Saving Hambantota | Sunday Observer

Saving Hambantota

At long last one of the country’s costliest development projects may be given a new life that will ensure a less costly implementation while providing for its long term sustainability as a major stimulus for prosperity in that long-ignored and impoverished region. That is, if those political elements ever eager to undermine government, do not further disrupt project implementation.

Hambantota never had any natural potential as a deep seaport. Unlike Trincomalee or Galle, Hambantota is not a natural harbour. That is why so much money is being spent in digging a whole new harbour out of the verdant countryside inland.

The small cove that is sheltered by two headlands was certainly big enough to have been a shallow mooring for fishing boats and small trading craft for centuries. Indeed, Hambantota’s coastline is found to have been settled by pre-historic, Stone Age Sri Lankans several millennia ago. In historic times, Hambantota was part of powerful southern kingdoms and chiefdoms and, thrived as a highly populated centre of ancient civilization.

However, as the island’s various polities succumbed to the European colonial onslaught, Hambantota’s infrastructure collapsed and the region was reduced to a sparsely populated, impoverished and under-developed part of the country. Ironically, Hambantota first became internationally known for its poverty and human struggles for survival as it was poignantly depicted in colonial writer, Leonard Woolf’s acclaimed novel ‘Village in the Jungle’ and his ‘Hambantota Diaries’. Diseases (malaria), rural underdevelopment, social deprivation such as malnutrition, became Hambantota’s post colonial legacy.

Unsurprisingly, poverty and social marginalization saw this area host two successive insurgencies by frustrated rural youth - in 1971 and 1987.

Certainly, this region needed a boost for its rapid development. But, neither the Hambantota harbour project nor the related project of Mattala International Airport have been designed suitably to meet local development needs and capacities.

Both are very large infra-structure facilities that are wholly out of proportion to the needs and capacities of the region’s economy and local population. In short, there is insufficient population and economic dynamism to be serviced by these two large air and maritime logistical facilities. Worse, the excessive scale of the Hambantota and Mattala projects required huge expenditures, and resources for this was found through expensive commercial bank loans.

And, since neither Hambantota nor Mattala have vigorous local economies to serve, neither of them have the capacity to provide for repayment of project loans.

Thus, along with other wasteful ‘white elephants’ of the previous regime – such as the Port City and the Lotus Tower – the Hambantota project became part of the oppressive financial yoke left behind by the departing Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in the political change that occurred with the snap presidential election of January 2015.

The true extent of the financial and ecological disasters that were these projects came to light in the corruption probes begun by the new government. The true extent of the potential economic and political subjugation to a foreign power was only then revealed – the huge loans, the ownership and control of national assets, the ecological impact and social dislocation.

The new government has had to labour to re-orient and financially stabilize these expensive and over-ambitious projects even as it battled on many fronts to combat the post-war ethnic chauvinism, political mismanagement, corruption and bureaucratic demoralization that were the legacy of the departing Rajapaksas.

What the amended agreement does is: firstly, reduce the debt burden on the fragile economy, secondly, lessen the extent of land alienation (and concomitant social impact) for the industrial zone and, thirdly, ensure that the future of the project lies firmly in the hands of the Sri Lankan authorities.

No more will a Sri Lankan government allow naval submarines of a foreign power to surreptitiously bunker in Sri Lankan ports without the proper management of such naval activity. Readers will recall how this occurred during the previous regime.

Rather, the government has carefully structured the new port project so that all security matters are safely in the hands of the government.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is systematically re-defining the country’s foreign policy after the shambles left behind by the Rajapaksa regime when foreign policy was dictated by ill-informed whims of favoured politicians, many of whom rarely refused such favours showered by foreign elements.

Those foreign powers cannot be faulted for endeavouring to obtain the best deals for their own national interests. Rather, it is our leadership that must be accountable for the protection of our national interests. The current government has taken pains to ensure that China’s continued support for our country is fully appreciated. Indeed, Beijing’s sensibility in enabling the Chinese partners in the project to renegotiate the project must be seen as China’s loyalty to Sri Lanka.

At the same time, Colombo has taken care, through similar projects elsewhere, that our neighbouring power, India, is actively involved in the destiny of our land as it has been since the dawn of civilization.

What Hambantota now needs is not more political disruption, but a genuine helping hand by all political interest groups to ensure that this project does become viable and a stimulus for prosperity in the Ruhuna.