Get the priorities right

Sri Lanka has spent billions of dollars in building massive white elephants when the most urgent need for many years now has been the reliable supply of electricity. As a result of years of misdirected policy and lack of foresight and political will, the country is now back in the dark ages with power cuts. The order of the day.
After completion of the Mahaweli Project in the 1980s, the only other significant addition to the country’s power generation capacity has been the coal-fired Norochcholai power station. This controversial power station has been in the news for all the wrong reasons from the time it was first proposed.
After commissioning, it had broken down nearly 40 times and is also the main reason for the present power crisis, triggered by the failure of one of its three generating plants.
The Power and Energy Minister blamed the prevailing drought for the power crisis, but that is no longer a valid excuse. Weather patterns are now well known and all it takes is proper planning to tide over drops in hydropower generation with alternate sources.
Large-scale floating power plants, which are made available for short term use, is an option that could have been looked into to avert the present crisis.
Sri Lanka is an island that has been abundantly blessed with every resource nature could possibly bestow.
We have plenty of harvestable sunshine most days of the year which remains largely untapped, great potential for wind-based power which too remains untapped, and of course, hydro resources which we have relied on and exploited to the maximum.
Perhaps the appetite for clean, renewable energy is not as great in comparison to costly, polluting thermal generation, owing to kickbacks on offer. This is why thermal private power producers are thriving while renewable power producers are fighting to survive.
Today, uninterrupted power is no longer a luxury, but an absolute necessity. The present power crisis has far reaching consequences which could prove to be disastrous to our fragile economy. It is no secret that the industrial sector is badly affected. As a result, there are bound to be issues in the export sector.
The Government’s call for large-scale manufacturers to use their own generators may not be that practical as these manufacturers depend on small-scale suppliers who lack power-generation capacity, which will invariably lead to supply chain delays.
It is also pertinent to question how Enterprise Sri Lanka, the Government’s flagship development project, could become a success when electricity supply is an issue.
Yet another casualty will be foreign direct investment as no investor would feel comfortable investing in a country that cannot provide electricity.
While the Government talks of providing free Wi-Fi, tablet computers for school kids, etc., it has failed to explain how these devices would function without electricity. On the flip side, millions of these devices being plugged into the national grid will certainly impact electricity consumption.
It is no secret that the demand for electricity will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. At present, the new Port City is under construction and once completed, in a decade or so, will have a massive power requirement.
In addition, Colombo’s skyline is undergoing dramatic change with no less than 60 new high-rise buildings currently under construction. All these will, no doubt, consume huge amounts of power. The million-dollar question is as to how and from where the CEB hopes to generate such a massive load of power within such a short period of time.
Of further concern is the impact on the tourism sector, which has been badly affected by the power crisis. Today, the bulk of tourists prefer to find accommodation in the informal sector, which includes homestays, small guest houses, hostels, etc. These small and medium-scale entrepreneurs do not have the financial resources to invest in generators. As a result, they are bound to lose business to bigger players.
In another case of putting the cart before the horse, tourism authorities have set ambitious targets aiming four million tourists by end-2020. But with just 2.5 million tourists at present, the airport is running at 160% capacity. Plans for a new terminal, which were on the drawing board four years ago have still not progressed.
Although ad hoc measures were taken to ease congestion at the airport by increasing the number of emigration counters, officers, etc., no long-term solution was proposed.
Tourism authorities, as a means of bypassing the airport to ease congestion, have been encouraging cruise liners to call over at the Colombo Port. However, it has now come to light that the passenger terminal at the port does not even have a functioning toilet. It’s the same with the main train and bus stations where sanitary facilities are either unavailable or if they are available, are filthy and unusable.
It is clear that Sri Lanka has got its priorities all mixed up.
Although the Southern Expressway is a blessing, what should have received priority was the Central Highway, purely for economic reasons. The central region of the country is the rice bowl and agricultural hub of our island. It is also a tourism hub and the gateway to the North and East. But priority was given to the Southern Expressway due to political reasons.
It is clear that the country’s power sector, tourism, and infrastructure development depend on political expediency. These are crucial sectors for the country’s development and economic wellbeing. Yet, they have become the playthings of politicians who exploit issues to their advantage.
It is time that attention was focused on getting the priorities right if we are keen to attract investment, increase exports, and develop tourism, which is now the third largest foreign exchange earner.