With the cost of living soaring beyond Mars and millions of people being burdened by tax after heavy tax -- the latest being the proposed toilet tax -- the biggest blackout blow since February last year has been the huge increase in electricity bills due to the imposition of the so-called Fuel Adjustment Surcharge (FAS).
Thousands of poor or middle class families say they are forced to pay amounts ranging from about Rs.4,000 to Rs.10,000 a month and for some it is an unbearable proportion of their monthly salaries.
When the FAS, more appropriately a farce or a nightmare, was imposed despite widespread public protest even by pro-government unions or supporters, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised it would be possible for the regime to withdraw the surcharge as soon as phases two and three of the controversial Norochcholai Coal Power Plant were in full operation. But in this era of lies after lies and deception within deception, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) now says that the FAS will have to be continued for months or years.
According to a front-page report yesterday in our sister newspaper, The Sunday Times, the FAS was imposed by the CEB in February last year because it claimed it was incurring extra costs to provide thermal power generation. The report said as a result of the surcharge the CEB doubled its profits last year. While the surcharge brought in an extra Rs.25,430 million, the CEB’s profit for last year was Rs.21,090 million.
However, CEB Chairman W.B. Ganegala said the FAS would have to remain because the CEB has to pay back arrears to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for fuel supplies, loans taken from state banks and payments to independent power suppliers. What this means is that millions of people are being forced to pay for obvious mismanagement if not frauds in institutions including the CEB and the CPC.
Mr. Ganegala said several breakdowns at the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant for several months forced the CEB to resort to additional thermal power generation. He claimed that while hydropower generation which costs much less declined to 12 per cent; thermal power generation went up to 85 per cent. Therefore the Chairman said an FAS refund, at least in part, would be possible if hydropower generation increased to about 60 per cent and the third phase of the Norochcholai project came into full operation.
Millions of people finding it difficult if not impossible to provide their families with basic needs such as food, clothing healthcare and education will certainly not be enlightened but inflamed or enraged by what they would see as the CEB Chairman’s excuses.
The people’s views were expressed by the National Movement for Electricity Consumers who’s President Bandula Chandrasekara said since both phases of the Norochcholai project were now functioning; it would be easy for the CEB to withdraw the FAS. He said hydropower generation had increased due to the heavy rains in catchment areas and therefore it was unfair to continue with the surcharge.
With the CEB Chairman saying water levels in catchment areas have declined and the National Movement for Electricity Consumers saying water levels have increased, the people are in the dark and there is no way of finding out the truth. One solution to this and other acts of deception or corruption is the implementation of the Freedom of Information Bill for which a comprehensive draft was prepared during the time of Ranil Wickremasinghe’s government. It is similar to the Freedom of Information Acts in India and other countries and will give the people, including the media, the power to get facts and figures, documents and other information from state departments. But the draft right to Information act has also been dealt a blackout blow with the Rajapaksa regime being unwilling to present the legislation in Parliament because it obviously wants to keep the people in the dark on issues ranging from the economy and education to agriculture, environmental pollution and the latest scandal of casinos.