The Internal Tussles, Vagaries and Scheming that Hindered the Development of the Hambantota Port Project

An Insider

Jonathan E. Hillman, 26 August 2021, whose title runs thus: “The Secret History of Hambantota” …. Starts his write up If Chinese loans were cigarettes, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port would be the cancerous lung on the warning label. Some observers have pointed to the underperforming port and alleged that China is using “debt trap diplomacy,” This statement reflects Hillman’s intention of using Hambantota port to discredit China. Taking a similar line Fair Dinkum in his “American Schemes of Global Bifurcation behind Hillman’s story on Hambantota Port” is critical of the messenger rather than being responsive to the message.+++

However, the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) won the Parliamentary elections in 2003. He, as the Prime Minister appointed 5 Cabinet Ministers in charge of 5 regions carved out. Ananda Kularatne who represented Hambantota District was appointed as the Minister for Southern Region Development (M/SRD). One of the promises made by UNP on the election platform was an international harbor for Hambantota. It was the dream of Ananda Kularatne too. The M/SRD was pursuing his dream. At this stage, Ariyaseeela Wickramanayaka, who had established the first Sri Lankan diving company, was in the forefront of campaign for Hambantota Port. Moreover, A senior lecturer attached to University of Moratuwa and Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce who has specialized in the subject also backed the idea.

Hambantota is the closest point in the island to the international shipping lane. When one enjoys sipping a cup of tea on the verandah of then Hambantota Rest House, no way could he or she could miss seeing  quite a number of ships sailing up and down and simply bypassing Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka can attract these ships ashore, it will be only by Hambantota.

The deep blue sea goes down to twenty to thirty meters and could accommodate the new generation ships without demanding extensive and expensive dredging.  The naturally deep sea which allows ships ashore is further supported by the naturally opened wide gape at Rathupasgodella to Karagamlevaya giving birth to one of the sea-land combined Port, if it is not the only one in the world.

The lavishly available land and space for accommodating services, offices, warehouses, and residential quarters is nature’s gift for a Greenfield Port project. Being the capital city, Colombo has become the administrative centre, commercial centre and the financial centre. The flow of men, material and money to and out of Colombo has become a nightmare. Roads are clogged and congested. It’s hardly possible to take an additional container down the city roads. In contrast, Hambantota offers unlimited space for construction, expansion, facilities and services. The Port is located in the vicinity of nature parks, attractive beaches and several other natural attractions. A sailor who spends days and weeks on the high sea would no doubt be met with abundant leisure and pleasure hunting plots.

There was a proposal made by the Canadian Government to conduct a feasibility study on this port sometime back which was not pursued. With the fresh moves on Hambantota Harbour, the Canadian High Commission renewed its interest to conduct the study and finance it. Negotiations took place. With insistence of M/SRD,the  Government decided to hand over the study to Canada. SNC Lavalin nominated by the Canadian Government submitted the report with a proposal for a Build Operate and Transfer project. The company sought a treasury guarantee. The MY.of Southern Development pushed for the project, but the Ministry of Ports did not. Prime Minister appointed another senior Minister to mediate and promote the project. But regrettably he did not show much interest.

The subject of Port Development was vested with the Ministry of Ports and Shipping (M/P&S). Minister was Rauff Hakeem. He was also the Minister of Eastern Region (M/ER). He had an interest in developing a harbor in Oluvil. He, discreetly using his mandate as M/P&S, was soft-pedaling on the idea of Haambantota harbour. Officials of M/P&S and the SL Ports Authority (SLPA) were vehemently opposing the idea. There were at least two undisclosed reasons for that. It was said that SLPA officials are well settled in Colombo with all its perks, benefits and comforts. A dislocation of main international harbor would disrupt their comfortable settled life in Colombo. The other reason was the interest of competing countries to become the naval hub in Asia. Singapore, India, China were among them. The talk in the grapevine was that SLPA officials were taken care of by rival contenders. Parakrama Dissanayake was the Chairman, SLPA and was one who spoke eloquently and opposed vehemently.

The PM (Ranil Wickremasinghe), who is rich in concepts and ideas but poor in implementation and management, was indecisive and passed the buck on to Milinda Moragoda (MM). He was/is not a practical man, but talks sweet. When the SNC Lavalin Final report came on the table, he spent time flouting theories and virtually turned down the proposal.

There were talks in the grapevine that Singapore was not in favour of Sri Lanka developing a port in Hambantota. The then Prime Minister did not take a stand either. At the next election, the then Government lost. That was the end of Canadian involvement.

At the time there was no Executive President hailing from Hambantota who could afford to make that decision. One senior official of Ports Authority who mentioned that construction of a port is not like constructing a bus stand surprisingly is playing a key role in the present Hambantota Port Project. The two senior ministers who opposed the Hambantota port joined Mahinda Rajapakse government and kept mum when Hambantota was constructed.

If the Minister appointed for negotiations and the Ministry of Ports were really interested and took a professional stance over other interests and prejudices, Sri Lanka would have negotiated with the Canadian Government for a smaller scale port leaving space for gradual expansion.


+++ A NOTE from Michael Roberts, 15 September 2021:

The author has misread “Fair Dinkum” here. FAIR DINKUM leans towardds supporting the project and is highly critical of Hillman’s advocacy.  SEE his “comment” on Mick Moore’s esssay on Hambantota  = :


HOT PRESS: AN EMAIL NOTE from “Fair Dinkum,” 17 September 2021**

“I am baffled by those criticising the development of Hambantota, constantly whinging about it for no good reason. There is a common denominator to the collection of people who whinge about Hambantota, which serves to undermine Sri Lanka’s national interests. Their efforts would be better deployed in getting behind the port and the development that springs from it rather than trying to sabotage it. ”

** As the pseudonym indicates, “Fair Dinkum” is located in Australasia. While having experience of work in Sri Lanka, his specialist field and linguistic skills are in Malaysia and China. This line of work renders him vulnerable to attack from security agencies as well as quacks. Hence the blanket of anonymity.


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8 responses to “The Internal Tussles, Vagaries and Scheming that Hindered the Development of the Hambantota Port Project

  1. Lakshman Gunasekara

    If a substitute port or complementing port for Colombo is what is needed, then why get more indebted (whether a ‘trap’ is secondary) by busting billions on creating an entirely artificial harbour in relatively remote Hambantota (where no port ever existed other than an ancient landing place and modern fisheries craft beachhead)? Trincomalee, one of the largest natural harbours in the world which was already partially developed by the British colonials and then neglected for purely racist reasons, awaits full development at a much lower cost. The cost is much lower, because there is no need to dig into the precious countryside to create a ‘harbour’. All this argument in favour of Hambantota is either naive belief in the propaganda and sales talk of the utterly corrupt or the deliberate advocacy in favour of the utterly corrupt. Even now, Trinco lies wasted. This is not dinkum but bunkum,

      A = TRINCO is a naval harbour and its security will be undermined by any such developments …. and we do need a serviceable Navy as events in 2007-09 demonstrated.
      B = cargo ships will have to travel another 100-or so nautical miles to Trinco….and miles mean cost and time.
      C = You have failed to comprehend the LOGIC in the items by INSIDER and CHRIS DEVONSHIRE-ELLIS: one set of arguments for HAMBANTOTA is its immediate hinterland and the availability of space for supporting industries. Sure there haave been some measures of waste but even Mattala has provided benefits (ONE = rescue of the Lankans from Wuhan and now TWO = a conduit for ships crews enroute on leave via Galle and the relief crews taking over)
      D = while serving as a stimulus to trade with a hinterland that includes Ella and Uva via Wellawaya … and also with Pottuvil, Oluvil and Batticallao via Wellawaya. [as an aside i stress that the bridging of the many rivers/rivulets on the eastern coast plus the building of Poooneryn Bridge and the improvement of the western road links from Jaffna to Colombo have been of immense benefit to traders and local passengers –not merely to tourists. For long term visions, students need to absorb the article on British road/rail development by LA Wickremeratne in the HISTORY OF CEYLON VOL III (1973) pp. 303-16 and the Map conceived by PERCY SILVA & KUSUMA GUNAWARDENA to graphically display the “Volume of NET MIGRATION FROM DISTRICT OF BIRTH TO DISTRICT OF ENUMERATION OF MORE THAN 10,000 MIGRANTS — IN 1971” — in PEOPLE INBETWEEN, by Roberts, Colin-Thome & Raheem (1989 Sarvodaya) page 325.

      That map leads me to forecast that Hambantota port is going to serve as a growth pole over the next 50 years. Devonshire-Ellis and Insider are, figuratively facing Mecca not Antarctica. YES — Fifty years. think long term to think profound.

  2. Vinod

    Just a small historical note here. Trincomalee never had much value except as a naval base, being too far from the trade routes. The British actually preferred to invest in Singapore as their main naval base (globally) rather than Trinco – it lay right on the trade route and sat on the main chokepoint, the Strait of Malacca.
    Colombo was not, until the 1870s, a major port. It catered mainly to small sailing ships and coastal (“country”) craft. Sri Lanka’s biggest port was Galle, which lay closer to the main trade route, and a major port of call for East-bound steamers. After the P&O steamer Formosa showed the way, mail steamers to and from Australia made Galle rather than Singapore their Eastern port of call.
    Then came the coffee mania. Following the introduction of West Indian slave plantation methods by Robert Boyd Tytler, British (mainly Aberdonian) planters descended on Sri Lanka to grow coffee. They were aided and abetted by the Ceylon Civil Service, many of whose members (from the Governor down) had invested in land – buying cheap the same land they had expropriated from peasant communities under the Crown Lands (Encroachment) Ordinance. The planter-government nexus, called the “Planter Raj” which, effectively ruled the country until the estate nationalisation,
    The planters had to take their coffee by bullock cart to a sea port for shipping to Britain (the main consumer), an expensive and time-consuming process. They began lobbying for Colombo to be developed as the main port. The Admiralty and the main shipping lines wanted to develop Galle – which would have cost less than half the development of Colombo. However, the Planter Raj prevailed.
    Hambantota makes far more sense, being closer to the trade route. It has been, after all, a bipartisan goal. However, it needs to be promoted. Hambantota demonstrated its potential when the government ordered all motor trade to be conducted through it. Today, it has become a transshipment hub for Indian motor vehicle exports and, to a lesser extent, South Korean motor vehicle exports. A new industry, built around motor vehicle repair and reconditioning, has emerged. Developing the hinterland (particularly the dirt-poor district of Moneragala) could provide the shipping volumes necessary to tip the port into rapid development.
    The future may augur well for Hambantota. The Malacca Strait is getting congested, and may soon have no capacity for traffic growth. In anticipation of this possibility, the Thais and Chinese have begun re-examining the possibility of constructing a 100 km canal through the isthmus of Kra. On completion, it could save a journey of 1,200 km, and would probably attract most of the East-West traffic. This would tend to displace Singapore, Port Klang and Tanjung Pelepas the main shipping hubs servicing the East-West route, in favour of Hambantota, Cai Mep (Vietnam) and Sihanoukville (Cambodia).

    • MEIN GOTT! Thank you VINOD for elaborating my point about the distance to Trinco being a vital factor. ….. and then proceeding to elaborate on the point I was making about the growth of Colombo because of the road //rail network [which network arose to service the coffee industry]. As a lad from Galle fort and port I am aware that the growth of Colombo displaced the importance of Galle [quite pleasant THAT for Galle). It also meant the hegemony of Colombo over the rest of Celyon [Lanka]. Just look at Percy and Kusuma’s MAP ….. a development that also brought Jaffna capitalists, shroffs and educated personnel to Colombo and converted Wellawatte to a little Jaffna (a positive developments in my perspective).

  3. David Wei

    Given that the port exists, can someone pls advise the annual tonnage and number of cargo and tourism vessels which stop at Hambantota ?
    Surely that would be the concluding argument about whether there was / is a need for the port.

    • Edward Upali

      Reply to David Wei, The statistics required by Wei, if available, most probably would not justify the need for the Hambantota Port. If the annual tonnage, number of cargo vessels and tourism vessels are necessary conditions for planning and constructing a port Lee Kwan Yew, could never have planned for the development of Singapore port, and Singapore would still be a port with a few teppams.

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