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The SLFP rebel group and allied factions calling themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’ on Friday conducted a ‘protest’ demonstration in Hambantota under the banner of a so-called ‘Hambantota District Centre for the Protection of National Resources’. Politically powerful parliamentarians – young and old - of this group, as well as the former Speaker of Parliament, were the leaders of the unruly protest in front of the Indian Consulate office in the country’s newest international port township.

And their subject of protest – one so unruly that the police were compelled to use force to protect the foreign consular premises? The ‘issue’ being raised was that the Government was considering the option of allowing an Indian company to operate the new ‘international’ airport in Mattala nearby.

The slogan seems to be the ‘protection’ of that airport, seemingly from the presumed depredations of a foreign company. But, our readers will ask, where and when was a decision made to hand that costly, barely used, facility to anyone yet?

All that the public knows is that the Government is accepting proposals from interested parties to help run and maintain that remotely located airport that is virtually a white elephant from the time it was built. There has been no decision so far on anything, according to government officials, whether on the nature of the new operating venture, the private sector’s role, the expected output, the size of investment and, most importantly, the potential of making this hugely expensive facility economically viable.

During the last regime, perhaps, the most secretive we’ve ever had, little was known about the actual details of the building of an international airport in Hambantota. Little that is, other than the vague propaganda of bringing ‘development’ to the impoverished region that the deep South was, and still is, despite the new airport, bloated and glossy administrative and event complexes, stadia, a barely functioning and incomplete new seaport, and multi-lane highways to nowhere.

Indeed, little was known, during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, of any of those gigantic and costly projects implemented jointly with foreign governments and foreign companies that today not just dot some corners of our island landscape, but are yet tearing apart the physical environment, the natural resources and, undermining the very process of planned and systematic development itself.

No foreign power can be blamed, however, for the foolishness and greed of our own leaders in rushing to conclude ‘deals’ that, no doubt, benefitted that foreign power (as any agreement should benefit all parties) but did so at a cost that is an unbearable burden on this country. Worse, as many rational voices argued at the time, some of these most costly projects were not priorities while some were not needed at all!

The essential nitty-gritty of development priorities and potential burden on national finances was ignored in the welter of ethno-centric nationalism and grandiose propaganda imagery that so usefully masked the behind-the-scenes deals that sold the whole nation down the drain.

Today, we have a government that is sensitive to public demands for openness. No longer are billion-dollar partnerships with other countries suddenly sprung on the citizenry who have little awareness of how much all those huge sums are actual costs to be borne by the nation and how much is a genuine national value addition.

Itis only now that the true extent of the costs to the nation is being revealed, as project after project begun during the Rajapaksa era turns out to be over-rated or unnecessary, expensive beyond redemption, ecologically devastating or just plain useless. Meanwhile, the new government must try to return the country to a track of rational development with the right priorities, but finds the entire national treasury stuck with the burden of paying off the costs of the now-infamous ‘deal’ era of the Rajapaksas.

It was this same Rajapaksa regime that made a fetish of seemingly ‘playing off’ one big power against another by facilitating a disproportionate presence of an extra-regional power on the island while the regional power that is our immediate neighbour was vilified and studiously ignored. Ironically, it was the little-acknowledged collaboration between the Indian and Sri Lankan military that crucially cut off supply lines for the secessionist insurgency.

In the ethno-centric electioneering of the Rajapaksa regime this vital military support was barely mentioned in the propaganda that told Sri Lankans that the war was ‘won’ solely by the efforts of the government of the time. The only foreign help acknowledged was that of those powers with which the Rajapaksas and their camp followers were busy doing ‘deals’.

Finding companies or foreign governments willing to help with failed projects to enable these projects begin earning revenue that, first, meets their current operational costs and, second, meets project loan repayments, is a burden this government bears today.

The Mattala International Airport is too expensive to be simply shut down. The cost of dismantling an airport and returning that vast land area back to normal development will only add to the current huge burden of repaying the project construction cost. Thus, the government must find someone to devise a new plan to put this air transport facility to some viable use that will bring genuine returns while serving the population of that thinly populated and under-developed province.

In attempting to block such economic recovery efforts by arousing xenophobic fears among the local population or simply in order to grab national attention, this so-called ‘Joint Opposition’ is the real betrayer of the nation. These headline-grabbing histrionics by the ‘JO’ is but a manipulation of local people for its selfish political purposes while allowing these vast but unviable projects to go waste without being put to use for the benefit of those same people.



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