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Norochcholai - a metaphor for inefficiency

Posted on Sep 10, 06:03PM | IBNS

It is no secret that the Chinese have made deep inroads in Sri Lanka particularly in the various infrastructure sectors thereby consolidating its position in the strategic Indian Ocean Region country. Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie's recent five day visit to Sri Lanka led to announcement of new grants to build and modernise the country's military training establishment.

But the Rajapaksa government should be cautious in the backdrop of Chinese assisted power plant that has a poor track record.

In fact Norochcholai (it is a coal-fired power station in Puttalam, North-West Sri Lanka) has become a metaphor for inefficiency in Sri Lanka. Every passing day brings this Chinese aided and built power plant close to more ridicule. The Chinese are not known for inefficiency though quality is not their USP. Otherwise they would not have emerged as the challenger to the policeman of the world, the United States. Nor would they have made in roads into India's infrastructure sector and African economy. More over, coal used for firing Norochcholai comes mostly from Indonesia.

If Norochcholai has failed and if it has brought disrepute to the Chinese, who should bear the cross -the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) or the Rajapaksa government. Because, though Norochcholai has been repaired, it is still to live down the ignominy that it remains operational for one day and closed down for a month. Compared to it, Polgolla power plant has no break down in its 50-years of existence. Even the Victoria power plant, which is nearly 35 years old, has never found itself in the same Norochcholai league.

By virtue of Polgolla and Victoria's track record, the CEB would like to escape the blame game. That exposes the flanks of the government to ridicule of being a Norochcholai, as the UNP media spokesman Gayantha Karunathilaka would like the nation to believe.

The Chinese have not made matters easy for the government with their publicly hurled charge that Norochcholai failed after overuse. In so many words, the Chinese are saying that Sri Lankan engineers do not know how to run a power plant. Only an insipid will accept such a charge.

Norochcholai is designed for 900 MW by July 2014 in three phases of 300 MW each. The first phase was commissioned more than a year ago on March 2011. Frequent break downs made the CEB award the operation and maintenance contract also to the China Machinery and Engineering Corporation, (CMEC), which erected the plant, after resisting the demand for two long years. With this decision the plant has become 4C - China financed, China built, China maintained and Chinese machinery. Last year though the Chinese authorities had refused to change Norochcholai technology to facilitate the use of low calorific coal.

Yet, things have not improved. In fact, Norochcholai metaphor has acquired a new meaning. For three reasons -- One the disclosure that the plant is a refurbished second hand unit; -- Two the CEB Technological Engineers Union's view that Chinese may also be 'intentionally' creating the break downs to become indispensable for Norochcholai; -- Three the Lanka Electricity Board Employees' Union's concern over the 'standard' of equipment used by the Chinese company.

Postmortem is no solace though it is essential; the country is saddled with a white elephant. Not only that all the hopes of a power nirvana on Norochcholai have disappeared and the country experienced power cuts in July for the first time since 2001.

Had the Sampur plant gone on stream as expected in February, it would have added 500 MW and the power scene would have been different. That hope has not materialized; Sampur (in Trincomalee district) was first conceived more than forty years ago and there have been many false starts since then. The coal based plant is to be a joint venture of CEB and India's power major, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC).

Anura Senaka Wijayapala, a CEB top honcho, hopes to see the construction begin by the end of 2012, provided both sides ink the final agreement in the next month or two. He ducks the question on the reasons for the delay. Well, the blame cannot be of the Electricity Board.

Like wise, who gave the go ahead to Norochcholai is unclear in the face of government's deafening silence. The rabble-rousing Power Minister Champika Ranawaka has also chosen to keep mum now though four months back he told the Sunday Times that he was not happy with the project going the Chinese way.

Ranawaka agrees that President Mahinda Rajapakse resurrected the venture which was in a limbo for several years because of environmental and other objections but believes that the buck should stop at elsewhere.

The government owes it to Sri Lankan citizens to tell what had gone wrong and why with Norochcholai. And who has delayed the Sampur. Accountability is the sine qua non of democracy. The buck must stop somewhere where it matters.

(Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury is New Delhi-based commentator on international and strategic affairs. The views expressed in the article are of the writer and not IBNS. He can be contacted at dips762000@gmail.com )

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