By Rajan Philips –
For several days now there have been many news reports and editorials about the state of affairs at Lanka’s first coal-fired power plant at Norochcholai, which is also the first Chinese-built power plant in the country. Hapless consumers are bracing for blackouts or higher tariffs, or both. And the only people answering questions about Norochcholai are the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Engineers. No Minister, no all-powerful Secretary, and no charming Percy, the President – have been either seen or heard on the matter. There is an old maxim among policy analysts – there is no policy matter that is purely technical and which can be solved entirely through technical means.
And on a matter such as Norochcholai, the subject Minister must be seen and heard not only in the public domain, assuring the people, but also in the technical and professional realms, making sure that the right professionals and the right resources are assigned to get the problem fixed. And more, to find out what went wrong at Norochcholai, why is the plant in ‘always breakdown’ mode, what can be done with this Chinese albatross, and how such mishaps can be prevented in future power plants? Engineers and their technical inputs are a necessary part of this process but they alone cannot ask all the searching questions and provide comprehensive answers.
Further, this is also a matter that merits the President’s personal interest and intervention. I cannot think of any other matter that arose this week as being more critical and important than the Norochcholai breakdown. And it is not a matter that propped up suddenly day before yesterday. The fuse went off last April (2013) when the government introduced ridiculously conceived tariff increases that made no sense technically and hit the people hard in their pockets. Politically inexplicably, the tariff increases came when hydropower generation was at full throttle with the reservoirs brimful, prompting an electric spat between the ex (Patali Champika Ranawaka) and the current (Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi) Ministers in charge of Power and Energy. It was Patali vs Pavithra, as I called it then. Good enough for tele-drama, but the people were in no mood for cheap amusements.
Even then the President ignored Vasudeva Nanayakara’s plea for an emergency cabinet meeting and limited himself to making casual assurances at his monthly media breakfast – that the rate hikes were “a temporary measure taken to recover the losses incurred”, and that the rates would come down once the second and third phases of the Norochcholai coal power plant were completed, as then expected, by December 2013. Never mind that electricity experts immediately contradicted the claim that the rate hikes were a temporary blip. Never mind also that barely within days of presidential nonchalance, DEW Gunasekara, the government’s senior minister and only one in possession of wisdom, spoke to IMF officials in Colombo of “the catastrophic situation in the power sector”. What the IMF officials heard from DEW was not heeded by the President.
Here we are in January 2014. Norochcholai is shutdown as always. That is Phase 1, mind you. Don’t talk about Phase 2 and Phase 3. Hydropower generation is below capacity with much-less than full reservoirs in the central hills. At the same time, freakish nature is inundating the north-central and eastern plains awash in flood waters. The National Movement of Electricity Consumers (NMEC) has predicted that the country would experience blackouts. Believe it or not, there are thirty organizations affiliated to the NMEC, illustrating the widespread consumer experience of and concern over the electricity power crisis. DEW Gunasekera is not known for exaggerations, and he was right on the mark in calling the power situation a catastrophe. But where is the rest of the government? Where is the President? You should know. They have other priorities.
No Electricity, More Elections
If the power at Norochcholai is in ‘Always Breakdown’ mode, the power of the Rajapakasa Government is in ‘Always Election’ mode. There can be 101 reasons why that is so, but one of the reasons is simply that elections are the only thing that the President and his government are good at doing and winning. More like a gambler who keeps winning by pre-fixing every deal of the cards. Everything else is secondary, just as everything else is to the gambler. The over-erudite commentators, who peddle sovereignty arguments in defence of the Rajapaksa-obsession with elections, without calling it for its self-serving prodigality, must experience electricity blackouts without private generators for reality enlightenment.
So last week, while nothing was burning at Norochcholai, the President was busy burning his charm at Temple Trees to successfully enlist Hirunika Premachandra, the pretty daughter of the late Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, to become a co-organizer of the SLFP for the Colombo Central electorate. Fawning commentators have called it another Mahinda Rajapaksa masterstroke comparing it to the President’s poaching of Dayasiri Jayasekera from the UNP to run and win as UPFA figurehead in the North Western Provincial Council election last year. It might seem remarkable, although to my mind – remarkable for all the wrong reasons, that the President and his brothers have been able to independently accommodate each of the two families whose macho male members were involved in a public shootout during the local government elections in October 2011. Premachandra was a tragic victim in that illegal, needless and senseless shootout. His adversary in the shootout has been receiving maximum state protection, and now the daughter is anointed as an SLFP co-organizer for Colombo Central. Implicated in this ambidextrous accommodation is a blatant compromising of the legal process, and only political charlatans can see some masterstroke in this sordid business.
My point, though, is something else. It is about presidential priorities. When the country’s newest and one of its largest power plants is shutdown, for the 30th time in two years, shouldn’t that occupy all the energies of the nation’s Chief Executive Officer even for one day in a critical week? Instead, all that the country hears about is presidential prodigality over provincial elections and his anointing of a young and telegenic person as SLFP co-organizer for Colombo Central. Earlier I remarked that elections are the only thing that the Rajapaksa government is good at. Put another way, there is little evidence that the Ministers and Brothers of the Rajapaksa regime have a special interest in a particular field of policy, or the inclination to take a difficult file and deal with it. With overall mismanagement and ministerial incompetence, every file has now become a difficult file, but it is fair to say that the electricity and education files present the most difficult challenges that the government has to deal with.
Not every Head of State or Head of Government is expected to be like Bill Clinton, known to browse through and master briefing binders on chemical weapons or economic crises while doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle; or, like Manmohan Singh, who could cite Keynes and explain economic theories at G20 Summits. But serious political leaders are known to preoccupy their minds with serious questions. Sri Lanka has had such a tradition in the past with different leaders having their preferred pursuits, such as: Senanayakes, CP de Silva and Philip Gunawardena (Irrigation/Agriculture); SWRD Bandaranaike (Local Government); GG Ponnambalam, TB Subasinghe (Industry); NM Perera (Budget Process and Gem Industry); Bernard Soysa (Public Finance); Colvin R.de Silva and Doric de Souza (Plantations); Premadasa, Pieter Keuneman (Housing) etc. etc. This mountain stream tradition has now ended in mud.
The formal and informal linkages between the state (cabinet and senior public officials), industry, and the academia, which are vital to any country’s economic growth and development, are sadly missing in Sri Lanka. The electricity and education sectors are glaring examples of this desideratum. The linkages obtaining in Sri Lanka are the linkages of corruption, and the better parts of the industry and the entirety of the academia (except academic bureaucrats) are totally alienated from the state. Sri Lankans would be better served if there are frequent discussions at Temple Trees between government leaders and electricity experts, than they would be by breakfasts and high teas for political hangers on and telegenic neophytes.
So what has gone wrong at Norochcholai? I would suggest that Sri Lanka is the misguided victim of uneven standards and quality control in China’s industrial exports. At its best China’s technology can compete with that of any other country in the world. At its worst, or close to it, we get Norochcholai. Some Chinese firms have won contracts for spectacular projects in Europe and in the US including a new suspension bridge in San Francisco that would rival the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Other Chinese firms produce power plant equipment for Sri Lanka. It may be that the highest quality is assured when the buyer pays outright cash as California is paying (US $7 billion) for the new San Francisco bridge and substandard and always breakdown plants are delivered when they are supplied on credit, or loan, or grant, to a captive recipient like Sri Lanka. Beggars cannot be choosy, as Sarath Fonseka once admonished Sri Lankan minorities during his military glory days.
For China, a failed contract or sub-standard supply is a drop in the ocean. For Sri Lanka, an always breakdown power plant is a national nightmare. The way to prevent such procurement fiascos, is to follow standard procedures that were followed in the development of Sri Lanka’s other power plants. It would seem that CEB Engineers were not allowed to follow due process and procedure in the procurement of the Norochcholai power plant. Even the operating manual for the plant is apparently in Chinese-only! The matter is too serious to say that this is funny comeuppance for Sri Lanka’s one official language only policy, or to ask that who in the government failed to advise the Chinese supplier that Sri Lanka has a tri-lingual policy under President Rajapaksa. But that is how (not to invoke Wittgenstein) things are in Sri Lanka. The question is how would the Rajapaksa government deal with it? “More elections”, the wag is laughing.