17th February  2002, Volume 8, Issue 31















A nation in the dark

It isn't all roses being Karu Jayasuriya. Being among the handful of ministers who had the clout to choose their own ministries, Jayasuriya's choice of Power and Energy, at first seen to be an act of courage, is fast beginning to look like a blunder of epic proportions. Unlike Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has almost 15 years of ministerial experience behind him, Jayasuriya has been a minister but two months. Nevertheless, he is seen as the Honest John of the UNP cabinet, being arguably the only minister to stand alongside the premier as a genuine apostle of honest politics. Honesty alone, however, will not deliver the goods.

No one questions that the power cuts now being inflicted on the country are a legacy of the People's Alliance. When Jayasuriya took his oaths on December 12, he pledged to solve the crisis in six months or quit. The statement last week by the CEB union that this is a most unlikely outcome now places Jayasuriya's future in jeopardy. Now, two months into his six, he continues to stick obstinately by that pledge. Though no one doubts he will keep to his word, the price of failure cannot be merely Jayasuriya being out of a job, what is more, a job he has held just two months. That will hardly brighten our nights.

The UNF came into office claiming to be a vehicle of progress and discipline. We are yet to see much of either, and the power crisis is as good a case in point as any. The country lacks a generating capacity of some 300 - 400 megawatts. This is not something that can be put right in six months, at least not at rates that consumers will be willing to pay. What could save the day, and possibly Jayasuriya's job, will be the southwest monsoon rains in May. But that is neither here nor there. The country needs a major power station that will generate at least a further 1,000 megawatts, and that will be some years in coming. What Jayasuriya could start by doing is announcing where he will base this, how it will be funded, when work will start, and when it will be complete. With this information in hand, industry can plan ahead.

Nevertheless, Jayasuriya must also give us a clear idea of what we are to expect until a long-term solution is found. What will be the country's power situation until the monsoon rains? There are only two ways of addressing this. First, he must make a credible appeal to the nation to save energy, especially at the daily peak consumption period of 5 - 11 p.m. This must include a blackout of all electrical displays and non-essential usage; advertisements on television and radio during the period asking people to switch off non-essential appliances, and the like. There is no question of trying to enforce savings through emergency regulations; however, given Jayasuriya's high standing with the public, a genuine and well-communicated appeal will have an effect, especially if he persuades local authorities and civic minded high-profilers (such as temples) to follow his example. That is the velvet glove approach.

Then there is the iron fist approach. That is that we have to face the fact that electricity is a commodity just like any other, and has to be paid for. The 'free lunch' of subsidised electricity must go, and everyone must be made to pay for what they consume. The UNF should set the tone by explaining to the people that we cannot be a nation of beggars. Avoiding that fact goes contrary to the 'discipline' Jayasuriya and Wickremesinghe talked so much about when seeking office. At present, industry pays around Rs. 6 per kWh unit of electricity, whereas domestic consumers pay around 25% less than that, with many smaller consumers paying much less. The cost of generation however, is much nearer Rs. 6 per unit than Rs. 4.50, so the effective subsidy has to be ended with everyone paying the higher rate. People will not like it, but they cannot have something for nothing. If Jayasuriya communicates this reality effectively to the consumers, they can hardly complain.

The subject of tariff reform must also look to the future. Just as SLT's telephone rates vary according to the time band, so should the CEB's tariff. Of course, this needs the present meters to be replaced with higher-technology time-based energy metres, but these are already available in the market. Whoever thought in 1980 that every urban house could be fitted with a water meter? Yet, it was almost painlessly achieved in less than a year. This will make people aware that electricity consumption during peak hours will cost more, and they will therefore use less.

Increasing the rate to Rs. 6 will almost immediately end the power cuts, for then it will be not just economical but actually profitable for the private sector to become net power producers. Thanks to a history of power cuts, Sri Lanka's offices and factories are all equipped with standby generators. The installed capacity of generators with an output of more than 100 kilowatts adds up to almost 300 megawatts island wide.

At present, the CEB offers to pay Rs. 3.50 per unit to these potential producers to run their generators for 6 - 10 hours a day and feed the grid, which will be more than sufficient to end the power cuts, especially if consumption falls as a result of a public appeal and increased prices. However, Rs. 3.50 per unit hardly covers the cost of fuel, and it is an insult to ask private companies to sell power to the CEB at Rs. 3.50 when the CEB in turn charges them almost Rs. 6 per unit.

Finally, there is the question of the CEB itself. As much as it may try to blame the crisis on politicians, the real problem lies in the CEB's notorious inefficiency. Like Sri Lanka Telecom used to be before privatisation, the CEB has grown fat on inefficiency and lethargy. Who would have thought that the same engineers, technicians and linesmen who idled in SLT's tea rooms six years ago would today be working like bees, responding to repair calls in just half and hour? What is more, this remarkable boost in efficiency has been achieved with no complaints whatever from SLT's staff, who are clearly proud of their new private sector image. That quantum leap in efficiency however, was thanks to the courage of Mangala Samaraweera, who deftly saw the privatisation scheme through, and also opened the doors to private operators like Suntel and Lanka Bell.

The time is ripe for Karu Jayasuriya to initiate reforms of the CEB too, privatising it into production, distribution and retail companies. If Jayasuriya commits himself to bold, imaginative and positivist action, he may irk the unions, but he will win public support and sympathy. When Anuruddha Ratwatte took on the CEB on in 1996 and arrested key troublemakers, public support for his action was so strong that no one objected. Likewise, with the crisis that now faces the country, Jayasuriya should stop trying to play Mr Nice Guy and take bold and decisive steps, taking the public into his confidence. The medicine the country has to take may well be bitter, but it is better to take bitter medicine than starve the economy to death. It is to the people of Sri Lanka that Jayasuriya should look for support to end the power crisis, and not to deities and clerics such as the Vedahitikanda priest. The issue is not Jayasuriya's resignation should he fail: it is whether he can fulfil even a small part of the high expectations of courage and decisiveness that the electorate reposed in his party when they voted it into office on December 5.  




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