in the media) should worry about the absence of security unless he feels thoroughly unsafe thanks to his track record.

   


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