A country like no other, on its way to self-annihilation

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African girls’ pee-powered generator raises questions


  • The Budget 2019 – Request for proposals


By S.P. Upali S. Wickramasinghe

The Minister of Finance had requested for proposals to be included in the proposed National Budget 2019. This practice had been going on since about the year 1995, the year that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga brought in Dr. P.B. Jayasundera as the Secretary in charge of the function of National Finance and continued through the Governments of the UNP and the SLFP in their many manifestations and contortions.

This practice indicates to me that this country is run in an ad hoc manner without a proper national plan. Without a well-formulated national plan to project an economic advancement, any promise to propel this country to be declared a developed country is an excise in the absurd.

This country had a well-staffed Planning Secretariat prior to 1995; I have had exposure to the specialists in that Secretariat. They were well informed and professional.

Preceding the budget are the negotiations with the multilateral lending agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. When the budget proposals are presented, one reads in the papers criticism of the proposals on the basis that they have been formulated by one or more of the multilateral funding agencies, the common term used by the politicians of the opposition being – led by the nose by the IMF. That is a fair criticism, considering what had been undertaken to finance the budget. However that leads us to the question – what have those who level the criticism done to correct the situation, when they were in power?

Formulate our economic policies

If the multilateral agencies propose solutions that are not palatable to us, then the solution is for us to formulate our economic policies and seek financial assistance where necessary. The assistance of the Kuwait fund for the fertiliser manufacturing facility was based on such planning. That project spanned the period of two Prime Ministers, late Dudley Senanayake and late Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The fertiliser manufacturing facility was killed by the verbose Finance Minister of the day, Ronnie de Mel.

I was surprised to see a request by the Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera calling for proposals to be included in the proposed Budget in early 2019. I was surprised because I consider the current Minister of Finance a person with a high degree of intelligence but he does not seem to have grasped the solution that stares at him.

The unfortunate situation is that, many have declared their intentions to contest the 2020 elections but none of them have declared what their policies are going to be. That also applies to the shadowy figure being sponsored by the so-called intellectual community including the academic staff of the universities. Two of those represent one item each – settling the national debt, correcting the lapses in the judicial system. They are only minor factors involving the wellbeing of the country.

The Federation of University Teachers Association made a show of themselves a few years ago, however how many of their members have contributed to formulate a National Economic Plan? When there is a crisis some of them make statements splashed in the papers connected to the subject of the crisis. They come out like woodworms from rotting timbre. 

I noticed this during the crisis that came up on 26 October last year, during the issue involving the SAITM (about 200 signatories said to be from the staff of the universities) and during the February 2018 election (about 100 signatories from the universities). Except for two of those signatories, nothing had been heard of those lecturers from the universities making any contribution to the wellbeing of this country.

Contrary to that comment I did not plan to pen this proposal, because I found that the politicians of this country, from all parties that have formed governments, have no interest in such mundane things like employment for the people, simple and possible solutions to the people’s problems, etc. If there was a proposal to send a rocket to the moon, which is impossible to poor Sri Lankans, they will be there in a big way – to spend the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

Two bitter experiences

I have had two bitter experiences in the immediate past wherein I sought the assistance of the political and administrative masters of this country and failed to elicit even an acknowledgement to the request, mind you all of them are endowed with massive secretariats.

My first problem was with an attempt by an Assistant Director at the National Intellectual Property Office of Sri Lanka to squash a product I had developed. The decision was not based on objective criteria. I suspected that other considerations were involved. I found that the Assistant Director was being mollycoddled, without being disciplined, in spite of the fact that all the necessary information to discipline the Assistant Director was found within the file containing the application. The design was for a stationery file, Based on a retail price of Rs. 50 per unit the cost of production would have been in the region of Rs. 17 per unit, at the time the application was filed. Mollycoddling may be an extreme description, it may be that the Director General did not have the ability to grasp the finer points.

Seeking the assistance of the courts was impracticable considering the delays. Two of the cases involving commercial matters reported recently are said to have had a lifespan of 10 years. That makes litigation an exercise in the absurd. I am involved in a case involving partitioning a land which has now run through 1983-2019, still to be finalised.

I wrote to the Secretary to the President, the Minister in charge of Trade and Commerce, the Secretary to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, the Minister of Finance and to the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance seeking their help. These are the avenues left to the citizens of this country, thanks to the Constitutions of 1972 and 1978. Though it was their duty to respond, there was not even an acknowledgement, in spite of the extensive secretariats they command. Prior to the Constitution of 1972, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry concerned would have rectified the situation. 

The second was more interesting.

At the time I bought my first car, the price of petrol was Rs. 0.50 per litre. When the government changed in 1977, the price was Rs. 3.00 per litre. In the recent past it shot up to Rs. 137 per litre. This massive rise in price is due to neglect by the parties that governed this country during the period 1977-2019, which include the UNP, the SLFP and the JHU, and as a topping I will add Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who should have known better.

The alternative to petrol is alcohol, the drinking alcohol – ethanol. The projected production of fuel alcohol in 2018 was 120 billion litres (source: OECD/FAO (2015), ‘OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook,’ OECD agriculture statistics (database), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/agr-outl-data-en.). That is only the fuel alcohol sector, equal or more extensive stocks are being manufactured for the beverage sector. 

The Sevanagala and Pelwatte distilleries have spent over Rs. 500 million (Rs. 500,000,000) on fuel since they were commissioned. Bulk of this Rs. 500,000,000 (approximately 90-95%) had been spent on heating the fermented sugar containing mix to separate the alcohol in it. The heat required for lighting purposes is negligible and could be obtained through solar panels. The energy required to operate motors are intermittent and is not substantial. Four girls in Nigeria produced electric energy via a Yokohoma generator using processed urine. The next substantial quantity of energy is required to sterilise the sugar mix prior to fermentation. That requirement could be quantamised at about 3% of the Rs. 500 million. 

I have known since 1995 ways and means of reducing the energy required to heat the fermented sugar mix. This was theory. It had to be worked out experimentally to be implemented commercially. The laws and the procedures of this country prevented me from conducting the experiments at home. If it was any of the Caucasian countries or even the Caribbean countries, the matter could have been settled with one letter to the Excise Department of those countries. What is required in those countries are your bona fides.

Collaboration with two universities in Sri Lanka was organised in order to conduct the experiments. With a letter of introduction from one of the universities, and the fact that I have been involved in the distilleries (Hingurana, Kantale, Nagoda and Wadduwa in Sri Lanka, Uitvlugt in Guyana, St. Lucia, UK and France) and with my educational qualifications I met the Chairman of Lanka Sugar in order to find finances for the study. The requirement was a mere 0.6% of the sum spent on fuel, which could have been released in stages. I have had no reply through the past eight months or so.

In order to find the finances that were not being released, I wrote to the Secretary to the President, the Minister in charge of Lanka Sugar at that time, the Secretary to his Ministry, the Minister of Finance and his Secretary. No response again.

What responsibility, what a love for the nation!

Though I did not plan to respond to the request for information re the Budget 2019, the situation changed on reading an article by a person identified as an Economist/Economic Analyst on 26 February. He had more or less prescribed sources of funds for the 2019 Budget. His proposal would result in strangulating the bottom layers of the population further. What an excuse for an economist indeed!

Fuel imports

Let us look at some of the figures presented by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in relation to imports (2.03: Imports – Annual (2007-2017) table 2.03.2: Imports (Rupees Million) (see table).

Cost of fuel imports is Rs. 4,816,614.1 x 1,000,000 = Rs 4,816,614,100,000.

Fuels that are being imported are: (i) Crude oil for distillation at Sapugaskanda refinery, (ii) Finished products distilled abroad (iii) Coal. The products of interest are grades of petrol, grades of diesel and coal.

The replacement for petrol and diesel is ethyl alcohol, butyl alcohol and hydrogen where GHG gasses are not produced. The replacement for coal for mass-scale production of electricity other than hydroelectricity is hydrogen based. Solar and wind power will never be produced in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the National Grid, unless of course we denude the country of its trees and make this the latest desert island.

Ethyl alcohol used in petrol and diesel vehicles can vary in purity (concentration) varying from 65%-99%. Use of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) at 66% purity is only at the experimental stage. 99% pure alcohol is called dehydrated alcohol, 96% pure alcohol is called hydrous alcohol, i.e. it contains 4% water and is also called the azeotrope. In the beverage trade well purified 96% ethanol is called ENA – Extra Neutral Alcohol.

There is a school of thought that the ethanol used should be 99% pure. I do not agree. It is costly to produce and store, because with the slight exposure to the atmosphere, it reverts to its stable format 96% purity. 99% pure ethanol has to be transported in airtight bowsers, it has to be stocked in airtight containers, etc. All these precautions add to the cost and finally the price to the consumer.

In a country which was fed with water on the pipe containing the remains of a putrefying dead body, in a country which faced stalled vehicles on the road due to low quality petrol, the use of 99% ethanol could be deadly. 96% ethanol is transported in pipelines – which makes it less costly to handle. I will be dealing with the use of 96% pure grade of ethanol. 

A low volume ethanol distillery is quoted at about $ 6,000,000 – depending on the capacity and the technology that is being supplied. The technology is getting complicated by the day, as a result prices of distilleries increases in proportion ($ 6,000,000 = Rs. 6,000,000 x 180 = Rs. 1,080,000,000.). A dehydrated alcohol distillery could be priced in the region of $ 10,000,000 ($ 10,000,000 x 180 = Rs. 1,800,000,000), ideal deal for those working on 10% commissions.

This need not be so. My studies indicate that a distillery could be installed at a cost less than Rs. 100,000,000 inclusive of land, distillery, ancillary buildings and even a few houses for the staff. If I am to design such a structure, I will include solar panels and a system to collect liquid effluents – urine learning from the four girls in Nigeria produced electricity off a Yamaha generator using processed urine.

Gainful employment 

The raw materials for an ethanol distillery are found in Sri Lanka viz. sugar cane, paddy, jack, yams, etc. With a concerted effort, this country could be self-sufficient in its fuel requirement within five years. It will also provide employment to the youth in a productive field, not as members of the forces or as three-wheel drivers. A rough estimate is about three to four million units of employment.

Under the present dispensation the youth have only a limited scope for gainful employment. Most of avenues of employment recommended by our politicians are not gainful at all and they lack dignity e.g. washing toilets in hotels and other work involving scavenging. Even the few avenues in entertaining the members of the same or opposite sex – commonly called prostitution – is now being dominated by the foreigners – open economy.

Fuel ethanol comes in varying degrees of purity, 65%, 96% and 99%. Experiments are being conducted on the use of 65% ethanol. 96% (with 4% water) fuel is called H100. 99% is used in blends with petrol. The mix comes in varying blends E10 – 10% Ethanol and 90% petrol, E20 – 20% ethanol and 80% petrol and the high end E85 i.e. 85% ethanol and 15% petrol. 96% pure variety is what is manufactured in Sri Lanka. As a fuel it is generally designated as H100.

H100 i.e. the 96% ethanol with 4% water does not need such expensive investment. H100 has shortcomings. These have been overcome. It cannot on its own replace gallon to gallon in relation to petrol. To achieve improved performance additives called ignition improvers are added. H100 is used in South America. When H100 is used, the vehicle is started with petrol or preheaters (glow plugs).

Meanwhile, 96% ethanol does not mix with diesel. To overcome this problem compounds to blend diesel with ethanol containing 4% water called homogenisers have been developed. H100 is also used in place of diesel in Scanair suses in Scandinavia and at Melbourne in Australia. There is another alcohol that is used as replacement for petrol – butyl alcohol.


Pathetic situation

The pathetic story is that vehicles had been operated in this country with H100 in the pre-1977 era at the Hingurana Distillery. The group that worked on this was headed by K. Ganeshratnam, the then Distillery Manager. This work was allowed to fall into abeyance. If it was continued, may be the import of crude oil such large quantities could be a matter of history. 

The work on butyl alcohol was under taken at the Post Graduate Institute of Agriculture. Prof. Athula Perera came out with this work in 2012 or so. The response that came from a scientist of repute, a member of the Friday Forum, was disgusting to me. The manner in which the criticism was levelled is not expected from a man of education, a man who has held responsible positions in the public sector. He disputed the success of the work, without giving reasons.

The student who did this research identified the microbe that could yield butyl alcohol (butanol) and found it in this country. That itself in an achievement of note. Seeking references on the production of butanol, one find only a few microbes had been discovered. Researchers in the recent past used genetically modified a microbe for this purpose. The identity of the microbe used in the work at Peradeniya was never revealed.

The criticism may have been on the basis of a suspicion that the microbe used was Clostridium acetobutylicum (CA). The Weizmann microbe. This microbe is named after Dr. Chaim Azriel Weizmann, who discovered it. Weizmann was the first President of the State of Israel. With that kind of leadership, no doubt Israel is where it is today.

CA is stable up to 2.5% of butyl alcohol. That handicap has now been solved and the material necessary is found in Sri Lanka. In 1920-1930, two researchers identified microbes that were capable of tolerating higher levels of butanol. These two microbes had not been used in industry due to reasons not explained.

This country has nearly 16 universities that could work on this research – the students need not be those with Biology subjects at the GCE A/L. Even the students of Humanities (Arts) can be trained to search for the microbe in our soil. The number of students preparing to sit the GCE A/L exam is said to run into nearly a million. That group too could be the foot soldiers to seek a suitable microbe. 

The initial work does not require sophisticated equipment – a circular Winchester candle such as a 100, 180 or 375 ml circular bottle, some sterilised cotton wool glucose syrup and a thin stainless wire is all that is required. Later on petri dishes may be used.

If Hamilton Naki who was employed as a gardener could perform the first heart transplant operation and also lecture to medical students and Dr. Padmal de Silva who entered the University with Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit could end as a clinical psychiatrist with many a publication to his credit, there is no reason why a GCE A/L student, even from the Arts stream, cannot be trained in this work.

Butyl alcohol benefits

The production of butyl alcohol has a further benefit – production of ethanol and acetone. Researchers have reported that acetone when mixed with petrol improves the performance of the engine. It has not been tested as an ignition improver with ethanol.

No doubt the processing of butyl alcohol has many problems to be solved. If my work is successful with ethanol, some of the techniques adopted could be used.

One of the by-products of butyl alcohol production is hydrogen. Hydrogen is used in the fuel cell cars. In the fuel cell car the exhaust is water vapour. It is reported that fuel cell cars sell at or around $ 40,000, about Rs. 7.2 million.

Some countries use fuel cell to generate electricity supplied via the grid. Hydrogen is also said to be produced by processing ethanol.

This country has a Ministry for Alternate Fuels, Ministry for Science and Research, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education and on top a Ministry of Finance and Planning (Planning a bogus portfolio since 1995). They should concentrate their energy on finding alternate sources of transport fuel. Why do they concentrate on solar power and wind power? They say that droplets of water could make a river; I doubt it, it certainly does not make an ocean. 

Carbon Tax

One last point, the Carbon Tax. What was the rationale to introduce a Carbon Tax on a selected group of vehicles? Carbon Tax was introduced with the intention of reducing the carbon containing vapours being released to the atmosphere. Carbon containing exhaust is not produced in vehicles operating on fuel cells (hydrogen cells).

Vehicles operating on batteries, hybrid vehicles, petrol and diesel do release carbon compounds to the atmosphere. The vehicles operating on petrol or diesel release carbon at the tailpipe end – exhaust pipe of the vehicle. The hybrid vehicles do release a limited quantity of carbon containing compounds.

The so-called vehicles with batteries used in place of petrol or diesel need to be charged. The electricity is provided by the National Grid. The electricity for the National Grid is obtained from hydroelectric sources. Solar power, wind power and fuel operated generators. Hydro electricity is clean but cannot meet the country’s requirement, solar and wind supply a minor fraction of the need (the Central Bank). Fossil fuels and coal supply the bulk of the non-hydro electricity. When you generate electricity by means of fossil fuels one releases carbon containing compounds at the exhaust end of the generator. Coal release carbon containing compounds at the stack end of the generator. Coal is also classified as a fossil fuel.

By imposing a Carbon Tax the Government is passing the responsibility to supply electricity to hybrid and PHEVs to the masses who have no hand in the consumption. The masses are being squeezed dry by our governments of all hues. The Carbon Tax should be reviewed without much delay in the name of social justice. 

If the politicians who run this country have the brains and the ability, this country could be made a rich country with a satisfied and happy population. A population of youth who seek employment in the forces or as three-wheel operators are an indication of the degree of putrefaction the country has reached. No doubt, the youth seek employment as menials in foreign countries, even as scavengers. 

Will God visit us in the way He visited Sodom and Gomorrah? I do not wish that the youth in their frustration emulate Portnoy.

(The writer can be reached via email at [email protected].)