ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 4, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 23

Kegalle power project hit by power games?

By Sujeewa Edirisingha

Political interference appears to have abruptly brought to a halt a private power project and drinking water scheme in Kegalle, The Sunday Times learns. The Central Environmental Authority had initially given the green light in 2002 for this Rs. 600 million Asian Development Bank funded Boruka Power Lanka (Pvt) Ltd. project, but recent protests by villagers has prompted CEA Chairman Udaya Gammanpila to suspend it.

The move has disrupted plans to increase water supply to the Kegalle town--including the hospital which is currently facing a water shortage--and the Hettimulla area, while power supply from this project to the national grid has been halted. Mr. Gammanpila who visited the area last week after a section of the villagers held a protest campaign saying the project would inundate their houses, had directed that the sluice gates be opened and the project suspended.

Protesting villagers

The Sunday Times was told that it had all begun after Kegalle district’s JVP MP Anurudda Polgampola had visited the area and formed an organization comprising some villagers who were opposed to the project as it was flooding some areas. Subsequently Deputy Finance minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya had also made representations about the project to the CEA. However many villagers were unaware that the CEA itself had approved the project in 2002 after the Galigamuwa Pradeshiya Sabahawa had granted permission.

The CEA has now suspended the project on grounds that it is illegal. It says although the power station has been constructed in a location that comes within the purview of the Galigamuwa Pradeshiya Sabhawa, the weir (small dam) across the Gurutota Oya has been constructed in an area that comes under the Kegalle Divisional Secretariat area. The Sunday Times learns that the company concerned had forwarded all the relevant documents to the CEA and gained prior permission before the project was commissioned in April this year.

The other issue cited by CEA for the suspension of the project was that the weir had been constructed three feet higher than the approved level, thereby flooding some areas. The company has reportedly conceded that it had gone beyond the permitted limit, but was willing to compensate affected residents and take remedial measures.

The villagers appear to be divided over the project with one group backed by the JVP opposing it and the rest insisting that it be allowed to continue while looking into the problems of villagers, including the flooding issue.“This area has got flooded several times before, Even in 1989 before any weir was constructed floods affected this area badly. Therefore the flooding issue is not new and some of the villagers have been politically motivated,” says Neil Ratnayaka, the Secretary of one of the organisations set up to look into the interest of the villagers.

The organization known as the Gurugoda Oya Jala Viduli Kandulu Samithiya has collected the signatures of more than 700 residents and forwarded an appeal to the District Secretary calling for steps to ensure that the villagers are not inconvenienced by this project.

This organization however is not opposing the project.“We feel that it is important to provide power and water to the people. If we only look into our personal interests there will be no development at all,” Mr. Ratnayaka said. However, others point out that the project was causing environmental problems including the flooding of houses and erosion of the river banks.

A representative of one of the JVP backed organizations opposing the project, A. Tharaka, said that they believe that proper approval had not been granted for the project and were therefore calling for its suspension. Meanwhile Mr. Gammanpila told The Sunday Times that he visited the location following complaints from Minister Siyambalapitiya and MP Polgampola and found that the weir had been built higher than the level permitted and that approval from the relevant local authority had not been obtained.

The power house

He said that he had suggested to the management, that if they were to continue with the project they would have to carryout a hydrological survey and submit a proposal on how they could prevent the problem of flooding. He said they would also have to get the permission from the relevant divisional secretary to resume the project.

Mr. Gammanpila said he believed that the problem arose as a result of the government in 2002 ignoring certain environmental requirements for mini-hydro projects due to the urgent requirement of additional power supply in view of the prevailing power crisis. However, changing policies according to requirements of the hour have now put the investor in jeopardy and triggered off a shortage of water supply to the Kegalle town including its main base hospital.

The matter is expected to come up tomorrow at the Cabinet sub committee that goes into foreign investments through the BOI.President Mahinda Rajapaksa presides at these meetings.

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