LETTER FROM LANKA: The planned metamorphosis of Hambantota, from a small fishing harbour to a flashy new city with a modern port — with Chinese help — is symbolic of what President Rajapaksa wants the country to be

At the other end from Jaffna, on the map and in every other way, is what some Sri Lankans refer to, only half-jokingly, as Sri Lanka’s new capital.

Hambantota is located about 220 km from Colombo, on the southern coast that is the island’s bulgy bottom. It falls in the parliamentary constituency of Namal Rajapaksa, son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The constituency has long been in the Rajapaksa family. Still, it bears little resemblance to the small fishing harbour town it was about a dozen years ago, when Rajapaksa senior, elected from here, was a cabinet minister-in-charge of fisheries in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government.

Fast track

For one, getting there does not take as long as it used to. On a flashy new four-lane expressway, the 96 km drive from the capital to Galle, takes exactly one hour, one-third of the time it used to previously. From there to the Rajapaksa fiefdom is another three hours.

Built — with grants from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan — by the China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd., and inaugurated in November 2011, the smooth expressway cuts through lush green forests and hills, as scenic in its way as the coastal two-lane Galle Road.

With funding from China’s Exim Bank, the expressway is proposed to be extended by about 35 km to Matara, and will eventually connect the remaining 70 km to Hambantota. This time, China National Technical Import and Export Corporation is the builder.

But driving on Sri Lanka’s first expressway is not cheap. The toll costs SL Rs.400 one-way, one reason it has not yet pulled in enough traffic.

Reflective of Lankan policy

Forget the road though. The government expects people to be flying to Hambantota soon. An international airport is rapidly coming up at nearby Mattala. The contractor is the same as the one who built Hambantota’s new inland port — China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd.

The Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port itself is meant to be symbolic of what President Rajapaksa wants his country to be: sleekly modern, confident, proud of itself, and not beholden to western powers, or in his words, a reflection of Sri Lanka’s “non-alignment and friendship with all.”

Put another way, China’s Exim Bank is financing 85 per cent of the cost of the $1.5 billion project, with the balance coming from the Sri Lankan government. Of this, the cost of the first phase, with its four berths and buildings, was $508 million.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the completed Phase 1 dazzled impressively under the blazing sun, the blue of the quay buildings tastefully merging into the colour of the sea.

Kasun Dasantha, the young project engineer assigned to show us around, underlined that China had only loaned the money, at an interest rate of 6.5 per cent, and that the port will have to start showing results in order to begin repayments by the scheduled calendar of May 2013.

For months after its inauguration in November 2010, residents of Hambantota heard deep explosive blasts from the port, reportedly strong enough to cause cracks in some houses in the town. But the engineer dismissed as “gossips” reports that a rock had been belatedly discovered at the mouth of the port, and had to be blasted out of the way. The sounds, he said, were from the breaking of the buffer wall, so that the seawater could be let into the port to operationalise it.

From April 2012, ships have been calling at the port. The berths are not equipped yet with cranes. At the moment they offer only roll-on, roll-off facilities, ideal for car shipments. Hyundai India is also using the port for trans-shipment, given that the charges are near zero.

Unfortunately, the port’s opening has coincided with bad times for the economy the world over. In addition, Sri Lanka has slapped heavy taxes on car imports. Late last year, the declining Sri Lankan rupee, and ballooning imports necessitated a series of extreme measures to contain credit growth and curtail imports. Many imports were taxed, among them automobiles. Automobile imports have since slowed significantly. As a result, ships are arriving with fewer cars; and The Sunday Times reported recently that more than 5,000 cars were going to be sent back because they had no takers.

But work at the port continues apace. An Indian sugar firm and a Pakistani cement company, the local trading house Hayleys and a Singapore petrochemical company have been roped in to set up their factories close to the port. They enjoy an extended tax holiday, whose terms are said to be much better than in the export processing zones in India.

In phases

Work on Phase 2 is also ongoing, and expected to be completed by 2014. Phase 3 is still in the conceptual stages and could take as long as a decade more. The completed port is being designed as the largest port in South Asia, with a capacity for 33 vessels.

More than a container terminal, however, the port sees itself as offering bunkering and ship handling services on a scale unimaginable at Colombo port. A massive oil tank farm has come up at one end. Eventually, it is planned also as storage for aviation fuel to refuel planes that will land at the international airport.

An avant-garde sculpture of a ship in concrete looms at the port’s entrance, over the sea view, a massive metal buoy balanced on top of it.

Engraved on the sculpture is President Rajapaksa’s mission statement: “…the blessed port bestowed upon the great nation after the glorious victory of the century, which has been constructed in line with the crusade of making Sri Lanka the miracle of South Asia.”

Aside from the names of engineers and others who worked on the port, the sculpture also carries prominently the names of 385 families displaced by the new port.

The government acquired about 4,000 acres of land for the port, and the displaced have been relocated in Hambantota New Town. With its wide roads and massive government buildings, the Nay Pyi Taw-look alike is coming up a little distance from the original fishing town.

The jewels in this crown are a botanical garden, zoned residential “precincts,” parks, a fast rising state-of-the-art convention centre, a massive modern stadium, already functioning, and a modern auditorium. Shangri La, the Chinese hotel chain, is readying to construct a five-star property soon.

The mind-boggling scale of infrastructure development seems to be ahead of demand, and compared to the rest of the country, even over-the-top. For instance, it is not clear if there would be enough traffic for an international airport at Hambantota. Some even question the prospects of the port.

But in Rajapaksa country, there can be no half measures. Ask the street lights. Mounted on poles are rotating lamps, with pictures of all the important Rajapaksas on their glass panes, fittingly powered by their own individual windmills and solar panels.

When the port is completed, said Dasantha, the port’s project engineer, it would provide direct employment to 5,000 local people. At the moment, that number is about 250. An equal number of Chinese and Sri Lankan workers were involved in building Phase I.

The Chinese are also noticeably involved in other projects in town. A Chinese firm is doing the Hambantota “hub” development road/project. At a clover interchange in the bypass road junction, Chinese road signs alongside English ones announce detours and “work in progress.”

If India is concerned at the Chinese involvement in Hambantota’s development, it seems keen not to be seen that way. But it now has a consulate in this town (It is the only diplomatic post here.) The consulate issues about 800 visas a year, and hosts well-attended cultural shows in the Japanese-built auditorium.

(The series “Letter from Lanka” is concluded.)



More In: Comment | Opinion