Fishing town to financial biggie

Siddarth Ravindran,  from

The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota district, just off the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, is an anomaly among venues for the 2011 World Cup. Most other grounds for cricket’s showpiece event are in big urban centres like Chennai, Colombo and Chittagong, but the closest settlement to the Hambantota stadium is Sooriyawewa, a nondescript, largely one-street village eight kilometres away.

It is an odd location for one of the two splashy new stadiums (the other is in Pallekele, near Kandy) being built for the World Cup in Sri Lanka, both completely owned by the country’s cricket board. Six hours away from the nearest commercial airport, with hardly any hotels around, and with no identified domestic first-class team to use the stadium as a home ground (Ruhuna, the local side in the inter-provincial tournament, use the perfectly adequate Galle stadium, a Test venue, as their base). Pic of Hambantota in old fishing days is by Asia Indian Ocean Int_Hays

One reason is that the country’s president, after whom the ground is named, hails from Hambantota. It was his son Namal Rajapaksa’s youth organisation, Tharunyata Hetak, that first proposed building an international stadium in the district, one of the country’s most under-nourished regions. It’s hard to escape images of the two Rajapaksas in the district – on billboards, on t-shirts, in restaurants, and most prominently on all the many signs publicising the raft of developmental activities in Hambantota. Even the board just outside the stadium detailing how the venue will look once fully developed has Namal’s picture on it; the project’s client is “Sri Lanka Cricket in association with Tharunyata Hetak”.

Sri Lanka Cricket reasons that the stadium is an important step in promoting cricket in the provinces. Cricket in the country used to be very Colombo-centric in the decades leading up to Sri Lanka becoming a Test nation, with much of the major local cricket played on weekends between clubs based in the capital. The board president in the early 1980s was the influential politician Gamini Dessanayake, who set about constructing stadiums in Kandy (Central Province) and Matara (Southern Province) after his campaign for winning Sri Lanka Test status was successful in 1981. Some of the country’s greatest cricketers have since emerged from these places: Sanath Jayasuriya from Matara, and Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara from Kandy.

“Naturally it is our duty as Sri Lanka Cricket to make sure that cricket does not stay in Colombo,” says Suraj Dandeniya, director of the World Cup secretariat. “If cricket is to grow we have to play in the provinces. All you need is one man. A Murali has changed entire complexion of the game. Same with Sachin Tendulkar. Maybe we can find the next star in these places [around Hambantota].”

The China connection
For several years now, the ICC has been making a concerted push to popularise cricket in China, no doubt excited by the financial gold mine that the world’s most populous country could provide to the game. However, China’s biggest contribution to cricket over the years seems to be in building World Cup stadiums. For the 2007 event in the Caribbean, it financed stadiums in Antigua, Grenada, Jamaica and St Kitts. This time round the Chinese have helped construct the venue at Hambantota.

Driving past Sooriyawewa in September 2010, I spotted pockets of Chinese workers milling around the town or crowded in the back of pick-up trucks taking them to the ground. As you drive from the town to the stadium, along the recently built, puzzlingly wide (at least twice as broad as the national highway, the A2 from Colombo to Katargama), nearly deserted road to the stadium, there’s the peculiar sight of warning signs in Mandarin, English and Sinhalese.

There was plenty of heavy-duty construction equipment – excavators, dump trucks and tower cranes – around the stadium, which still required plenty of work. While the large, grassy outfield (Hambantota is going to have the largest cricket playing area in the world, 130 metres from the stumps to the end of the outfield) and turf pitches in the centre seemed ready, only the skeletons of the two main structures being built – the seven-storied grandstand and the press box – were in place. As for the other stands, the ground had been banked and smoothened but there was no sign of any further work, except for the flags of the China Harbour Engineering Corporation hoisted on poles scattered around the perimeter.

Not cause for alarm, though. The Dambulla stadium was built from scratch in about five months. The ICC professed itself satisfied with the progress in Hambantota, and the organisers have no concerns over the stadium’s preparedness for the big day.

Most of the stadium’s areas were supposed to be completed by October but the ICC was not happy with the state of things during an inspection in December. Hambantota, along with the Premadasa in Colombo, Wankhede in Mumbai and Eden Gardens in Kolkata, was criticised for under-preparedness and given till January 15 to get things in order.

What the fans can expect
What could be worrying, at least for visiting fans, is getting hotel rooms during the World Cup. The ICC officials and players will be ensconced in two of the bigger hotels in the area, and there are already reports of huge mark-ups in prices in others. I attempted to book a room in two other hotels in the area, only to be told that they were both booked out. SLC is looking to help by bringing in a cruise liner (another similarity with the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean).

“At the moment we have 648 rooms in Hambantota. There is enough room for people to come and watch the matches,” Dandeniya says. “We are hoping to bring a cruise ship, about 400-600 rooms, so that people from Colombo can have the luxury of going in a cruise, staying in a ship, so entertainment will be taken care of.”

Fans can also entertain themselves in the Bundala (famous for its aquatic birdlife, including the Great Flamingo) and Yala wildlife parks (known for its leopards and elephants) nearby, scuba dive in Tangalle an hour away, or visit Katargama, an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. There is a big push, called “Deep South”, to promote tourism in the region, and Hambantota hopes to combine the World Cup and the “Visit Sri Lanka Year” campaign to pull in vacationers. SLC is lining up plenty of activities around the country during the tournament. “We are planning many things – beach carnivals, soft-ball tournaments, a lot of nightlife,” Dandeniya says. “From about February 10 to end of March, Sri Lanka will be like Brazil’s Mardi Gras.”

In search of old glory
The new Hambantota stadium is part of a wide-ranging developmental drive in the southern province, for long the most backward in the country, with a third of its population below the poverty line. A popular slogan “Kolombata Kiri Apita Kekiri” (milk for Colombo’s children, melons for us) encapsulated the resentment people of the region have had, of being neglected by the centre, for decades.

The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 compounded matters. Hambantota was the second-worst affected district in the country. Crowds of people gathered for the popular Sunday market were swept away by a wall of water, and two of the district’s major sources of livelihood – fishing and salt production – were left in disarray.

President Rajapaksa wants to redress the situation by transforming sleepy Hambantota, his son’s electoral constituency, into the biggest urban centre in Sri Lanka after Colombo. That change is to be brought about primarily by the building of a new port in the area, an idea first floated in 1946. It was only in 2007 that work actually began on the port, the first phase of which, costing US$350m, largely financed and built by China, was inaugurated on the president’s birthday on November 18, 2010.

Located on the south-eastern rim of the island, Hambantota lies smack in the middle of the busy shipping route connecting East Asia to Europe, and used to be a commercial hub on the ancient maritime Silk Route two millennia ago. It seeks to reclaim that stature with the new port, expecting to attract about 8000 ships annually once the project is finished, in about a decade’s time.

On August 15 last year, after a ceremony in which Rajapaksa released the first sea water into the port, the place turned into a picnic spot of sorts, reminiscent of most crowded beaches in the subcontinent. Excited families thronged the place to get a close look at the structure, which is expected to revolutionise the surrounding areas and their lives. All visitors were given free visor caps to mark the occasion, enterprising men started selling lychees from the back of vans, and ice-cream and knick knacks off bicycles. Also in evidence was that ubiquitous presence in Sri Lanka: the seller of lottery tickets.

While the region is clearly proud of the changes that are taking place, there is plenty of short-term discontent as well. About 500 families had to move out due to construction of the port, and many are unhappy with the compensation provided. “A reasonable amount was paid, no doubt, but when these people really move they have to worry about their livelihood, they have to start new,” said Azmi Thassim, director-general of the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce. “When the compensation is calculated, government will not look into all details. People are positive overall, though. Feeling is high because something good is happening to the area.”

Among the developments that strike you are the broad new roads all over the district. But the port has forced vehicles on the busy A2 highway to take a detour, bypassing Hambantota, causing more dissatisfaction. “We used to get lot of income when vehicles were going through our town,” says Thassim. “The loss that they are incurring due to this road closure is not being compensated.”

The other complaint is about a lack of involvement of locals in decision-making. “Lot of things happen in Colombo, local people have a feeling that they should also have more of a share in the planning and implementation process,” Thassim says.

Besides the port, there are several other big-ticket investments in the region – most significant of which is the international airport in Mattala town, only the second in the country after Colombo. A massive international convention centre, spread over 28 acres and partly funded by the Korean government, is also under construction. A national tele-cinema village costing Rs 600m (US$ 5.3m) opened earlier in 2010. It aims to be a one-stop shop for local film-makers and television artistes. There are also plans for an oil refinery, for developing the country’s largest botanical park, for improving rail and road connectivity to the district, and for constructing a full-fledged sports village.

All of which has left the town of Hambantota, a fishing hamlet of 20,000 people, dreaming big: it is one of the two bidders for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, usually the preserve of urban behemoths like Melbourne and New Delhi.

1 Comment

Filed under Indian Ocean politics, island economy, Rajapaksa regime

One response to “Fishing town to financial biggie

  1. Pingback: Sooriyawewa, Rajapaksa & Hambantota « Critiquing Cricket

Leave a Reply