Yes Minister: Let’s drink to nation building
Potbellied Arjuna Ranatunga may have led the Sri Lankan cricket team to World Cup victory in 1996 and had the nation popping their champagne corks in jubilation but he certainly had the country stumped this week and fulminating when, as Lanka’s Minister of Petrol, he grossly failed to ensure the smooth and steady supply of the lifeblood of the Lankan economy: Oil, the black gold of Arabia.
Sorry seemed to be the easiest word to rinse away his responsibility as minister in charge of fuel supplies to the nation: a simple sorry for the gross folly of following an oil tank-to-station-nozzle petroleum existence in calm complacence that that there was no need to make provision for a buffer stock to tide the country’s fuel needs in case a single ship ran into storm upon turbulent seas.
As his tacit message read; “I apologise to the Lankan people for any inconvenience caused.”
But worse. He chose to throw the ball at the non striker’s end where the Indian Oil Company was safely home and thus allowed his brother Dhammika to romp safe to his crease.
Dhammika? Brother Dhammika? What has he got to do with it? For those of you, not in the know, Dhammika is the eldest son of the Ranatunga family and has faithfully followed his younger brother’s star in the manner of Mary’s lamb.
When Arjuna tossed his coin and found Maithripala’s head on it and then elected to bat for Sirisena’s team in 2014 November, his one brave act soared like a shooting star to place him at the helm of the Ports Authority as its Minister when Sirisena was elected President in January 2015.
Once installed as Ports Minister, Ranatunga’s first act was to appoint his elder brother Dhammika as Chairman of the Ports Authority. For a Sirisena regime that had come to power on a platform which had declared there would not be room for nepotism to rule anymore as the Rajapaksa Brothers Incorporated (Pvt) Unlimited had done for so long, but that appointment to high posts would be made on merit and merit alone, this appointment may have seemed an anomaly, a black blot on the Yahapalana landscape. But overwhelming gratitude for that one gallant act of crossing over seemed then to have cast a Venetian blind on election pledges.
And then when Arjuna was removed from his Port portfolio on May 22nd of this year and made Minister of Petroleum Resources Development, guess who shadowed his walk to Kolonnawa and to assume the title of Chair man, Ceylon Pe t roleum Corporation? No prizes for guessing right. Of course, the same Dhammika Ranatunga, the same chap who last year in March threatened a TV journalist in Hulftsdorp Court House and was released on bail by the judge after a severe admonition “if you can do this in these court premises, I do not know what you may be doing at the Ports Authority as its chairman.”
Dhammika had merely come to court that day to attend the bail application made on behalf of his brother Nishantha who was facing charges of corruption. His other brother, Prasanna Ranatunga’s bribery case where he has been accused of forcibly obtaining Rs. 64 million from a businessman to grant approval for the purpose of reclaiming a land in Meethotamulla, is scheduled to be heard in February next year.
Of course, of course in Yahapalana eyes, Dhammika Ranatunga may have had the necessary qualifications -- once to have headed the Ports Authority and now to be the head the Petrol Corp, two of the most important economic institutions of the country. After all, he had played test cricket for Lanka. His record: two test matches with a batting average of 29. And four OIDIs with a batting average of 12.25.
Though his academic score was zero, cricket was enough qualifications for him to be chairman of the all important Ports Authority and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, even as planter Nishantha Wickramasinghe, brother of former president’s wife, found to his merriment to be catapulted sky high from his tea bushes and placed in the Srilankan Airlines cockpit as its chairman. And, crikey, that’s even without playing cricket.
But, nowadays, who considers academic qualifications and the mental disciplines that go with it as important to head important government corporations and authorities when Parliament itself is packed with so many who have not even passed their A’ levels, Minister Ranatunga included?
This is the state of play from a government that pledged to employ ‘scientific methods’ when appointing heads to important government institutions and corporations.
That’s the background to put you in the picture. Now let’s come to Captain Arjuna’s spin attack on the IOC this week which Prime Minister hit for a six over the Sapugaskanda oil storage tanks.
The crisis began on October 17th when a shipment of 35,000MT of petrol brought down by Lanka India Oil Company failed Sri Lanka’s standard gasoline import specifications after two tests. LIOC ordered replacement cargo from French supplier M/S Total.
On October 31, to compound the crisis, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation’s Sapugaskanda Refinery was shut down due to a power failure, and the shutdown continued for three days. On the same day, LIOC was informed by the French supplier that they will not replace the rejected consignment but proposed to filter out the contamination. To its credit, unlike what happened in the Rajapaksa regime where contaminated oil was allowed to enter the market and thus damage thousands of car engines, the CPC rejected the proposal. On November 2, CPC was informed that the shipment it expected to arrive in Colombo would be delayed till November 8 or 9.
Then last Friday, November 3, the nation’s motorists, including three wheelers and cabs, began to queue outside petrol stations waiting for hours to fill their tanks with some even resorting to having a take away in cans. The petrol shortage began in full swing but there was no shortage of excuses from those responsible at the Petrol Ministry for their short sighted tank to nozzle petrol policy.
It was a week of discontent when the crisis revealed the precarious state of the nation’s fuel reserves. The Speaker Karu Jayasuriya spoke for the nation when he told the House on Monday how he, too, had been rendered ‘kota uda’ by the fuel shortage which in turn made the MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena ask: "If the Speaker, too, finds that there is no petrol for his vehicles, this Parliament should understand the severity of the problem and the suffering of the general public. “The entire country is suffering due to this crisis. It is the duty of the Government and the minister responsible to inform the nation when they will solve this problem. Who is responsible for the maintenance of stocks of petrol?”
The Minister responsible, Arjuna Ranatunga passed the can to the Indian owned oil company and pumped the blame into their tank. First he blamed the privatisation of state institutions for the fuel shortage thumping the nationalistic drum. Then banged LIOC for not honouring its commitments and declared: “The LIOC had promised to send a fresh stock by October 31 or November 1 after its petrol shipment had been found to be substandard.”
He also said the crisis was due to LIOC not honouring its commitment to bring in another shipment of 30,000 metric tonnes on that date. Fair enough. But strange things can happen at sea that we, landlubbers know not of. In the same way the CPC ordered oil ship -- run by the politically appointed brother of Minister Arjuna, Dhammika Ranatunga -- failed to make port on November 2. Now, pray say, was that the real reason for the petrol shortage, especially when one considers that CPC commands 84 percent of the Lankan oil market compared to the meager 16 percent held by LIOC?
The LIOC issued its statement refuting the Minister’s allegations. It said: “We understand that a CPC petrol parcel, which was scheduled to reach Sri Lanka on November 2, 2017, has been delayed. While we are not aware of the reasons for this delay, such a disruption has led to shortage of petrol across the country, particularly given that CPC caters to 84% of the Sri Lankan market. Attempts by some to blame LIOC for causing the shortage are mischievous and factually incorrect, and we categorically reject such allegations. It may be noted that LIOC caters to only 16% of the Sri Lankan market, while the remaining 84% relies on CPC supplies. Thus, large shortages across the country can only be caused by disruption in supplies of CPC. Average daily sales of LIOC are 600 MT of petrol. Against this, as on date, LIOC has a buffer stock of 3,500 MT of petrol at the Common User Facility which is managed by Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Limited.”
Enter the Dragon to lambast Arjuna’s tirade against the Indian owned oil company and to possibly avert a diplomatic crisis between India and Lanka. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lost no time to hit Arjuna’s claim over the ropes der whose constant refrain has been to proclaim from his teetotaler pulpit that Utopian Lanka’s budget must not be dependent on cigarettes and liquor revenue, that these two vices must be banned and an era of prohibition dawned.
In fact in April this year President Sirisena praised with cheer the bad news to the Treasury coffers that revenue from liquor taxes had dropped. He said: “The treasury reported to the Cabinet that the income from the taxes for liqueur and cigarettes has been reduced for the first time of the history. Though this is a decrease of the income for the government, we consider it as a great investment for the future generation”. But now, his Finance Minister intends to build the nation with a little help by taxing the nation’s tipple.
So whilst the going is good, and whilst the price stays put for the next four months at least, let’s raise a few glasses of beer and cheer whilst its cost is still within our means: one for Mangala, one for the road, and one, of course, for nation building. Cheers. that LIOC was solely responsible for the week long crisis which was to place the Speaker of the House in difficulty in being mobile, make former President Mahinda Rajapaksa get on a borrowed cycle and push pedal the last furlong to Parliament to score some cheap political points, and force tens of thousands to queue for hours at fuel stations cursing under their breath the mismanagement of the nation’s economic institutions.
The Prime Minister said: “The fuel supply was maintained to some extent during the recent strike action launched by petroleum workers, thanks to the LIOC, I cannot agree with the criticism heaped on the Lanka Indian Oil Company for the crisis. “And he said the current crisis “was probably caused by others” and assured the nation that ‘it would be probed.’ President Sirisena, in the meantime, appointed a three-member ministerial commission to inquire into the petrol crisis and forward him the report.
Whilst all this was taking place and the nation’s motorists were fuming at petrol stations, Arjuna Ranatunga claimed he was under pressure by politicians and businessmen to accept the rejected cargo which allegation the LIOC denied the same day. Though speaking under the cover of absolute privilege that Parliament affords him as defence to any suit of slander, Arjuna Ranatunga refused to reveal who these powerful politicians or businessmen were, though prodded by the opposition to name names. Arjuna declined, and, in the manner of politicians who cast aspersions on others to save their leather, had only this to say: “I will name them when the time is ripe.” The public thus have to wait till the mango drops from its stem, matured, yes, but too rotten to enjoy for tongues long forgotten its taste.
What the whole petrol shortage saga reveals is the nonchalance with which this nation is prepared to meet its obligations, its duty to the people. It’s not a case for blaming an Indian owned oil company holding only a 16 percent market share and heaping blame on its failure to supply 30,000 metric tons of petrol but -if the claim be true -- an opportunity to ask oneself why the delay of one shipment of oil can cause so much havoc and bring the nation to its knees, and place its mobility, its forward march at the mercy of an Indian oil firm.
But all’s well that ends well, especially to Lankans whose memory is famed for dementia and has often been compared to the fleeting fizz in a soda can. And thus on November 9, in a scene reminiscent of the far flung days of the British Empire, the Lankan natives, too, awaited the arrival of the good ship Neveska Lady to dock in port bringing vital oil, even as the natives of some far flung British outpost in some South Sea Pacific isle would have similarly awaited the mother ship to bring home their vital monthly food supply.
Speaks volumes, does it not, for the modern state of hip hip Lanka that aspires to reach, 5000 US dollar per capita income by 2020, one million new jobs, FDI inflows of USD 5 billion, and doubling exports to USD 20 billion, a GDP growth of 5%, inflation of around 6%, and primary surplus of 1% of GDP and a Budget deficit of 4.5% of GDP as optimistically envisioned by the Finance Minister in Thursday’s Budget?
Unless, of course, plans are also afoot to fuel the economy full steam ahead with desalinated Indian Ocean waters, perhaps its best to first ensure oil streams in constant flow to pump the energy to kick start the economy and fire its dreams.
COSY CHIT CHAT: Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Finance Ministry Secretary Dr. Samaratunga burn the midnight oil on Budget eve to add the final flourish to dawn sunrise on the nation’s hopes