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. ”