By N Sathiya Moorthy
Intervening in parliamentary debate on a government-initiated amendment to the Electricity Act, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that India was the only ‘country that is giving us money for fuel’, and he would not be able to ask New Delhi for more if the House did not pass the proposed law. The issue at hand was genuine, but in the public fora, it has assumed diabolic proportions by those who have traditionally wanted to paint the Indian neighbour as Sri Lanka’s eternal villain.
“Please don’t cause blackouts, you can hold placards and strike,” PM Wickremesinghe told engineers’ union of the state-owned Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) from Parliament, after the latter had threatened a nation-wide black-out if the new law was passed. “If you do so, don’t ask me to ask for help from India. No country is giving us money for fuel and coal. Only India is giving. Our Indian credit line is now nearing its end. We are talking about extending it,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Parliament passed the bill 120-36 with 13 abstentions in a House of 225, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned strikes in the power and health sectors, and the union itself put off the agitation indefinitely, as it did not want to face the public-backlash against the ruling Rajapaksas diverting itself towards trade unions for seeking to extract their pound of flesh from the government, during these unprecedented food, fuel and forex crisis.
In the parliamentary debate that preceded the bill’s passage, main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) member Nalin Bandara and others argued that the amendment was aimed at clearing Adani-like projects without following the transparent tender-route. Though the government denied the claim/charge, it did not explain the need and the hurry with which the amendment had to be passed in the first place. For many, it was a reminder of multi-billion China-funded projects, many of which did not pass through the tender-route – or, was not as transparent, as they were supposed to be.
Among other things, the amendment now helps the government to allot non-conventional power projects without going through tender-route. Both Opposition parliamentarians and CEB engineers’ union maintain that it was aimed at allotting a 500-MW wind energy project in the Tamil-majority northern Mannar district to the Adani Group – but minus the tender-process. The government in general and the President in particular have since denied all such suggestions, but the damage done by an ’emotional’ official is not going to go away that easily or that quick.
Appearing before Parliament’s watch-dog ‘Committee on Public Enterprises’ (COPE), CEB chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando claimed that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had ‘pressured’ President Rajapaksa to allot the project in northern Mannar district to the Adanis. The President lost no time in tweeting a denial, and this was followed by an official denial from his media division. CEB’s Ferdinando too has since said that that he had “lied” after being overcome with “emotion”. As was to be expected under the circumstances, Ferdinando has resigned as CEB chairman since, and the resignation was readily accepted.
However, Ferdinando’s rebuttal or withdrawal does not have many takers in the country. The Opposition’s reaction, both within Parliament and outside, remains to be seen in the coming days before anything conclusive can be said about an early closure to the controversy. It also remains to be seen if anyone would want to move the Supreme Court, quoting Ferdinando. For the record, through COPE, his original statement has become a parliamentary document, but his denial is not yet – at least as the multi-party panel is scheduled to meet only this week, to consider his request for removing the ‘retraction part’ from his long statement.
In between, a group of participants at the Galle Face Green anti-Rajapaksa protests have dared to come out in the open with true colours, by staging an ‘anti-Adani’ protest outside the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Media reports have identified them as belonging to the left-leaning Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a breakaway faction of the traditionally anti-India JVP. The party was formed in the post-war era, 2021 to be precise, claiming that the JVP had lost its ‘revolutionary zeal’.
Not the first time
This was not the first time that the CEB has placed hurdles in India-funded projects. Nor was it the first time that Ferdinando was involved in such controversies centred on India-funded projects in the power sector.
A decade ago, the CEB successfully stalled the $ 600-m coal-fired power unit at Sampur in the Eastern Province, with substantial Tamil population, citing environmental concerns and flagging every other issue. The Tamils were not against the project but claimed that the government had carefully and wantonly chosen residential areas for locating the project, if only to ensure that they were disturbed and dislocated, post-war, too.
Not many may recall those developments but CEB’s Ferdinando was the Energy and Power Secretary at the time (2010-15). It was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term in office. He returned from retirement in Australia to become CEB chairman after the Rajapaksas came back to power in 2019.
As for the Sampur project, India’s NTPC was then expected to replace the coal-fired project with an LNG unit, later modified as a renewable energy scheme. With India providing $ 100-m line-of-credit for renewable energy projects in Sri Lanka, the new agreement for the purpose was signed in Colombo in March this year.
Nor is the Adani group new to controversies in the short duration it has been known in Sri Lanka – rather came to sort out pending controversies between the two nations. First, it was their entry into the larger Western Container Terminal (WCT) project in Colombo Port as the official nominee of the Indian Government, to which (alone) the offer was made, as if in lieu of after the unilateral cancellation of the tri-nation agreement, also involving Japan, for the construction of the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), citing labour and also ‘Sinhala nationalist’ opposition, spearheaded by majority/majoritarian Buddhist monks.
Later, the political Opposition strongly reacted to Adanis’ induction in the non-conventional energy sector in the North as far back as March this year, with the SJB, too, dubbing it as a ‘back-door entry’, and accusing the (then) Rajapaksa government of “pampering” Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “notorious friends”. In what looked like a quick damage-control effort, SJB boss and Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa made an open appeal to Prime Minister Modi to extend ‘maximum possible assistance’ to his country. However, more vociferous and equally volatile left-leaning Opposition parties that otherwise have internecine quarrels, namely, the JVP, NFF and the FSP, are not expected to give up even half-way.
Incidentally, a section of the peaceful anti-Rajapaksa protestors in various venues in the country were known to have raised anti-India slogans, intermittently, claiming that the timely Indian assistance to the starved nation was aimed also at keeping the Rajapaksa regime afloat, if only to have multiple ‘India projects’ on stream. The silent majority may identify with India, especially after New Delhi had rushed food, fuel and medicines in droves, to the nation in its times of great distress and greater need. But not a single civil society entity, which is otherwise vociferous on everything wrong with the nation, has maintained a stoic silence.
Given the political situation in the country that is still fluid at least until after another general elections, the potential to rock the Indian boat is high, as no electoral player is going to defend the India ties even during the current crisis. If anything, there would be enough to further run down India and addressing those perceived concerns to their fringe constituencies that at present also form a core of the anti-Rajapaksa public movement.
Disappointed by distraction
The Adanis’ are not the only one Indian project(s) in Sri Lanka. Apart from the NTPC Sampur project, New Delhi has signed up hybrid power projects on three islands off northern Jaffna Peninsula, closer to the Indian mainland, which had originally gone to adversarial China, under an ADB-funded scheme. India has offered $ 100-m grant for the purpose. More prestigious, ambitious and strategic is renewed bilateral agreement for the big-ticket Indian restoration of one-million-tonne capacity oil storage tanks of Second World War vintage in eastern Trincomalee.
Once reconstructed the two-oil tank farms are expected to be the ‘strategic storage’ facility for the two nations (to begin with). This comes with its own share of geo-political, geo-strategic, geo-economic and security concerns, with their reflections seen and felt in the domestic arena, especially in Sri Lanka. Avoiding irritants could then become a bilateral priority.
The Adanis have since said that they are ‘disappointed by the detraction’ emanating from Ferdinando’s COPE statement. They would not have to be super-cautious in every step of theirs, not only in Sri Lanka but also elsewhere in the neighbourhood, considering that the current crisis in the country has made the whole of South Asia to keep tab of events and developments here. In particular, they would have to ensure that they do not become the Sri Lankan version of the ‘GMR controversy’ involving another Indian infra major in the Maldivian neighbourhood.
The ironic commonality is that in both nations, anti-India groups use ‘religious nationalism’ as an easy tool. The greater Sri Lankan irony all along is that those that swear by religion and religious nationalism are also the ones that swear by left-leaning ideology, for whom god and lord are alien to their basic ideology. The results may not be the same, but the prospects and possibilities cannot be overlooked, either!
(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)