Hambantota Port workers cry for justice | Sunday Observer

Hambantota Port workers cry for justice

What more can be expected from those who imposed an over-large, over-expensive, artificial harbour in Hambantota, than the fanning of flames arising from the immensely damaging economic and human impact of this project? After all, their motives are the same - earlier it was personal gain and now it is survival.

The situation in Hambantota port is complicated, to say the least. In the first place, the setting up of a large commercial port on the southern coast, in addition to the historic Galle port, is not a priority for a cash-strapped country trying to recover from the triage of a war and reset to rapid economic development.

‘Priorities’ are based on the greatest needs. For example, in Sri Lanka’s long-planned expressway development program – delayed due to the costs of war – the priority was for an expressway that would reduce the 100-plus kilometre road journey between our two largest cities, Kandy and Colombo, to 90 minutes from the current, ridiculous, 4 hours. This is the route with the biggest traffic load and, worse, the highest rate of fatal accidents.

The new Hambantota port is a far bigger white elephant than the E01. This project is grossly excessive in two ways. Firstly, there is the sheer environmental and geographical dislocation already incurred by digging out a large artificial harbour, carved deep into our island landmass. Secondly, there are the huge financial costs, both, in project funding and in operational cost.

If any maritime infrastructure needs quick development, it is Trincomalee, one of the world’s largest natural harbours, long ignored, despite once being imperial Britain’s biggest naval base and, a most ancient Indian Ocean entrepot.

Thus, today, the current government not only has to deal with the human and economic costs of the internal war, but also, the equally enormous economic, social and environmental damage wilfully caused by the poorly conceived and corruptly implemented projects of the predecessor regime. And it has to do this trapped within project frameworks fixed by the previous regime which prioritized personal gain and fame, over actual national needs and national costs.

The Hambantota port project involves the crushing burden of expensive funding loans as well as the mounting losses arising from operational failure since the new port has neither a demographic and economic hinterland to exploit this infrastructure, nor a maritime shipping demand to serve it. It is to the credit of the current government that it has used its own reservoir of entrepreneurial imagination and its international credibility to simultaneously meet the project debt problem, as well as find a new and financially viable venture that will use this infrastructure.

Those failed politicos who, when in power, extolled China’s munificence as cover for their own manipulations of development projects for personal gain, are now campaigning against China! These politicians do not want the very country whose munificence they exploited for their own benefit to now help Sri Lanka see through the difficulties arising from their mis-governance. China’s munificence is strategic, as it should be, for any state.

Sadly, the previous regime abused China’s assistance. Now, they are fermenting labour disputes in the very project they, themselves, invited that rising world power to help implement. Beijing is currently learning the calibre of Sri Lankan political leadership – who is capable of governing and who simply seeks power for short term personal gain. It is the former who will negotiate genuinely viable collaborations and sustain political leadership and continuity to build on that bilateral collaboration. It is the latter who now stand exposed as they crudely switch loyalties just to exploit a minor labour dispute.

The workers of Hambantota port are feeling the pressure and uncertainty arising from this unviable project. They naturally want to know about their future livelihood and are agitating in order to be heard.

The former leaders – who live in that same neighbourhood – do not have the imagination to work with the current government to help re-configure this failed project. The former governmental leaders should be using their own good offices with Beijing to help Hambantota, rather than lurking in the shadows seeking political leverage for their own survival in the face of the suspicions of gross corruption and abuse of power.

The government has worked fast to re-configure the entire Hambantota project. Having inked what seems to be a viable venture agreement, the government must attend to such secondary issues as the status of the current work force – as well as all the other collateral damage incurred due to this ill-conceived project.

The port workers should be given opportunities to contribute to the new Hambantota venture, either through direct employment under the new management or through the numerous new ancillary livelihood and business opportunities that arise once the new economic zone begins operations.

The workers need to exercise restraint in their agitation. They need to be grateful that the whole project is not being allowed to collapse but, instead, being re-configured to genuinely serve the people of the South and the whole nation. China, true to its strategic interests, is happy to remain an actor and will be disappointed that her former champions in the past regime are now jumping sides for very petty individual gain.

Sri Lanka will benefit from the Maritime Silk Route whoever is in power in Colombo, while the immediate beneficiaries should be the people of the South.