Exporting electricity to India a once-upon-a-time Lankan dream

Sunday Times

At the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the Polgolla Dam in 1970, the Minister in charge of the Mahaweli Diversion Programme, Maithripala Senanayake, expressed the hope that, once the whole project was completed, Sri Lanka would be in a position to export electricity to India.

The statement hardly attracted any attention or comment. This was only the first step in the ambitious plan to divert the country’s longest river, with the objective of, among other things, generating hydroelectric power.

Another reason for the articulation of the dream of exporting electricity to India (similar to Canada’s electricity exports to the USA ) not receiving much attention was that, public debate on development activity was not as vigorous as it is today.

Besides Maithripala Senanayake, a son of the Rajarata and Deputy Leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, was not a politician known to make brash statements about grandiose schemes that may never see fruition in the future. It was safe to assume therefore, that the possibility of exporting electricity to India would have been very much in the scheme of things or, at least talked about by the officials, when they were at the drawing boards planning for Sri Lanka’s biggest and most ambitious project.

However, as it turned out, Sri Lanka’s political landscape changed dramatically at the 1977 General Elections, and such hopes had to give way to other national demands. With J.R. Jayewardene assuming office as Prime Minister, and later on as President, he entrusted Gamini Dissanayake with the country’s flagship project. Dissanayake’s task was to complete the project in 6 years, from the originally planned 30 years. It came to be known as the Accelerated Mahaweli Diversion Scheme, although the Government’s detractors dubbed it the Exaggerated Mahaweli Diversion Scheme.

The Master Plan for the project was drawn up by a UNDP/FAO team including Sri Lankan personnel, after carrying out a survey of the Irrigation and Hydro-power potential of the Mahaweli Ganga and the adjoining river basins. The Plan envisaged the generation of 2,037 million kilowatt hours of hydroelectric energy from an installed capacity of 507 megawatts.

With the country focused on rapid economic development, as well as the laudable goal of providing electricity for every home, the demand for electricity grew exponentially over the years. With the variation in rainfall patterns, as a result of climate change, dependence on hydro-power alone for the country’s electricity needs has reduced.

While other sources of electricity such as coal, LNG, wind and solar have been looked at by the authorities, at different times, there does not seem to be a clear strategy in place to face the challenges ahead. How else can one explain the fact that the citizen has to face power-cuts at the time he needs electricity the most– when the country is going through the hottest weather of the year.

There are several voices repeatedly raised with regard to the power crises the country has faced at regular intervals since the 1990s. Some claim there is a mafia that works overtime to create these periodic crises to line their own pockets. There are others who blame it on the Engineers at the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), while yet others lay the blame on the political authorities. There are others who point a finger at the Power & Energy Ministry Secretary Suren Batagoda.

None of this is very helpful in resolving the issue. If there really is a mafia hindering the resolution of the issue, the question to be asked from successive Governments is what they have done about it. If indeed, there is a mafia in operation, it must be identified and action taken against it. It is not helpful to keep talking about the existence of a mafia without doing anything about it.

If the CEB Engineers are placing obstacles, then the CEB and the Minister must take action. It is the CEB and the Minister who must bear the responsibility for any acts of omission or commission of the Engineers.

If Suren Batagoda is the cause of the problem, it is easily resolved because Secretaries are appointed by the President, and he can be transferred to another Ministry. In fact, it is rather a puzzle why Mr. Batagoda himself has not asked for a transfer, without subjecting himself to continuous allegations from various quarters.

There are also reports that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) has made recommendations during the past 4 years, regarding the need to increase electricity production and that, it has even initiated action in the Courts against the CEB. The President has lamented that 2 government bodies such as the CEB and the PUCSL should not be at loggerheads.

However, as the PUSCL is the statutory regulator of the economic, safety and technical aspects of the electricity industry, in terms of the Sri Lanka Electricity Act No.20 of 2009, it has no option but to act in terms of its responsibilities.

It is time the Government takes steps to seriously develop a plan of action to increase the power supplied to the national grid, by engaging experts in this field. All stakeholders must be consulted before the plan is finalised, with environmental concerns too being taken into account.

The plans should also be rigorously examined to ensure there is not only no financial impropriety, but there is no waste of the scarce resources that the country badly needs. All steps should be taken to ensure there are no plants like the ‘always breakdown’ Norochcholai Coal Power Plant which again points to a failure to rigorously examine the credentials and design of the Company that built the Plant.

With the Port City project likely to be completed soon and other investments that the country is eagerly seeking likely to become operative, the demands on power are likely to increase rapidly. It is therefore, time to map out a proper plan of action without delay. Even though we may not be able to export electricity to India, we should not be in the unenviable position of having to import electricity from our neighbour.