Hambantota International Harbour - A Dream Come True
At a time when news about disasters all around take priority over development news, the appeal of that indefatigable young engineer Dr. Priyath Bandu Wickrema, Chairman of Sri Lanka Ports Authority calling the people of Sri Lanka to visit Hambantota harbor site and see the brown virgin earth getting covered with sea water brought tears to my eyes.
Being one associated with this project at its initial stage I can now recall with much satisfaction the role I played as the convener of the first Task Force for the construction of Hambantota harbor on the instructions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who at that time while being the Minister of Fisheries was also the Minister in charge of Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
The first meeting was a fairly large gathering of engineers and administrators from Sri Lanka Ports Authority, academics from Universities specially from Moratuwa, politicians, researchers and others who advocated the idea of a harbor at Hambantota. President in his first address gave the assurance that this harbor would be built notwithstanding any obstacle.
The dream of having a harbor at Hambantota goes back to over seven decades according the available records. Every politician from South dreamt of a harbour at Hambantota and at the same time thought that it is something beyond us as we lack the funds and the technical knowhow. The simple argument in favor of having a harbor at Hambantota was the hundreds of ships passing within the sight of Hambantota town.
Most governments in the past thought it was beyond their capacity but there was a certain element of hypocrisy. Some leaders simply ignored Hambantota as they were anti Rajapaksa or were against any development in the rural areas following the policy of "gamata kekiri" or left over for the village.
However every politician made it an election promise to fool the masses. This promise had its positive side. It gave rise to discussions, basic research and finally advocacy. Along with research papers advocacy had its results. The leader of this advocacy group was a national minded son of Ruhuna (South) Mr. Ariyaseela Wickramanayake, Chairman of the engineering firm Master Divers. He while talking about Hambantota with those responsible persons prepared maps, plans and charts and even held a successful workshop in Colombo. He encouraged Mahinda Rajapaksa who in turn initiated action to acquire land at Hambantota and even to establish a temporary office along with a heavy machinery training institute.
Apart from the problem of constructing breakwaters in the deep sea which would cost an unbearable amount of money there were many obstacles from national and international forces. During the two year period of Ranil Wickramasinghe government this project was completely abandoned. Some did not want to see any development at Hambantota and give credit to Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Internationally some port authorities in the region felt that Hambantota harbor if constructed will become a stiff competitor in future as ships would call over at Hambantota for bunkering and transshipment.
As a member of the Board of Directors of Sri Lanka Ports Authority I was able to visit a few international harbours in the region and gather much valuable information about the attitude of our competitors. It became obvious that they would do everything possible to prevent the construction of this harbor. Only positive response was from Shanghai harbor.
There may have been difficulties in obtaining funds for this harbor but it is fortunate to find that Sri Lanka had its share of friends. It is obvious that the leadership of President played a big role in obtaining these funds.
In the past and even now there are arguments that a commercial harbor at Hambantota will not be feasible and will not serve any purpose unless other related facilities are made available. Task Force discussed these matters in detail and found solutions and also kept other institutions informed. Now it is no more a secret nor a pipe dream that Hambantota will be a fully equipped district with an international duty free airport, a network of roads, administrative buildings, sports complex, cinema village, an international cricket stadium etc. A railway lie, oil tank farm, an oil refinery will also be established soon. The critics also fail to understand that this harbor will originally function as a transshipment harbor that will also provide bunkering facilities. These functions will involve limited use of road network.
Apart from the commercial harbor Hambantota will also have a fully equipped fishery harbor close to the town and there is every sign that Hambantota is going to be a major industrial and commercial city in Sri Lanka.
- Asian Tribune -