Colombo: 6.9 million signatures collected against electricity price hike
by Arundathie Abeysinghe

The campaign began in front of the capital's train station, but this is already the second time in four months that a petition has been organized against high electricity bills. Experts say the increase was proposed to compensate for allowances given to the Ceylon Elecrtricy Board, Sri Lanka's largest electricity company dependent on the Ministry of Energy.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The protest season in Sri Lanka continues: the Electricity Consumers Association (Eca) has collected 6.9 million signatures across the country against the government's decision to increase utility bills. The campaign began in front of the railway station in the capital Colombo and is supported by the opposition, labor unions, the real estate and industrial sectors, public and private sector employees, and the Public Utilities Commission in Sri Lanka (Pucsl).

This is the second time in four months that a petition against high utility bills has been organized. According to Pucsl, the action is illegal because the government does not have the authority to raise bills. However, Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera reiterated that the proposed tariff scheme was advanced by the Ceylon Electricity Board (Ceb) and was shared on his Twitter account as an official message. 

Sampath Hendawitharana, a public sector employee from Kalutara and father of two school-age children, told AsiaNews that "the proposed electricity tariff increase is similar to an electric shock. Several families from my village have left the country in search not of greener pastures, but with the goal of finding employment abroad. Some may never return to Sri Lanka. Many families committed suicide because they could not pay their mortgages, buy food, and pay their college tuition. Does the government expect people to live in the dark?"

Nimal Sendaratne, an NGO activist, explained that "the new tariff is a blow to the middle class and the poor. People are facing numerous difficulties due to the high cost of living; they pawn their jewelry, consume one meal a day, and many have lost their livelihoods. Parents give up meals to pay for school fees, some students have dropped out of school, and those who live on rent cannot pay it, so they live with relatives and friends who face similar difficulties. If there is an increase in bills, how will people pay?"

Several opposition MPs present at the signature-gathering campaign reiterated that "this is the inefficiency of the government. We have planned to go house to house, starting next week, and launch a massive protest campaign if the government goes ahead with this increase. It will be the second largest protest in the country. People are living in miserable conditions. We will lead the struggle. People are silent, not because they have a comfortable life, but because they are fed up with all the 225 MPs in Parliament." 

Lawyer Ramesh Alagiyawanna revealed that "the government decided to increase electricity tariffs by up to 65 percent in January due to the approval of the Council of Ministers to offset costs. Over the past three months, more than 3.5 billion rupees (9 million euros) have been paid as allowances and salaries for employees of the Ceylon Electricity Board," Sri Lanka's largest power company dependent on the Ministry of Energy. "The government is trying to overcome the objections of the power sector regulator and proceed with the tariff increase."

Eca sources added, "We started our public petition in Matara on January 1, the hometown of Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, and collected signatures in Galle as well. We collected over 10,000 signatures on the first day. It is the Pucsl that has the authority to decide on these tariffs."