We're Live Bangla Saturday, June 10, 2023

Load-shedding is fine, if...

llllllllllll (1)

A picture on Facebook of bullock carts on Colombo's streets brought to mind Sri Lanka's past glory. I visited the country several times for a human rights organisation. There were rows of brightly lit five-star hotels parallel to the sea beach along the road leading to Galle, thronging with tourists. New magnificent structures arose on land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean. The city was surely to be like Singapore one day. It was 2018 and as I left Colombo for the last time, I let out a sigh, thinking of our country.

Now bullock carts are being used on the streets there, in want of fuel oil. Schools and colleges are closed, essential commodities are scarce. The all-powerful ruler Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled the country in face of people's fury. His two brothers too are furtively in hiding. There can, however, be a degree of sympathy for the Rajapaksa family. They imprudently took foreign loans. There may be allegations of corruption and human rights violations against them, but they reduced people's taxes and prohibited the use of chemical fertiliser for the sake of environment-friendly agriculture. These steps were rather suicidal in view of the post-Covid circumstances, but otherwise these were not bad measures, objectively speaking.

In our present predicament, there aren't even any good intentions that failed. There is only corruption, irregularities and incompetence. Where shall we seek consolation?

We haven't become Sri Lanka and that's not even possible. But there is no denying that we are in deep disaster. Declaring load shedding after 12 years, seeking IMF loans after a decade, the unprecedented rise in the dollar, the steady rise in the price of essentials, uncertainty of the fertiliser factories, irrigation and petrol pumps due to lack of fuel -- these developments in a matter of the last three months are all indications of disaster.

The government is taking up several measures to tackle the situation. The people have been directed to take up austerity measures as far as possible, to save energy and to avoid waste. The people will surely try to follow all of this in the prevailing crisis. The people should even support the government if it takes even more stringent decisions like enforcing online office work twice a week, prohibiting private cars on the streets those two days, banning battery-run vehicles, strict control on the use of ACs, installing pre-paid gas and electricity bills. But for this, the government will have to take some other steps too, there must also be accountability.

What the government must do first is curtail its own expenditure. Let me explain from what I know. Since the 2014 controversial election, the government gave promotions extensively to civil servants. From joint secretaries upwards, the civil servants were given facilities to buy cars on easy interest loans, they were provided with Tk 40,000 every month for driver's wages and fuel. This led to a craze in buying cars, the vehicles were used with no restraint as the fuel was free.

My question is, why should the general public pay for the petrol and drivers for the public servants' families to go shopping, on drives, to school and back, for fun and frolic? Does any country take such decisions that go against public interest? The government must completely stop this monthly expenditure. Even if it is just to set a precedent, everyone, with the exception of the president, prime minister, speaker and chief justice, should use buses or microbuses from the official transport pool at least twice a week. According to the constitution, government employees are public servants. They should keep this in mind at least during these critical times and cut down on the luxury to an extent.

Steps like load-shedding must be taken indiscriminately. I recently read 'Making of a Nation', a book of noted economist Nurul Islam who was close to Bangabandhu. It was written there how, during the 1974 famine, there was scope to send food from the relief supply to areas more affected by the famine. But this wasn't done because the government was worried that this would anger the people of the capital city. I do not think we have managed to break away from such a mindset. If we had, then we wouldn't have one hour load-shedding in the capital and seven to eight hours of load-shedding in the villages. We should keep in mind that our food and raw materials come from the villages and small towns. Electricity for irrigation is no less important than electricity for the secretariat.

I have given just a few examples. There are many such similar suggestions coming from various quarters. The government must give due consideration to these suggestions. They can't simply direct the people to adopt austerity measures and impose measures such as load-shedding on them. Practice what you preach. The people of the government must first set an example of austerity.

If load-shedding, restricting expenditure and austerity is to be acceptable to the people, the government must also be accountable in certain areas. The lease of the rental power plants has been extended several times and the government continues to pay them millions of dollars every month, even without taking any electricity from them. The people have the right to know who the government is paying these millions of dollars to in the name of quick rental power plants, what relations do these people have with those in the top leadership of the government. There are many examples in foreign countries of additional taxes being imposed in times of crisis on persons earning excessive profits. Additional taxes must be imposed in these critical times on those raking in millions in the name of quick rentals. The civil society, journalists, the parliament, the Supreme Court, must raise questions regarding the rental power plants.

There is extensive failure of the government behind this power crisis that has emerged. It is now clear that over the past 13 years that they have been in power, they have focused on power plants, not power security. They should have carried out extensive exploration for gas to run these power plants. As an alternative they should have signed long-term deals for LNG from abroad. Instead of doing that, LNG is being bought from the spot market to ensure huge financial gains for certain quarters.

After the Russia-Ukraine war, America and Europe are making long-term deals with the Middle East countries. As a result, Bangladesh is now having to depend even more on the spot market. And with its dwindling forex reserves, Bangladesh can't even afford to purchase sufficient fuel from the spot market.

The people have the right to know in who interests and why the energy ministry took such a decision to purchase fuel from the spot market. They have the right to raise the demand to impose higher taxes on the huge profits being made by the LNG businessmen. They have the right to demand accountability from the government on any expenditure being made.

The people are quiet, they want peace. But that does not mean they forget their sufferings and anger. At times of crisis if this anger explodes, we have seen how the peaceful seas rise up in all fury. We have seen this not only in Sri Lanka, but in many other countries too.

It is the government's responsibility to keep the people calm. If genuinely people-friendly measures are taken in times of calamity, the people will remain calm. The government can assuage the people's anger by practicing austerity themselves, imposing high taxes on the quick rental and LNG businessmen, taking stern measures against money launderers, the bank looters and the corrupt, and taking various steps to assist the low income people.

The question is, does the government have such good intentions? Does it have the capacity to implement such measures?

Asif Nazrul is professor at the law department of Dhaka University.