July 05, 2020
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Island Of Darkness

A severe power crisis throws life out of gear and hits industry

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Island Of Darkness

THE warning bells came as early as January, when it was clear that the northeast monsoons were a damp squib. But it was only in late March, when the water levels in the country's reservoirs plunged to alarming levels, that the government introduced a two-hour-a-day nationwide power cut in order to conserve energy. But it was too little, too late. The crisis aggravated. And in late May, Ceylon Electricity Board Chairman Leslie Herath and other Board members joined 16 Buddhist monks in week-long prayers at the Moussakelle water reservoirs, 80 km east of Colombo.

Unappeased, the weather god continued to punish this island nation of 18 million people, and the daily power cuts were raised to six and then to eight hours. In mid-June, "disturbed by the events and the unjust criticism levelled at the government", Herath resigned. He claimed he was in the dark about the power shortage, though his engineers had for months been warning of the impending crisis.

A desperate government has ordered shops and offices to switch off neon lights and airconditioners and threatened to cut off power to errant users. Now shops close at dusk, and supermarkets and groceries no longer store perishable items like frozen meats, milk, chicken, fish and ice-cream.

Hospitals and private sector offices use large generators, but the ordinary man has to sweat it out, especially during cuts at night. And all the Chandrika Kumaratunga government has done is to issue tenders for five thermal power projects to "correct the imbalance", and slash customs duty on the import of large generators. Apart from passing the buck to the opposition United National Party.

For three days in late May, Sri Lankans got a taste of what life would be without power when 14,000 workers struck work, demanding a 40-per cent salary hike and the scrapping of plans to privatise Lanka Electric Company, one of Sri Lanka's two power monopolies. Hospitals had to hold back emergency operations, taps ran dry in Colombo neighbourhoods as waterpumps went idle, and gasoline stations shut down because there was no power to run the pumps. The few which were running on generators attracted long queues. The situation became so bad that imported generators were booked and sold while still on the high seas. The long power cuts even forced some people to travel all the way to Madras to buy generators.

The president declared the strike illegal and ordered employees to return to work or face imprisonment. After three days of haggling, soldiers raided the homes of trade union leaders and the workers were forced to return.

Sri Lanka's economy, which grew by 5.5 per cent in 1995, will take a beating this year, and the power crunch has much to contribute to it. According to Patrick Amar-asinghe, chairman, Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, losses due to power cuts were running into over one billion rupees ($18 million) a day.

Many in the vital garment industry as well as other small-scale units have been severely affected. "We are incurring a loss of about 3,000 to 4,000 Sri Lanka rupees in sales everyday," said Mahinda Kularatne, a textile shop-owner in Colombo. "It's the poor like us who always suffer," adds W.A. Piyadasa, a small-time studio owner. "During the power cut, I have to close my studio. I can't afford a generator. If I do buy one, I'll have to raise my rates and lose customers."

Suren de Silva, owner of Video Image, a television production agency, faced "total disaster" for two months. Then, he hired a 20 KV generator, paying 1,500 rupees per day. "Now I get more work than I can handle...many other agencies can't function without power."

Manufacturers in Sri Lanka's renowned gem industry estimate a 50 per cent drop in production. "The large factories have got generators, but the smaller ones are halting production," says Faizal Carder of Gem Syndicate. Bruce R. Davidson, managing director, Nunan Sapphire International, says his factory is handling only half the normal amount of blue sapphires.

"I hired a generator, but every week the owner was hiking the rent. Finally, I've invested in a generator," adds Davidson.

On May 25, in a bid to maximise daylight use, the government advanced clocks by an hour so that Sri Lanka would be six-and-a-half hours ahead of GMT. Two weeks later, the opening time for schools was pushed back by 30 minutes for children found it difficult to travel in the dark. This fortnight, the opening time for government offices too was pushed back by 30 minutes, because school traffic was clashing with office traffic.

Just when everything seemed gloomy, the southwest monsoons arrived. And a bouyant government promptly reduced daily power cuts to five-and-a-half-hours. The respite was short lived. The rains soon slackened, water levels at the reservoirs dipped to 17-18 per cent of capacity, and the power cuts were back.

Sri Lanka relies on hydel plants to generate 84 per cent of its 1,385 MW annual output. The balance comes from thermal generators. Demand has been rising by 8 per cent annually of late, but only a 120 MW project has been commissioned over the past decade. Several new projects have run into procedural rows and environmental protests. Two others—an ADB-funded 40 MW diesel plant and a 70 MW hydel project—will be operational by 1997 and 2000, respectively. Till then, Sri Lankans will have to perspire. 

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