Special ministerial committee grills CEB; evidence emerges that little or no maintenance work carried out Sirisena furious, as President’s House loses power, walks out complaining of embarrassment if foreign dignitary was present Rajapaksa romps back, roars at Hyde Park saying ‘if you can’t rule, give it to me’; conflict over 38 dissident MPs It was [...]


Power failures deal blackout blow to Govt.


  • Special ministerial committee grills CEB; evidence emerges that little or no maintenance work carried out
  • Sirisena furious, as President’s House loses power, walks out complaining of embarrassment if foreign dignitary was present
  • Rajapaksa romps back, roars at Hyde Park saying ‘if you can’t rule, give it to me’; conflict over 38 dissident MPs

“We wish to build a new Lanka - allow us to do this”, was the thene of the massive UNP parade and rally held at Lipton’s Circus. Pic by Indika Handuwela

It was a week of shocks and aftershocks that jolted the United National Front Government and shattered the high wave of popularity it enjoyed among the people.

Main among the issues was last Sunday’s countrywide electricity blackout, the third in just six months. It exposed the Government’s inability to cope with the crisis situation that followed. The public anger against the eight-month old administration was unprecedented. The only solution the Government appeared to offer was an appeal by different politicians for consumers to bear with the situation and conserve electricity, something the people have been doing scrupulously since rates went up from time to time. Amid the rhetoric, for five long days, many areas were without electricity. With the drought taking its toll and water levels in the hydro reservoirs dropping, fears of more power cuts are looming large.

On the economic front, the crunch on consumers after Value Added Tax (VAT) was raised to 15 per cent is beginning to tell. The prices of a variety of consumer goods have gone up. If the United National Party (UNP) segment of the Government was somewhat economic with the truth, perhaps for political reasons, on why there were increasing revenue measures, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) segment went public. They made clear at an official news conference at the Government Information Department that it was a prelude to obtaining a standby loan facility from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for US $1.5 billion, a half a billion dollars more than earlier expected.

On the political front, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and 38 parliamentarians of the SLFP, defied their leadership, and took part in a public rally on Thursday at Hyde Park. Even senior UNPers whom I spoke with conceded that the turnout was much higher than the one for the UNP’s youth rally on Tuesday at the nearby Lipton’s Circus. However, one of the UNPers, who did not wish to be identified, said, “It is no cause for worry for us. It is the SLFP that should be concerned. Rajapaksa’s participation together with MPs supporting him has defined clearly the division within their party.”

Seven Government politicians, five ministers and two deputies, on Friday fired a volley of questions on why and how the power failure occurred. Present were officials and technical staff of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). Also on hand was CEB Chairman Anura Wijepala, who declared he was “ashamed” and had “taken the full responsibility to resign when power was restored.” It was done by Friday but he continues in office. Wijepala told a television channel he made those remarks to give the cue to engineers who may be responsible to follow suit. It had not happened, he said, adding that he would therefore continue in office. So his offer to resign had little to do with assumption of responsibility and was rather to prod others whom he suspects to quit.

Details of how the blackout took place and the tremendous difficulties it caused to the public are revealed in reports elsewhere in this newspaper. According to CEB records given to the six-member probe team appointed by President Sirisena, during a ten year period there have been only four major power interruptions. The team comprises Power and Energy Minister Ranjit Siyambalapitiya, and Western Province and Megapolis Minister Champika Ranawaka, a former Power and Energy Minister, Science Technology and Research Minister Susil Premajayantha, Petroleum Resources Minister Chandima Weerakkody, Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake who is also Chief of Staff at the Prime Minister’s Office and Deputy Ministers Ajith Perera and Eran Wickremeratne. The latter was President Sirisena’s choice after Premier Wickremesinghe expressed the view that someone with a financial background also should be in the Committee. Even at the height of the 2004 tsunami, other than the vastly affected areas, power supply was maintained to all other areas.

Among those who came for the Joint Opposition's Hyde Park rally were farmers who in recent months have been agitating against the Government's decision to stop the provision of chemical fertilizer at subsidized rates. In a symbolic and mocking gesture to show the price contrast, two farmers are seen presenting bags of fertilizer to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

When the discussion ended, the six-member team had sufficient evidence to confirm that little or no maintenance work had been carried out. During the discussion, one minister was bold enough to ask who was responsible for this lapse. There was no response. A total system failure had occurred at Norochocholai on September 27, last year, at 23:57 according to a PUCSL (Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka) report copied to members of the team. The restoration of the power system took more than four hours. The unexpected major failures in the transmission system have a significant negative impact on continuity of the supply in the country. The PUCSL requested explanations/information from the transmission licensee. As a result Manitoba (Canada) HVDC Research Centre, a division of Manitoba Hydro International Ltd., was contracted to study the situation and make recommendations. The study was conducted in close collaboration with engineers from PUCSL and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).

They made a string of recommendations which are essentially technical. The dynamic transmission system model used by the CEB Transmission planning and system control branches, it said, were not accurate enough for response analysis. It was also pointed out that the CEB has a practice of allowing a ten percent tolerance for voltage control in 132 kv and 220 kv lines, while the international practice is five percent. It was also pointed out that this practice was risky considering that this limit was very close to overcurrent protection limit of many system devices.

PUCSL Chairman Saliya Mathew has now written to M.C. Wickremesekera, Authorised Officer for Licence EL/T/09-002 (he is General Manager, CEB) that “it is the responsibility of the Transmission Licensee (CEB) under Condition 30 of the Transmission Licence to maintain an uninterrupted power supply throughout the country, which has been violated three times in the last six months by way of island-wide power failures.” He has been asked to inform the PUCSL of actions transmission licensee has taken in order to prevent repetition of an island wide power failure, after September 27, 2015. Adds Mathew: “Further, the Commission highlights that single element failure in the power system shall not result in island-wide power failures, and the Transmission Licensee is responsible for maintaining the system fulfilling this criterion.”

The team named by President Sirisena will hand in an interim report in the coming week. Sirisena was also disturbed by the sudden blackout. At the weekly ministerial meeting on Wednesday he said he was at work at the Janadipathi Mandiraya. A while later his personal security staff had told him that there had been a countrywide blackout. They tried to start the power generator but found it was not in working order. They had been functioning smoothly when former Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa occupied the historic building. On one occasion, the International Satellite channel CNN, engineers who were in Colombo to link Ms. Kumaratunga live via satellite for a programme to mark a ceremony in 2005 connected to the first year of tsunami wanted to test the generator as a fall back option. Power from the national grid was switched off and within seconds the generator began working. Thus, there was no fear of a live telecast being interrupted.

Sirisena said it would have brought him great embarrassment if the blackout occurred when he was meeting a foreign dignitary. They would have been plunged in darkness. He said since he could not work anymore from the Janadipathi Mandiraya, he left. The power blackout did not deter Sirisena from sounding a note of caution about ministers who travelled abroad at state expense. He had noted down the names of six of them and said he would soon lay down guidelines in this regard. Though Sirisena did not mention names, he did refer to some ministers who were away from the country for weeks for official reasons, but some also engaged in pleasure trips during that time. Others were going for seminars and conferences which were of low priority and could be attended by Sri Lankan diplomats in the countries where they were held. He revealed that he had on hand invitations to Turkey and the United States but would not undertake those trips immediately. Premier Wickremesinghe who endorsed Sirisena’s views urged that the President should attend the G-7 summit in Japan. Sirisena said he had plans to do so. The G-7 summit is to take place in Ishe Sima on May 26 and 27. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited Sirisena to take part in the event titled outlook which will be part of the summit.

The forecast for electricity in the coming weeks and months appear bleak with a drought and the resultant drop in water levels in catchment areas of hydropower reservoirs. That will mean supplementing additional power that would have to be generated with diesel fired engines. Consumption of diesel would increase raising issues of production costs. That such a scenario looms ahead of the National New Year in April has added to worries.

If the UNP segment of the Government carefully avoided any reference about seeking an IMF standby facility in the wake of the looming economic crisis, it fell on the SLFP segment to go public on the matter. At a news conference at the Government Information Department, Special Projects Minister Sarath Amunugama formally announced that a standby facility of US$ 1.5 billion was being sought from the IMF. He revealed that such a facility would be made available by June/July this year and said that the ongoing crisis was being managed with help from India.

This is what the Sunday Times (political commentary) of March 6 reported on the matter: “Tough new measures to avert an economic crisis are now engaging the attention of the Government. The first of these was decided upon at a special meeting of ministers on Friday (March 4). The subject first came up for discussion at Wednesday’s (March 2) weekly ministerial meeting. This was when they discussed a Cabinet memorandum by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. In that, he had recommended certain fiscal measures including an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT), changes in the Nation Building Tax (NBT) and revising the threshold of those eligible to pay income tax.

“President Maithripala Sirisena who chaired the meeting was not in favour of the memorandum being approved in that format. The wording in the memorandum had given the distinct impression that the measures were being sought to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)……Sirisena insisted that the memorandum should not be adopted in that format. Then an unusual move followed. He directed an official in attendance to go around collecting copies of the memorandum from the ministers present. Sirisena advised them not to speak outside about this issue. Perhaps the leak of the document would have been grist to the mill for the opposition and the media. The Government would run the risk of being accused of dancing to IMF dictates if the information reached the public domain. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe undertook to present another memorandum under his name…….”. Wickremesinghe did, and it was approved.

A high ranking SLFP source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said Amunugama’s news conference together with his deputy minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena was with the concurrence of President Sirisena. The source, however, declined to elaborate. At the same news conference, Abeywardena, without pointedly blaming the UNP, did just that. He said that one of the causes for the current crisis was the election pledge to increase salaries of state sector employees by Rs. 10,000. Already, the initial payment of Rs. 2,500, had been hurting. Amunugama did explain, much the same way UNP ministers have done, on how the global economic situation was affecting Sri Lanka. However, a question still remains — the UNP segment of the Government made no public announcements that they were seeking the IMF standby facility. And, that has now been publicly announced not by them but by the SLFP segment. That too with some criticism over the Rs. 10,000 pay hike offer. This matter is expected to figure in Parliament when it debates the prevailing economic situation on March 23 and 24.

On the political front, a significant development was the participation of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and 38 MPs supporting him at the ‘joint opposition’ rally at Colombo’s Hyde Park. He declared “Even If my entire family is jailed, we will standby the people and serve you. The Rajapaksa’s have been serving the people since 1956 and that will not change. I am sorry not because we are being jailed, but because the war heroes are being jailed, after ignoring the services done during the war time.” Other than the election rallies (both presidential and parliamentary) and the one he addressed in Nugegoda after his defeat, this is the largest turnout he had.

Rajapaksa addressed some of the current political issues. Excerpts:
When I woke up this morning (Thursday) there were messages circulating that I will not come. There were also some persons on motorcycles looking for my house. When we took over we had five obstacles. The world financial crisis was one of them. This was affecting Sri Lanka too. We were able to save the banks when financial institutions worldwide were collapsing. We also faced the impact of a devastating tsunami.

“The oil crisis was another issue. The price was high unlike today. We did not do away with the subsidies to the people. We gave fertilizer at Rs. 350 after buying it for Rs. 9,000. We did not deduct the dues from the poor. We provided free books and school uniforms. We had a food crisis worldwide. When we reached out to India we were told that they need the food and they cannot export. We went to Myanmar and Vietnam but were told the same. We achieved self-sufficiency in rice and vegetables. Today even Kankun is being imported.

We had the terrorism problem of the LTTE. We ended the war in two years and nine months. This was a war which went on for 30 years.

The Tamils and Muslims too were affected. We protected the rights of the Tamils and Muslims. The Muslims were chased out from the North. The unemployment rate was high. We created a strong country. They say we have taken loans. But we worked for the money we have taken. I have a list. For the Mattala Airport US dollars 190 million- that was made. Hambantota Port cost US dollars 426 million – that was made. Norochcholai power plant cost US dollars 1,340, Colombo-Matara expressway US dollars 630 million, Colombo-Katunayake expressway US dollars 248 million. All these were completed.

Here is the list of the loans taken by this government. US dollars 400 million from India in March 2015, US dollars 650 million from the sale of bonds in May 2015, US dollars 1,100 million from India in June 2015, US dollars 1,500 million by issuing bonds in October 2015/2016 – Development Bonds US dollars 2,711 million. All this means US dollars 6,361 million in one year. They say I have taken more loans but they were concealed. You try to take a loan from a boutique, they will note it down. If loans have been taken without documentation my advice is not to pay it back.

If you cannot govern, give it (the government) over to us. I can produce results. I will give you the fertilizer for Rs. 350. I will not keep you in the dark not even for 10 minutes due to power cuts. There is no strong Opposition now. They are tamed. Persons like ‘Deal Kumara Dissanayake’ have taken money from the government. He has invested the money in his brother-in-law’s company in Kesbewa. We have found out all the details. The whole country is suppressed, but we cannot be controlled. If you are not scared, hold the local elections, the people are ready to respond.

Here are the names of 38 UPFA parliamentarians who took part in Thursday’s ‘joint opposition’ rally:
Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa (Senior Vice President-SLFP), Janaka Bandara Tennakoon (Senior Vice President-SLFP), Kumara Welgama (Senior Vice President-SLFP), Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Rohitha Abeygunawardana, Bandula Gunawardana, Gamini Lokuge, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Namal Rajapaksa, C.B. Ratnayaka, Dullas Alahapperuma, Keheliya Rambukwella, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Udaya Gammampila, Ranjith Soyza, Dinesh Gunawardana, Wimal Weerawansa, Kanaka Herath, S.M. Chandrasena, Vimalaweera Dissanayaka, Weerakumara Dissanayaka, Sisira Jayakody, Mohan de Silva, Kanchana Wijeysekara, Shehan Semasingha, Udaya Shantha Gunasekara, S.C. Muthukumarana, Sanath Nishantha Perera, Jayantha Samaraweera, Niroshana Premarathna, Tharaka Balasuriya, Sriyani Wijayawickrama, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Lohan Ratwatte , Johnston Fernando, Dilum Amunugama and Indika Anuruddha Herath.

‘Joint opposition’ leader Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times, “Even the SLFP ministers in the Government should realise that progressive forces elected to Parliament have come together.” He admitted that among the crowds that turned up were those protesting against the Government over the electricity blackout. He charged that the budget was “a failure” and added an economic crisis like the one in Greece was now developing in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa’s participation at the rally together with the 38 UPFA parliamentarians backing him, most of them SLFP members sets a serious poser for SLFP/UPFA leader Maithripala Sirisena. It was just weeks earlier that he had virtually reined in the UPFA under his fold. Now it is clear, that a significant segment of the SLFP and even the UPFA have veered away. That too defying warnings issued by party hierarchy not to take part in the rally. What would the response of the party leadership be? They say that “stern disciplinary action” will be taken. If they decide on disciplinary action against them, that would only take the form of facilitating the creation of a new political party by Rajapaksa. On the other hand, ignoring the issue altogether would come as a clear demonstration of the impotency of the leadership. Opinions among Central Committee members appear divided.
The SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake has declared that the party’s Central Committee (CC) should meet to decide on disciplinary action. However, he has not made clear what form it would take. While some are asking that the dissidents be suspended from the SLFP, others say it should be more deterrent. On the other hand, there are yet others who advocate a softer line urging that the leadership ignore the episode altogether.

Minister S.B. Dissanayake, a CC member who is closely associated with party work under the Sirisena dispensation, told the Sunday Times, “Though SLFP General Secretary Dissanayake had sent a letter warning the SLFP members of disciplinary action, I believe that a more cautious approach should be followed instead of rushing to take action against them.” He added; “we should follow an approach to keep the party undivided and bring unity between the Maithripala Sirisena faction and the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction instead of supporting a division of the party. We have been working on the lines that the party should not be divided and we will continue to do so.”

Quite clearly Dissanayake is underscoring the inherent dangers in taking any tough disciplinary action against Rajapaksa and his 38 allies. Much to the dislike of those opposed to Rajapaksa, the reality is that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his team have placed themselves in an unassailable position within the SLFP and the UPFA. This comes at a time when the Government has to decide before March 31 the course of action on the local councils that now stand dissolved. While there are indications that the councils may continue to be run by special commissioners, the dilemma for the SLFP will come when it faces the local polls.


This week also saw a top level team from the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Attorney General’s Department concluding a visit to Dubai. They made another effort to freeze the bank accounts of those connected with the previous Government. They are knocking hard on the doors of the Dubai authorities, but the doors are not opening. The much anticipated support from the US to urge the Dubai authorities to co-operate on the footing of supporting international money-laundering is not to be seen.

This week’s events clearly show that the Government faces tough challenges on the economic front. What the UNP segment could not tell the country about the IMF standby facility has now been revealed by those in the SLFP. The latter’s woes, with the party divided down the middle, are now no easy task for President Sirisena. For both segments who constitute the Government, restoring their credibility and public confidence after the power blackout is no easy task.

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