Will the Constitutional Amendments Resolve the Real Issues?

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We have two serious issues before us. One is the economic meltdown. The other is the breach in national security. Yet, the Parliament’s attention is focused entirely on another topic – how to wrestle power from the Executive President.

The Precarious Fuel Situation

On 28 May, it was reported that only 6,142 MT of Octane 95 petrol was available. Hence, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) disallowed selling Octane 95 petrol to three-wheeler and motorcycle drivers. This was to prevent the new practice that has sprung up of selling fuel at higher prices by unscrupulous entities.

The point here is the fuel situation has deteriorated to such an extent that people are willing to purchase it illegally at exorbitant rates. There are people actually willing to sit in queues for hours to fill their tanks only to empty it into another container and return to the queue for a refill. The fuel already obtained is then sold at higher rates to those who are unwilling or unable to stand long hours in the fuel queue.

If this black market plan is allowed, Sri Lanka’s already spiraling economy would fast forward to its collapse. Fuel is the essential commodity that hinges the survival of all other sectors. It is not only these industries where some form of transport is required that depends on fuel.

Even for our electricity, fuel is one of our main options. At Rs.100 to generate a unit of electricity using petroleum as opposed to Rs 50 per unit from coal, thermal power generation is the costlier option. Yet, one third of the fuel imported is for the generation of electricity.

When fuel price increases, it affects all these industries that directly or indirectly use fuel, whether it is for transport or electricity. Thus, we see immediate price increases in basically all other goods and services when fuel price jumps. Already our monthly bill to import fuel is a staggering USD 300 million. The current crisis is because we are unable to raise this much forex to pay for fuel. The ongoing power disruption that often extends to 10-13 hours a day is precisely because of the fuel shortages. As both our day-to-day lives and industries are dependent on electricity, these power disruptions are debilitating the economy further. The tourism industry and the apparel sector are our country’s two of the main forex earners.

These power disruptions are hence impacting both these negatively. The tourism industry especially that has been struggling ever since the Easter Attack and the pandemic thereafter is hit hard with the travel warnings issued by several countries with our best markets. With the crux of the matter being the fuel shortage, these industries cannot even turn to generators for that to operate requires fuel. In a bid to curtail illegal hoardings, the Government has already taken steps to ration fuel. As such, fuel is no longer sold into containers but only for vehicles. The amount of fuel issued depends on the vehicle’s category.

The Ministry of Energy with the help of the Sri Lanka Police’s IT division has developed an app to monitor the vehicles at the refilling stations. This app will note the consumers’ number plate details at the pump and then share that data in real-time with the application’s other users. By recording the history of vehicle’s refilling, this app will help authorities in preventing the same vehicle pumping fuel on the same day from any other station.

Using solar

As a remedy for the power crisis brought on by the fuel crisis, the Government is actively seeking assistance in making a significant contribution from renewable energy sources to the national grid. The Government’s target is to generate 70 per cent of the total electricity demand from renewable energy sources. This will save our country yearly the cost of one month’s fuel bill. We already have the potential to generate nearly 700 megawatts of electricity from solar energy. However, the Ceylon Electricity Board’s (CEB) lack of interest in converting to renewable energy is a matter of grave concern.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently assured to resolve such resistance. However, if to make any such headway, President must first bring trade unions to heel and disallow them from misusing the democratic space for their current autocratic tendencies.

It is notable that the Government is progressively exploring options to assist large industries to survive the current crisis. Private Bunker Fuel Operators may now import and provide diesel and fuel oil requirements for industries. With the electricity tariffs likely to increase and may even triple for large scale industries, the Ministry of Energy will unveil a rapid renewable energy generation plan on 01 June, 2022.  This will allow private and public buildings with large rooftop spaces to be used to install solar panels. The current electricity bill amount can then be invested on solar panels to be paid monthly to the solar companies. This will lessen the burden on the consumer as well CEB grid.

These commendable measures will cushion large scale industries. In the meantime, small and medium enterprises (SME) are struggling to stay afloat. This underscores the urgency in crushing the illegal market for fuel, which should also include introducing tough laws. Otherwise, the CPC would be forced to cater to an artificially increased consumption. This in turn will increase our national fuel bill to benefit a few corrupt individuals.

Plenty fuel to burn homes

The following three occurrences: The Mirihana incident on 31 March when unruly crowds tried to storm into the President’s private residence with sticks, iron bars and sharp weapons, the Rambukkana confrontation with the police on 19 April where rioters pelted the police with rocks and attempted to set fire to a fuel filled bowser and the looting, lynching and destruction to Government MPs and their property on 09-10 May are serious breaches of national security. Though there is a concerted effort to portray these unruly crowds as ‘peaceful protestors’ their actions speak otherwise.

It is clear that there is a serious attempt to drive the country into anarchy. None of the three incidents above were spontaneous, though again it is misconstrued as such.

The Government has appointed a three-member panel including the Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, Marshal of the Air Force Roshan Gunathilake and General Daya Ratnayake to investigate the possible lapse of intelligence. This investigation must also include the delay in deploying the military to prevent the attacks on MPs and their property. This was an act of terrorism and the State failed to prevent it for one and a half days.

The panel must also verify the rumours against Army Commander Shavendra Silva. It is being alleged that he in a bid for personal gain had refused to act. While some accuse him of ambitious plans as a military takeover, others suspect that he is currying favours from western embassies. These sort of stories is not good for him or the country.

On 09-10 May, riots and acts of terrorism took place in the presence of the police and even the military. Their inaction is a serious indicator of their lack of confidence in the State.

The Rambukkana incident especially accentuated the vulnerability of the police. Neither the public nor the judiciary took into account the valiant efforts by the police to resolve the contention, disperse the crowds or the attack on the police. Instead, they were equated to pariah status and both the SSP who ordered to fire at the rioters and his officers were arrested and detained in remand prison.

We urgently need a National Bill on Security that gives protection to law enforcement agencies and their officers to carry out their duties without fear of prosecution. This Bill must also stop foreign missions from politicising the police or cat-fishing our top military brass.

19A as the 21A?

Except for few ministers as Kanchana Wijesekera who are sincerely and tirelessly seeking ways to redress the current economic crisis, the rest of the parliamentarians are busy trying to tinker with the constitution.

Will this constitutional amendment,

•     Bring in the much needed forex to the country and resolve the fuel crisis?

•     Safeguard the small and medium enterprises from the current economic meltdown?

•     Crush or curtail the black market?

•     Prevent future attempts of anarchy and terrorism?

•     Protect the law enforcement officers from needless prosecution?

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe