- Voters had a strong belief that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not tolerate certain politicians and top officials who were at the forefront of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime who have a lot of skeletons in their cupboards, when they elected him to power in 2019
- Most of the decisions taken by the Government are short-sighted, sudden and unproductive and thereby doomed to fail with no benefit to the people
- If we give the control of energy supply and power generation to an outside party, there is a danger of Sri Lanka plunging into darkness in the event of trouble, disagreement or controversy with the investor
- People expected professionalism, transparency, rule of law and good governance from the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime which are lacking today
The Daily Mirror spoke to former Power and Petroleum Resources Development Minister Chandima Weerakkody on the New Fortress Energy deal, the crisis Sri Lanka is faced with and the political situation of the country. Excerpts:
Q Sri Lanka is in a catastrophic situation on all fronts. I don’t want to go into details as not only Sri Lankans but the entire global community is well aware of the disaster Sri Lanka has fallen into within two years of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration. Anyhow, do you see light at the end of the tunnel?
Well, Sri Lanka is a country that can be developed provided that we follow the right policies, with the right leadership, especially with a transparent system of governance, comprising politicians and officials who are competent, experienced and love the country first and not resorted to fatten their pockets with public money. These two main stakeholders who are tasked with the responsibility of law-making and policy implementation must be free of corruption, mismanagement and misdeeds which are not the norm of governance today in this country. So, you can see the outcome.
Q This is not what the 6.9 million voters expected from President Rajapaksa and the SLPP when they voted them into power in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Do you agree?
Yes indeed. The people together with us elected this Government into power to carry out the policies of the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’. According to the theory and policies introduced to the people therein, they expected a professional approach in governance wherein a new system and strategy are introduced so that the people can see a remarkable and distinguished structural change distancing from the previous governance.
They were eager to see a positive change in every sphere of governance acceptable to all Sri Lankans. They had a strong belief that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not tolerate certain politicians and top officials who were at the forefront of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime who have a lot of skeletons in their cupboards. That was a key reason for a majority of voters who voted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP into power. Many people who have experience in many a field working here and internationally, who love the country came forward to help out this administration. But unfortunately, we have not seen their offers being accepted and most of the decisions taken are short-sighted, sudden and unproductive and thereby doomed to fail with no benefit to the people. These decisions it seems are not taken to mitigate the sufferings and hardships of the people and the final outcome is that the economy and living conditions of the people are deteriorating fast. The situation is getting worse by the day and as such the people have lost confidence in the Government and they have no hope for the future as the way things stand right now in the country.
Q The selling of 40% of shares of the Yugadanavi power plant to the US-based New Fortress Energy (NFE) Company by the Government has generated a huge protest from all quarters of the country. I have heard that the NFE first came to Sri Lanka with the proposal when you were the Petroleum Resources Development Minister in the Yahapalana cabinet. You opposed the sellout and removed it from the portfolio. Can you enlighten me on what actually happened?
Well, it was not this particular company that came at that time. It was some other company that came with the same deal. If my memory serves me correct, it came as a joint venture with India. But my position which was taken on the advice of experts of the country of the day was that in future, the main energy source for the country is LNG, other than solar and wind. The only energy source we have in the country is LNG. Though we have found LNG in two wells in Mannar Bay with a high rate of success, we have to canvass for investment. In addition, we don’t have a proper legal framework to woo top global investors to invest in Sri Lanka for the exploitation of our energy resources. But, the only way out was inviting foreign investors. We did not have money for exploration either. The top-end investors in the world would come to Sri Lanka only if and when Sri Lanka possesses the necessary legal framework for them to bring their money here, a completely corruption-free system and a higher score in the ‘Ease To Do Business’ index.
I, as the minister in charge of the subject, started the process and drafted the legal framework – which was passed in Parliament only recently. In my legal draft, there was no monopoly on foreigners; the decisions are taken by the majority shareholder, a State-owned company with full management powers. I was able to convince the top investors to come to Sri Lanka pending the conducive legislative framework. They came, started preliminary work for oil and gas exploration and exploitation.
My argument at that time was that if we give the control of energy supply and power generation to an outside party, there is a danger of Sri Lanka plunging into darkness in the event of dispute, disagreement or controversy with the investor. With the power and energy monopoly given to a foreign company, there is the risk of Sri Lanka coming to a standstill entirely. The same theory is being raised these days on the NFE deal by various quarters, trade unions and the valid Opposition. We need to take the most pragmatic and futuristic decision on the national power and energy policy because the future of the sector remains in renewable energy and mainly on LNG. If we took short-sighted decisions for the benefit only of the powers that be with no concern for the future generation, it would be a national disaster. This country is not a private property of a particular group or a family. The future generation will curse us if we went ahead with this kind of self-destructive policies and decisions.
Q What are the merits and demerits of the NFE deal to Sri Lanka particularly in relation to the power and energy sector?
Well, we all love and want clean energy like LNG for our power generation, energy-based industries and transport network in Sri Lanka. I have been a pioneer to promote clean energy, renewable energy or green energy, whatever you call it. It was at my request, the former President Maithripala Sirisena took it up with world leaders at global forums. But it does not mean that the use of environment friendly energy sources must come to Sri Lanka in an inappropriate manner detrimental to the interests of today’s generation, the future generation or the country. It is in this background that the NFE deal becomes a national issue that negatively affects the country. The way it has been done is unacceptable as there are many grey areas related to the deal. Clean energy is a must for the country but it must not be developed in this way.
There is another aspect to this mysterious pact. If the NFE agreement was signed in an acceptable manner adhering to all legal and transnational trading and investment protocol, the chances are there to entrust the deal to the NFE with no protest or disagreement from the Sri Lankan people. That would have been a blessing to Sri Lanka as the global investors would have taken note of investment in Sri Lanka by a US company. We would have been in a position to negate misconceptions on investment in Sri Lanka, build goodwill among top foreign investors and establish a better image globally to convince that Sri Lanka is an investor-friendly country. Besides, Sri Lanka would not have to face the risk of offending the US if the deal was fallen apart. We lost that opportunity because of this shady deal.
Disturbed about protests from certain quarters on US investments in our country - got agitated on political reasons of course - certain US investors even proposed to bring investment to Sri Lanka from another country or from another company outside the US.
This clearly shows that if and when a business deal of this magnitude must come in an acceptable and extremely transparent manner and only then that all other issues can be resolved in an amicable way.
Q Notwithstanding the vehement protests from the private and public sector employees, trade unions of Power and Energy Industry, Ports, University teachers, academics, professionals, the Buddhist monks and prelates of other religions and average citizens of Sri Lanka, the Government is determined to go ahead with the deal signed in secrecy in the midnight on September 17. I smell a rat here. Do you feel the same?
Absolutely! What the masses expected from the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government was professionalism, transparency and good governance in their every deed. You have to bear in mind that there is this Right to Information (RTI) Act. So, whatever the Government is doing and actions are taken, it should be able to be seen and accepted by the people because they have given a mandate to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP to run the country for five years only.
The Government attempted to cover up the NFE agreement until the JVP leader exposed the agreement in Parliament. These incidents do not stand in the good stead of the Government but make the regime suspicious and unpopular. It has badly reflected on the image of the Government and President. The negotiations on a highly important trade deal like this have to be conducted in an extremely open manner. Even former Power Minister Dulles Alahapperuma has made some comments on this issue which is a kind of ringing a bell that does not sound good for the government. Therefore, I urge the Government to be open about its dealings or otherwise the people will lose confidence completely in the Government and the President.
Q It is unfortunate to witness that each and every decision taken by the SLPP Government in the last two years has come into question. Sri Lankans are of the view that the way the Government addressed the issues related to the Covid 19 pandemic, purchasing of drugs and vaccines, tax reduction on sugar imports, adapting to organic fertilizer only policy, controversy involving the importation of Nano Liquid Fertilizer from India, importation of a consignment of contaminated organic fertilizer from China and paying of US$ 6.7 million to the Chinese company, handling of domestic gas cylinder explosions etc. The public perception is that all these deals are replete with inefficiency and underhand dealings.Your comments?
Yes indeed. It is a disaster the Government has invited by itself. All these are Government made issues. The effect of the Covid 19 pandemic that has caused havoc all over the world can be justified. People are willing to bear difficulties coming from the pandemic as it is a global phenomenon. But people are not ready to pardon the Government for the problems they have created due to their inefficiency, mismanagement, misdeeds, underhand dealings and all.
If you take the farmers issue, they are the majority in this country for centuries. They are not affluent. But thankfully the farmer community has never created problems for rulers of this country. They have never been a burden to the country or a liability to the Treasury. They are happy with their meagre income and what they grow. If you go back to the beginning of the first wave of Covid 19 viral attack, in early 2020, not only we all confronted the pandemic successfully but also cultivated vegetables, fruits and other consumables in our home gardens. Abandoned lands were cultivated.
What has happened today? Even farmers have given up cultivation of paddy, vegetables, fruits and commercial crops solely because of the unplanned, shortsighted and stupid decisions of the Government to fully transform into carbonic fertilizer from chemical fertilizer overnight.
I don’t know who advised him to commit this blunder. But adapting to organic fertilizer in place of chemical fertilizer overnight has become a disaster to the people of this country, to the Government, to the economy and to the agriculture and commercial crops sector. The transformation to organic fertilizer from chemical fertilizer should have been done after careful planning, educating farmers and consulting all stakeholders on the issue. The countrywide protests from farmers indicate that it has been a total surprise to the entire farmer community.
Despite good weather and ample rain this year, there will not only be a food shortage next year but a failure of commercial crops which will intensify the tragic situation prevalent in the country. In early 2022, there will be a drastic reduction in tea production, one of our main export crops. Almost all decisions have been taken without a vision and based on the whims and fancies of one or two individuals.
The tea industry is under threat as by early this year, there is a possibility of tea bushes withering for want of fertilizer, pesticide and weedicide as applied for decades in tea plantations. If this happens, the export revenue will get depleted drastically.
Q Why is this penchant by the Government hierarchy to give important and responsible positions to controversial individuals with questionable pasts ignoring disagreements around the country. The best example is the appointment of Bhikkhu Galagodatte Gnanasara as the head of the legal advisory committee on the ‘One Law One Country’ project.
Well, according to the Constitution, it is a prerogative of the Executive President as he has been authorized to appoint members to these positions. The trend before the election of this Government was that we need a government that can take correct decisions. The Executive President could not take certain decisions as his powers had been curtailed in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The Independent Commissions were introduced to enhance the concept of good governance in early 2015 under the 19th A and also to prune executive powers which were passed unanimously. Both objectives were lost with the enactment of the 20th Amendment. We all raised our hands to further strengthen the powers of the Executive President and the entire country can see the consequences today. But 6.9 million voters also approved to give more powers to the Executive President. The result is that we are not supposed to advise the President after the 20th A. We are not in a position to take decisions. He is not consulting the legislature either which is a nightmare. I don’t know who advises him. I don’t know on what basis, various decisions are taken. It is he who has answers to these questions.
Q The sad part of this huge unpopularity of the Government is that the SLPP politicians have faced the difficult task of responding to questions raised by the aggressive media and the people. For how long, can you do this?
I have very clearly said that I have been elected by the people and therefore I take the side of the people. You may remember that when I was interviewed by you when I was a Cabinet Minister in the Yahapalana Government, I responded to your questions and voiced my opinion boldly and openly ignoring the consequences.
I believe, others also should have the guts to do that. Just sitting in the cabinet like a flag bearer is not enough. Those who are in the cabinet should know to stand upright and say when a wrong is done that it is wrong. Unfortunately, the entire country is devastated. Ministers keep mum instead. They keep their mouth shut in the cabinet and try to justify their position before the media. But when they take a drink with their friends they lambast the President. That should not be the way. You should come openly. You should not say what is right only when you have a glass of drinks in your hand. They must express their unhappiness on the Government’s performance in the cabinet and to the face of the President. I must tell you that I have acted according to my conscience and I am going to continue that policy in future as well notwithstanding the consequences.
Q The perception among the public and the Opposition is that the motive behind the sudden prorogation of Parliament is to remove the Chairman of Parliamentary Oversight Committees – the Committee On Public Enterprises (COPE), Committee On Public Accounts (COPA) and Committee On Public Finance (COPF), Prof. Charitha Herath, Tissa Witharana and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa who respectively have been doing a wonderful job as heads of these Parliamentary watchdog committees but not to the liking of the Government hierarchy. Do you justify this thinking?
It is quite obvious now that the people of this country don’t believe in individuals of political parties. That is why there must be a platform in this country that can formulate policies for the betterment of the country acceptable to all communities. Today people say party politics are useless.
However, there are a few good politicians in any political party. What happens today is that when a particular political party wins an election, all good and bad politicians get onboard in Governance resulting in the Government and the country going down the precipice even before they realize it. A leader with forward-thinking, pragmatic and with management skills entrust responsibilities to politicians with a good track record. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy, the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ is good on paper. But sadly the Government has miserably failed to put this policy into action.
I must tell you one thing. If the Government has the audacity to remove the current heads of oversight committees when Parliament meets after prorogation, it will reflect very badly on President and the SLPP Government. It will be a Litmus Test for both as the people are thoroughly disappointed, dejected, fed-up and angry on the performance of the SLPP Government and its hierarchy. Today people need and aspire for a new political force and visionary leadership who can think beyond political affiliations to take this country out of this mess.