Dev Diaries SL

#Hambantota: How to UNDO a White Elephant ?


Is Hambantota a dead end ? Are all those huge projects doomed to nothingness ? Maybe not. Our Columnist looks into what can be done to make them viable and profit making.

Just over a year ago, when Sri Lanka was having an intense mind-boggling presidential election. The then opposition never failed to mention the words “unused infrastructure” in every political rally, discussion or debate. The Rajapaksa regime was criticized heavily for carrying out mega infrastructure development projects at the former President’s home town of Hambantota.

Dozens of articles have been written regarding the massive losses and the alleged corruption that took place during construction of these projects. This article has not picked a side in the petty narrow-minded political debate that has surrounded these projects, rather it has been written to provide the reader with an overview of the problem and propose solutions which will provide you with an informed opinion for informed democracy.

Scenario One: Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA)

Looking at the airport from an engineer’s perspective, the airport is beautiful. With a 3500m runway, world-class visual, navigational and landing aids, the airport is one that has been well constructed and if it had the operational standards of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), it would definitely be an asset towards the country’s income. However it doesn’t have the efficacy of BIA because of one very significant root cause. Sri Lanka is a small country, geographically. It doesn’t need 2 international airports, certainly not at this chronological point. However we do have a 2nd world class airport which cost the public USD 210 Million and what has been earned from it does not even cover its cost, let alone make a profit.

During both the Presidential and the General election the current regime led by PM Wickramasinghe called out ferociously, asking for the utilisation of the infrastructure facilities. The current regime did take the 1st positive step by removing the restriction placed upon Sri Lankan Airlines to have a direct charter to Mattala, however that is the only logical and foolproof action the new government has taken thus far. Work half done is just as bad as work incomplete. The government did grant permission for the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) to use the storage facilities within the MRIA for paddy storage this past year. While that is a positive for the PMB, MRIA didn’t gain anything from that decision and 365 days post-election(08) MRIA still remains an “unused infrastructure”. A long-term solution is necessary, the International Cauldron has a proposal.

Set up a flying school at MRIA. The first of it’s kind in South Asia. A flying school with international airport facilities. This company can be set up as a subsidiary of Sri Lankan airlines. Local and foreign students who wish to learn with world-class facilities may be enrolled and trained as pilots. 13 km northeast to MRIA is the Weerawila civilian/military public airport. A flying school can easily be set up at this location using these 2 airports as bases. The marketing slogans scream “WORLD CLASS FLYING SCHOOL AT INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IN SRI LANKA”. If marketed and executed properly this could potentially become a significant source of income for the country. Whilst researching the feasibility of implementing this project, a negative point I stumbled upon was the presence of strong crosswinds in the Hambantota area. It needs to be noted that these crosswinds can reach up to 30 knots during midday, and that makes flying a light air craft for an absolute beginner a little challenging. However the solution for this is to fly early morning and late evening when crosswinds are more tame, and to first train the absolute beginners in milder conditions at existing training areas (Eg. Rathmalana). Once the pilot is more confident he can be transferred over to the MRIA facility. Training under these conditions at a later stage together with the supervision of an experienced flight instructor will not only enhance the skill of the student pilot but boost his confidence.

“More children want to become pilots, but the limited number of flying schools and the huge amount of red-tape and bureaucracy involved in setting up such institutions and training student pilots is exhausting. Many children aspiring to be pilots travel overseas to finish off their flying training quickly and easily. I have long had a passion for aviation and education, and it’s my dream to start a flying school. In my opinion MRIA can be converted to suit that purpose, and hence will bridge the gap between the lack of training facilities and the increasing number of students.”  – Raveen Unaweera (Name has been altered for privacy reasons)

Moreover this proposed training centre need not be just a flying school, it can be used to train air traffic controllers, airport emergency response teams, aircraft maintenance crews and technicians. Mattala can become the new face in training airport crew and pilots in all of South Asia.

The Prime Minister has mentioned his long-term plans for Mattala to be an import/export hub for cargo operations, specifically to use Mattala as the country’s base for the export of flowers and other perishable produce. The best part is both these plans can co-exist and become one.

Scenario Two: Magam Ruhunupura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port

Leaving aside any corruption accusations, the development of the Hambantota port was a smart and strategic move. Hambantota is a strategic location that sits in the middle of the world’s largest shipping routes with over 50% of the world’s nautical traffic. It should be noted that on January 6th 2016 work began in building the 45,000MT Laugfs LPG Import and Export Terminal at Hambantota Port. A USD 80 Million investment. Hence despite the popular rhetoric many politicians threw around during elections, and though a 2nd international port was not necessary, the Hambantota port was not an illogical decision made by the previous regime. It did incur heavy losses at it’s inception, but the port seems to be going in a somewhat positive direction.

Scenario Three: Magam Ruhunupura International Convention Center (MRICC)

Overlooking the amazing view of the newly built port at Magampura is a USD 15 million beauty of a conference and convention centre. Despite the amazing infrastructure, this beauty isn’t able to boast an event calendar of it’s counterpart in Colombo (BMICH).

Why? The location. Today the only events MRICC holds is when the friendly neighbourhood dogs decide to meet up outside the fence to discuss their plans for world domination. A possible long-term plan for MRICC would be to incorporate the facilities and use the location as a campus affiliated to the University of Ruhuna. Once the southern expressway and proposed railway extensions are complete, transport between the main campus at Matara and the new facility would take less than a hour. Ideally the campus should incorporate fine arts, as the university of Ruhuna does not currently offer fine arts as a field of study. In addition the sound proofing facilities and it’s isolation from any city or residential area would provide the students the chance to practice without fear of disturbing the neighbours.

An expected narrow-minded question which will be brought up if this proposal is ever converted to action would be “Why are we converting a USD 15 million world-class facility to just another campus?” My answer: It would be the most valuable campus in the island in terms of infrastructure, and having world-class facilities at a campus isn’t unheard of outside the naïve mindset of certain individuals. Additionally having a facility of this nature within state sponsored universities coupled with the changes proposed in the series of articles regarding state universities it would certainly boost it’s image and expand the higher education sectors potential for increased earning.

Some of these changes may strike to you as slightly out there, however a fresh look at the problem of unused infrastructure is exactly whats needed to solve the problem. The only conclusion this article can present is: The existing state of these mega projects is pathetic, the proposals put forward have a number of ticks on the plus column, and making these changes can yield a better result than what we are seeing right now.

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