The 455-Million-Dollar Nobody’s Baby
Just a few months ago Champika Ranawaka was strutting about the political firmament like an up and coming world champ. Sri Lanka, he declared, was the only country in South Asia that did not suffer power cuts. He as the Minister of Power would provide electricity to every household in Sri Lanka before 2013, was his proud boast.
Under his command new power plants had come up. Kerawalapitiya was one and then there was Norochcholai which would be a knock-out in power generation – 300MW plant in the first stage and 900 MW in three phases saving Sri Lanka from a power shortage in the foreseeable future.
However, engineer Ranawaka had tripped himself up severely. He apparently has not been much concerned about the vagaries of the winds – the monsoons. Forty five per cent of the country’s power supply is still generated by hydro power and if the monsoons don’t come in time, as we Sri Lankans say, we will be on: ‘Kota Uda’. The 300MW, USD 455 million Norochcholai plant (first phase) was ceremonially commissioned with much fanfare – surpassing the usual razzmatazz – by President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself with Champika Ranawaka proudly standing beside his great leader on March 22, 2011 at the auspicious hour of 6.27 pm. But the stars and gods had not rallied round this national effort and now Sri Lankans are sweating it out in the hot and humid month of August and swearing at the minister of power who had been thumping himself vigorously on his back for ‘electrifying the country’.
UNPers have taken the opportunity and named the power plant ‘Always Breakdown’, after a local TV comedy and likened it to the government. The Norochcholai plant has had 12 breakdowns since February 2011.
Ranawaka is angry. In an interview with a morning daily on Thursday he has disclaimed responsibility. It is like giving a car to a driver and entrusting responsibility to him. Ministers find funds, investments, and draw up a time frame and oversee the project. He had done just that, he has claimed. “Blaming me for the Norochcholai mess is ridiculous as blaming Bandula Gunawardena for the Z score. (Not a very favourable comparison which the people will accept).
“This is the situation in this country, the minister gets blamed for everything,” he has lamented.
An alert reader on Internet had sent in a stinging reply the same day: ‘When Ministers claim responsibility for every success, they must take responsibility for their failures as well’.
The ire of intelligent readers who would have read the interview is indeed greatly justified. Ranawaka does not take any responsibility for the suffering inflicted on the public.
Aren’t ministers responsible for everything that happens in their ministries? Besides exemption from power cuts appears to go by favour. Most areas of Colombo 7 are exempted so is the area around parliament.
Contrary to what Ranawaka maintains another blog on Internet, News First, quotes the Deputy Chief Engineer of North Electric Power Design Institute who designed the Norochcholai power plant that ‘repeated breakdowns were due to over utilisation of the power plant without annual maintenance after the extended drought reduced 80 per cent of hydro power generation. The plant was forced to work beyond its required limits and keep supplying electricity to the whole country’.
The obvious question minister Ranawaka should ask is who is to blame for the gross irresponsibility of working the plant without annual maintenance? The minister himself, the CEB or the foreign consultants deployed?
The Minster identified some problems that were created before he took charge of the Ministry of Power. The first problem was with the initial plan. Coal has to be transported from about 4 km offshore by barges to the plant as the waters off shore are too shallow for ships.
This would not have happened if the plant was located at Trincomalee. The location of the plant was due to protests from ‘several influential quarters’ he says. By this he obviously means the Catholic Bishop who objected to the location on environmental grounds. This shifts responsibility to the Rajapaksa government itself. Was the $ 455 million project wrongly located and the construction expedited for reasons not yet declared? When the plant begins smooth operations the problem of bringing in the coal will remain for the sea floor will not sink even if the ministry so wishes? Some alternate way of transporting coal from ship to shore will have to come in, of course at tremendous cost.
Minister Ranawaka has said that a troika is responsible for running of the project – the Chinese company CMEC responsible for the construction, a Swiss Company, Pyori, consultants to supervise the CMEC and the CEB. No building or installation without the consent of all three is possible and they have to be held responsible.
But shouldn’t the minister, an engineer himself bear some responsibility? In the interview he dismisses such a view although the impression created among the public is that he is the brains behind the Norochcholai operation where its benefits are concerned.
Now that the performance of the $455 million project is in question certain issues that the public at large is generally unaware of arise. Were tenders for the construction of the plant called for or is it secretive as armaments purchases from China? Ranawaka should declare hitherto undeclared aspects of the Chinese deal because it will be the people at large who will have to foot the bill.
The Norochcholai power plant appears to be nobody’s baby. If Minister Ranawaka is not responsible for the defaults, who is?