Yes Min­is­ter: Let’s drink to na­tion build­ing

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

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

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