By Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) -A power sector union in Sri Lanka said on Wednesday it will go on an indefinite strike from midnight in protest against new government legislation, potentially leading to power blackouts in a country already grappling with its worst economic crisis in decades.
Some 900 out of around 1,100 engineers of the state-run Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), Sri Lanka's main power company, will not report for duty on Thursday and those already at power plants, transmission and distribution facilities will leave at midnight, the CEB Engineers' Union said.
That prompted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to issue a gazette notification late on Wednesday declaring electricity supply as an essential service. The legal directive makes it mandatory for engineers to report to work.
Sri Lanka's deepest economic crisis since independence in 1948 has upended lives of many of its 22 million people, with long queues for fuel and cooking gas, alongside shortages of essentials including medicines.
The country was also plagued by long power cuts earlier this year after a shortage of foreign currency hit imports of fuel needed to generate electricity, though the situation has improved as monsoon rains drive hydropower generation.
But the looming strike could bring back power outages, with no breakthrough so far in talks between the CEB Engineers' Union and government authorities.
The union is protesting against government plans to amend legislation governing the country's power sector, which include removing restrictions on competitive bidding for renewable power projects.
"Talks with the minister have been unsuccessful. These amendments are deceitful and are aimed at cancelling the competitive bidding scheme, which exists to ensure the public get electricity at the lowest cost," the union's Joint Secretary Dhammika Wimalaratne told Reuters.
"We can in no way agree to this."
Sri Lanka's government, under new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been pushing renewable energy as a potential solution for its power woes, with early interest from some international players including India's Adani that is looking at a 500MW solar and wind project.
Kanchana Wijesekera, the country's power and energy minister, said he expected parliament to pass the amended regulations on Thursday and accused the union of blocking much-needed reforms.
The amendments would "pave the way for quick approval and implementation of long delayed renewable power projects," he said in a tweet on Tuesday.
Sri Lanka has been asking friendly nations, including India and China, for credit lines, food and energy. India has already committed billions of dollars in financial support.
Chinese banks reached out to Sri Lankan authorities after the country suspended repayment on some of its external debt in April and "expressed readiness" to find a way to "handle the matured debts", China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference on Wednesday.
"China is ready to work with relevant countries and international financial institutions to continue to play a positive role in supporting Sri Lanka's response to current difficulties and efforts to ease debt burden and realize sustainable development," Zhao told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Abhirup RoyEditing by Marguerita Choy)