Proposed crippling countrywide strike TO SAVE ECONOMY, ASSETS, NATURAL RESOURCES– D.J. RAJAKARUNA

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By 2017-08-18

WITH RAVI LADDUWAHETTY

Convenor of the Ceylon Petroleum Joint Union Alliance and General Secretary of the Petroleum Common Workers' Alliance, Dadellage Janaka Rajakaruna said yesterday their proposed countrywide strike in unison and combination with all the other unions of the essential services of the country, was to protect the essential services, the national economy and the country's natural resources as well.

Rajakaruna functions as a Deputy Operations Manager of the CPC at its Muthurajawela installation. He is a science graduate of Kelaniya University and holds a Master's degree in Industrial Chemistry from the Peradeniya University. He said theirs was a method, adopted to generate the revenue in keeping with national interests.

He also said this was not a strategy to topple the government, but to make the government understand the dire need for rethinking some of its decisions in deference to the people's wishes.

Excerpts:

? You told Ceylon Today just last Sunday Edition which was published as the lead story that you were planning to stage a crippling strike which would deprive the civilians of their basic rights and their access to electricity, water and other essentials. What is the latest development? Is this a veiled threat, or are you serious or are we to assume that this is an outright joke and meant to be taken with a pinch of salt?

A: As you know we had three demands.... The Hambantota Port ...

? Please answer to the point. The question is at what stage is the strike as of now?

A: Our discussion with the government stopped at the stage with President Maithripala Sirisena assuring us that he will talk to China Merchant Port and get us the bunkering operations at Hambantota. This is also due to the President telling us that there was a clause in the agreement that amendments could be made to the agreement. The President assured us that he will negotiate with the Chinese and get back to us. That was where the meeting ended and that was the final stance of the President.

? But when did that happen? I mean the meeting with the President?

A: That was on 1 August. There were also the Minister of Petroleum Industries, Arjuna Ranatunga and the General Secretary of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Mahinda Amaraweera at that meeting.

? So, today is 17 August, almost three weeks since he gave the assurance. Didn't the President give you an update?

A: No. Not yet. But the President had asked all ministers to provide their observations on this report for the report with their recommendations to the next Cabinet meeting. The report about the agreement that was signed had come to the Cabinet. The report with whatever inclusions and removals was to have been incorporated with the amendments by the Cabinet this week. That was what we were told. There was also a Cabinet paper which went up in 2016 for the CPC to get 16 of the 99 tanks. The estimate that was prepared by the CPC engineers was that the Lanka IOC was paying only US$ 10 million for the 16 tanks. So, why should we be repairing tanks elsewhere when there are readymade ones? We can prove that we could recover this investment from the savings in the transport costs. Now the distribution of petroleum to areas such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are done from Colombo. If they are done from Trincomalee, there could be a massive saving. We are constructing a new pipeline from the Jetty to the upper tank farm. We are also constructing an administration building as well. There are also the bogeys which will enable the petroleum to be transported by train. Only 500 metres of the railway track is broken. All we have to do is to get that repaired. It is for the construction of that the US $ 10 million will be incurred.

We also have the option of getting a foreign party to supply us with the oil which could be stored in the tanks. That will also mean that we will not require an investment at all. The investors will be able to store it and take it at any time they want. But, we will be levying a charge for that. That will also mean that all the tanks would be refurbished and we will be able to make all the money for the CPC. That will also mean that there would be opportunities for offering bunkering services for ships as well. The Lanka IOC is surreptitiously doing bunkering up to 12,000 tonnes per month. The LIOC does not have a licence for Bonded Cargo in Trincomalee.

? What is the earthly sense in doing bunkering when the Colombo prices are very expensive, more than any of the competing ports in the region? Just to prove a point. In Colombo International Furnace Oil (IFO 380) is US $ 330 per tonne, while in Singapore, it is US $306 per tonne, Fujairah, it is US $ 302 per tonne, Cochin-US $ 307 per tonne and Kelang (Malaysia) it is US $ 308 per tonne.IFO 180 in Colombo is US $ 345 per tonne, while in Singapore, it is US $ 345 per tonne, it is US $ 330, Fujairah – US $ 340, Cochin-US $ 309 and Kelang –US $ 328.In Marine Gas Oil, it is US $ 530 per tonne in Colombo, US $ 464 in Singapore, US $ 543 in Fujairah, US $ 655 in Cochin and US $ 490 per tonne in Kelang. How do you reconcile this?

A: The reason is that the bunker business has not been developed.

? What is the earthly sense in providing bunkering services, given that Sri Lanka is a mere 5 million-tonne market and only 1.8 million tonnes are processed at Sapugaskanda while the remainder is imported which makes the costs higher ?

A: That is because the bunker market has not been developed. Now the issue is that the supply has been restricted to only 4-5 players.If there is more competition, each of the players will get a very small market share. That facility should be restored by the CPC as our freight costs would be definitely cheaper due to the fact that we are bringing more oils and other products as well.

It is also on the same basis that we asked for the bunkering operations at the Port of Hambantota as well. The previous government messed up in style regarding the bunkering facility at the port there. What they should have done was to install the buoy and we will be in big business.

? MP Bandula Gunawardena, in an interview with this column last week, alleged that the government has made a saving of US $ 4 billion from the drop in global petroleum prices in the last two years and that no government had that benefit, which could have gone to settle all the foreign commercial loans. He has also said that the money is still at large and unaccounted. Is that true?

A: The fact that the US $ 4 billion was saved was true. But, Rs.8.44 billion was used to pay the Lanka IOC for the losses they incurred with the government not making the corresponding decrease in the price. They had a large parcel which was unsold. We import what is necessary for immediate requirements. In some months, the government made a profit of Rs. 38 per litre of diesel.

Some of the funds could have been used for the refurbishment of the Sapugaskanda Refinery.

? But Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga told this newspaper (State Affairs- 4 August 2017) that there were three investors who had expressed interest in refurbishing the refinery and they were willing to provide the funding and technology for that. Also, among them was the third richest Saudi Prince (Ceylon FT lead story on 24 July 2017). So, what is the issue?

A: The refinery was originally built in 1969. There was a foundation stone for the refurbishment laid by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2007, but, nothing happened. But the feasibility study came only in 2010. That said that the requirement was US $ 2 billion. The recovery period was 6-8 years. But with the drop in the fuel prices, the recovery period would have been less than five years. That means the annual profit would have been US $ 400 million which was around US $1 million profit a day. We apprised all these facts to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and he directed Minister Arjuna Ranatunga to expedite the project.

? How would you describe the strikes and your demands from the government?

A: We staged a strike on 24 April. We took up all the issues with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was a spin-off of the strike we held on 24 May. Then we discussed with the Minister of Petroleum Arjuna Ranatunga and Strategic Development and International Trade Malik Samarawickrema. We discussed the Trinco tank farm. He said this agreement with India was due to the lack of funds in the government. He said the estimate was not even prepared. We said we have the estimate prepared by the engineers. We showed the two ministers how to make money from both the Trinco Tank Farm and the Hambantota bunkering. Minister Ranatunga took on the project after that where he said that he will find the investors.

? What is the nitty-gritty of the Trincomalee Tank Farm (TTF) project?

A: The TTF is before Court as we have sued the government. The Prime Minister assured us that there will not be any decision on the TTF till the verdict of the case was given. Then we had a long discussion with him at a meeting on 13 July. He said he could not give a definite answer but he said he will arrange a meeting with the President. He did not do that instead put it to the Cabinet on 25 July which was also the day we struck again. We got to know that on 23 July, but we wrote to the Prime Minister again on 24 July. We gave the government time till 4.30 p.m. When that did not happen we started the strike at 5 p.m.

? So, at what stage is the crippling strike which you promised to mobilize all forces?

A: Even in the most recent Cabinet meeting this week, the observations of all the Cabinet Ministers had not been taken. Only Arjuna Ranatunga and a few others have done it. This is because President Sirisena has said that he has the authority to amend the agreement. We have told the government how to deal with the Trincomalee and Hambantota issues and how to raise the money and move on. We have found out that even the 2003 government to government agreement has no validity. Former Petroleum Minister Susil Premajayanth, after consulting the Attorney General said the 99 tanks have to be released to the CPC.

? So, how many tanks does the CPC own now?

A: Now all the tanks are held illegally by Lanka IOC. When we were about to start the construction, the Prime Minister told us to hand them over to India. Now the CPC is losing US $ 1.5 billion annually, but when the government runs short of money it will lose the port.

? Now, come clean. I am looking at your face first, and then looking at you directly between your eyeballs! Is this a subtle move to topple a democratically elected sovereign government? We know that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is determined to return to power at any cost. Is your effort as a part of that or are you being the cat's paw of the Joint Opposition which is desperately wanting to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa to power? Please reply after talking to your conscience!

A: No, not by a long shot! A majority of the members of the unions are from the JVP. So, do you think that the JVP wants President Rajapaksa back? If we wanted to topple the government, there would have been different ways. This is to stop the government compromising the people. We are not compromising the people like the way that the government is compromising them.

? Now that the government has declared all these services such as petroleum as essential services, what have you decided to do, if all the employment contracts of the current employees are terminated like President J.R. Jayewardene did in 1981 when your union members are absent from work, whatever the morality of the cause is?

A: Can a government do that and stay in power? This will be something like emergency where it will have to go to Parliament and get the approval every month. I hope the government will be in existence for them to have the essential services throughout.

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