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Why Hambantota?

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 4 September 2011 10:04 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s flagship investments – the new port, airport, the Commonwealth Games bid – have all been in Hambantota. If you visit Hambantota district you will find that the town itself is quite sleepy and the main highlight is the wildlife.

Tangalle, Matara and Galle are nearby and growing fast. Yet, instead of creating something from something there or in the rest of the country, the government is trying to create something out of nothing.

Hambantota is simply not the best place to put a port, airport and stage international sporting events. This is not to say that this development cannot be forced but, like Mihin Air, it wastes a lot of taxpayer money and neglects other more productive investments.

The Port

Take the port. Hambantota has no natural port, the harbour had to be entirely dredged out of the ground. It was then opened on the President’s birthday despite not being actually open. The port is not completely dredged and requires around USD $150 million to complete.

By contrast, Trincomalee already has one of the finest natural harbours in the world which could sorely use such an investment. This is the port used by the British, coveted by world powers and, once, the LTTE. Instead of leveraging this natural asset, we are trying to create a new one, rather inefficiently.

The Airport

Then consider the airport. Putting an airport right near dedicated wildlife sanctuary and distant from large human populations is not the greatest idea. It will, guaranteed, disrupt the wildlife, and if the area does become a hub, that will disrupt and uproot them more. This might be necessary if there were no alternatives, but there are alternatives.

Air traffic to Jaffna would be a guaranteed earner and many other regions (Anuradhapura, Matara) are projected to grow into major cities soon. Instead of supporting their growth, the government is trying to engineer growth some place else, for political reasons.

The Commonwealth Games

Finally, take the Comm-onwealth Games. Aside from being an over-budget, embarrassing mess for India, Sri Lanka has not had the best of luck with sports administration lately. Take the money lost on the Cricket World Cup or the debacle that was (is?) the Sri Lanka Premier League.

Assuming that the government can pull off the games, what use will all the new infrastructure be in such a sparsely populated area? Are people really going to move to Hambantota because they have Olympic swimming pools? That plus transportation and hotel infrastructure could better serve growing southern cities like Matara or Galle or to develop the North and East and to showcase that the government does care. Instead, attention is being lavished on the President’s home district, helping neither the nation nor the district very much.

Helping Sri Lanka

I am all for helping Hambantota, but consider what Hambantota is. The district is renowned and loved for its access to Yala National Park and remains quite accessible via Tangalle, Matara and Galle. Mahinda’s own hometown is near Tangalle. Those areas are developing and could use support, but that must be balanced with the need to preserve the value Hambantota alread has. Furthermore, national development should be in the national interest. We are not leveraging natural assets like the Trinco Harbor and instead gambling on new ones. We are not building infrastructure where people live, but rather where we imagine foreigners would visit.

 

In the past Kings would move the capital when they felt like it and everyone would just move. It is not like that anymore. If you build it they may not come, just like the Treasury keeps funneling money into Mihin Air despite it not working. Neglecting Sri Lanka Airlines is one thing, but neglecting Sri Lanka is another. That is why we should begin to ask, why Hambantota? Why not Jaffna? Why not Trinco? Why not Galle?

Why Hambantota? | The Sunday Leader

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