Wednesday 24th May, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime’s shameful efforts to oust Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), Janaka Ratnayake, remind us of some gory western flicks, where swashbuckling, trigger-happy scumbags hang public officials who refuse to carry out their illegal orders. Ratnayake has become a marked target for retaliation by defying some questionable government orders. One, however, should not be so naïve as to believe that he is driven by pure altruism like a knight errant. His mission is not without a Quixotic element, and his critics allege that some of his decisions on power tariffs are coloured by his commercial interests; he is a real estate magnate.
Opinion may be divided on whether Ratnayake’s opposition to power tariff increases emanates from a genuine concern for the public, or his vested interest or even his animosity towards the current dispensation, but the government is unquestionably at fault, for it is misusing its parliamentary strength to remove a public official who refuses to do its bidding. It has retained its majority in the House with the help of some crossovers notorious for striking Faustian bargains. If it succeeds in seeing the back of Ratnayake today, it will be emboldened to oust all other independent public officials it considers obstacles in its path.
Sri Lankan politicians are characterised by what may be called Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde duality, and power is the potion that leads to their transformations and causes their sinister, evil alter egos to prevail. These contrasting aspects of their nature are borne out by their attitude towards the depoliticisation of vital state institutions. They amended the Constitution to create independent commissions. But they want these institutions to remain independent only when they are in the political wilderness (read the Opposition), and the moment they begin to savour power, they go into overdrive to gain total control over everything. One of the reasons the government has given for its efforts to hound the PUCSL chief out of his job is that he is no respecter of Cabinet decisions. There is no constitutional requirement for the independent commissions or their heads to obey either the Cabinet or the President. They are only required to ensure that the interests of the public are protected vis-à-vis meddlesome politicians. The government’s argument, therefore, has no leg to stand on.
It is being claimed in some quarters that the government has been struggling to muster a simple majority in Parliament to remove Ratnayake because some ruling party MPs are of the view that they will incur public opprobrium if they sack the PUCSL chief, whose opposition to power tariff increases has resonated with the people. But the odds are that ayes will have it when the resolution against Ratnayake is put to the vote, today. We are not short of politicians of easy virtue, who are willing to stoop to any low level to further their own interests. Some Opposition MPs are straddling the fence and currying favour with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and they will have an opportunity, today, to try to secure ministerial posts by voting with the government.
Ratnayake has gone on record as saying that electricity tariffs can be reduced by 27 percent because the Ceylon Electricity Board’s cost estimates and demand forecasts have been found to be erroneous. If so, the government must be made to explain why the CEB has been allowed to fleece the public, and stern action should be taken against the officials responsible for the statistical lies at issue. Is it that the government politicians are keeping the power tariffs artificially high for the benefit of the foreigners who are keen to invest in the power sector here so that there will be a quid pro quo?
Any other public official would have caved in under government pressure, but Ratnayake has proved that he is made of sterner stuff. He gave a media briefing yesterday, and while listening to him, we were reminded of one of John Clare’s poems, where a badger being pursued by hunters and their dogs fights back with might and main. The poor animal loses in the end, but Clare imbues it with heroism: “The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray /Lies down and licks his feet and turns away. /The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold, /The badger grins and never leaves his hold.”
One can only hope that sanity will prevail, and the so-called people’s representatives will be guided by the dictates of their conscience, if any, when they vote today.
Unless the Opposition, civil society outfits, trade unions, the media, etc., circle the wagons for the sake of upright public officials who dare tell stuck-up politicians where to get off, the incumbent regime will render the state service, especially regulatory outfits tasked with safeguarding the interests of the public, even more pliable.