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Cable failure leaves Sri Lanka in the dark

Friday October 9 2009

By REUTERS

COLOMBO, Friday

Sri Lanka’s power grid crashed on Friday, plunging the entire country into darkness barely 24 hours after private companies took over some functions of the state-owned electricity company despite union objections.

The government ruled out sabotage or action by electrical workers’ unions who have threatened blackouts if pay demands are not met. The unions said they had no role in it either.

State authorities blamed a technical fault in the main line, which left the country without power for more than five hours from early morning, and large swathes of the country without it for at least half the day.

“There had been a cable failure at the Kelanitissa power station and another problem in Kothmale,” said Badhra Jayaweera, the Ceylon Electricity Board’s general manager. “It’s not sabotage.”

Kothmale and Kelanitissa are two of the main power stations in the country, responsible for a combined 401 megawatts.

The main electrical workers’ union said the blackout showed the government’s transfer of some of the state-owned Colombo Electricity Board’s work to eight privately owned companies, which took effect on Thursday, was a mistake.

“The government said the reforms were to provide uninterrupted power at a cheaper price,” Ranjan Jayalal, the general secretary of the largest trade union, Lanka Vidhulibala Sevaka, told Reuters.

Jayaweera ruled out any action by powerful trade unions, who have since the war’s end in May threatened island-wide blackouts if their demands, including a pay increase of over 40 percent, were not met.

During a 25-year war with the Tamil Tiger rebels, power plants and other major pieces of infrastructure were targets of the separatists.

In October, the rebels flew a single-engine plane to Colombo and tried to cripple Kelanitissa by bombing it. The unions had stopped trade union action from 2006 after President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged them to hold off to avoid detracting from the war effort against the Tamil Tigers.

Cancelled leave

In August, the government cancelled all leave for electricity board employees after the unions threatened days of work actions and blackouts, if authorities failed to meet their demands.

There are around 25 power plants in Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million people. But if one of the main power lines trips, the whole system shuts down.