Energy after Avurudu | Sunday Observer

Energy after Avurudu

The whole idea of starting afresh in a new cycle of livelihood includes the assumption of renewed vigour, an injection of energy. It is our fervent wish to all readers that, as we start work in the New Year, we are all genuinely equipped with the required electricity supply for our economic and social life and its desired enhancement.

For now, in this national festive season, Sri Lankans enjoy a few days of uninhibited power supplies having suffered nearly a month of daily and nightly power cuts. Those conservationists who rightfully worry over excessive and wasteful energy consumption can rest assured that the Avurudu festival is, in any case, a stretch of slowed economic activity and consequent low energy usage by industry and services.

But, what about the rest of the New Year that begins today? Most immediately, we will start the New Year of our livelihood with renewed power cuts – the opposite of the renewed energy with which we are supposed to begin life afresh.

No doubt, the people will light new hearths with the prayer for a return of regular power supplies. Rural families will additionally pray for rains and the return of the regular monsoon and inter-monsoonal weather patterns.

The problem of rainfall and climate change is the more serious long term challenge for us all and we hope that our whole society and its leaderships renew commitments, this New Year, to join humanity worldwide in addressing it.

More immediately, we must overcome the challenge of the lack of energy supplies to the nation simply to sustain current needs for our economic and social life. And, if we just do not have enough power supplies for current levels of energy consumption, how can our leaders even boast about plans for expansion of production and for better lifestyles?

This mismatch between acknowledgement of the actually available power supply and, governmental planning for ‘development’ reveals the extent of the lack of national strategy. A national strategy is one that is not purely based on the intentions of specific governments. It is derived from the coordinated efforts of a spectrum of relevant expertise, scientific and managerial, engaging in both systematic analysis and creative design of national action. This spectrum necessarily involves stakeholders, beginning with the Government, as convenor, and including the private sector energy producers, the commercial and domestic energy consumers, the scientists and economic planners.

There was a time in the 1960s and ’70s when the pace of industrialisation was much slower and the projected excess hydro-electric power generation from the Mahaveli Multi Purpose Development Program inspired political party campaigners to promise to export electricity to South India!

The significance of the Mahaveli scheme was that it was not the conception of simply one government or one ambitious (or corrupt) politician. Rather, it was conceived and implemented by a cohort of pioneering post-Independence scientists and development planners who were mobilised by successive political leaderships with encouragement from the private sector. This coherence of expertise and political vision extended through successive UNP and SLFP regimes.

The Mahaveli is a product of that coherence and, was the backbone of Sri Lanka’s early export oriented industrialisation, thanks to the J. R. Jayewardene Government’s creativity in ‘accelerating’ the Program. The Mahaveli Program embodied that bipartisan national strategy that not only planned for energy production but also, parallely implemented massive irrigation schemes and agro-industrial development.

The subsequent decades since the head-work projects of the Mahaveli were commissioned are a dismal history of failed attempts by experts, concerned industrialists and planners to enthuse successive political leaderships about energy needs and supply availability. Sadly, the political leaderships were increasingly distracted by the exigencies of parallel insurgencies. Equally sadly, the pressures for rapid responses to national contingencies enabled the intrusion of wide scale corruption. Energy production planning went haywire in the welter of unsolicited project proposals, tender benders, corruption scandals and intimidation of officials.

Energy production, supply and consumption is one of the most valued of economic activities globally today. It is also an increasingly unstable sector given the geopolitical instability of fossil energy sources on the one hand, and on the other, the necessary transition of energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable sources and also the restraining of consumption.

It is arguable that even if there was a bitter internal war on, the Republic should have, still, had the capacity for some kind of coordinated monitoring of energy needs and planning of production. That is history. Today, a whole decade after the end of the war, the country does not yet have a bipartisan national strategy for energy.

Today, we have a complex mix of energy sources which are being exploited and distributed by an increasingly complex mix of governmental and private sector actors. This complexity is both necessitated and inevitable given the prerequisites of environmental safeguards, availability of sustainable sources and the efficacy of distribution.

Just as much as the national leadership focuses on such issues as narcotics and crime, business development and ethnic reconciliation, there is an urgent need for a serious national level initiative that institutionalises national planning and multi-stakeholder coordination of the country’s energy production, distribution and consumption. And that institutionalisation must include the capacity for expertise and design creativity to benefit from both public and private support. Private sector ‘buy-in’ should not be covert and corrupt but should be creatively channelled through public-private partnerships.

Most importantly, such an institutionalised process of planning and strategy must ensure the participation of political leaderships so that the designed national strategy on the one hand would extend beyond single government tenures and, on the other, would be incorporated in political party policies across the party spectrum.