By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, October 24: Whenever Ranil Wickremesinghe occupies a seat of power, there is talk of developing Trincomalee harbor and its environs to serve the Eastern and North Central Provinces that had been hard-hit by the 30-year war.
Whenever he was in power as Prime Minister he would initiate some moves to develop Trincomalee. In 2003, during his first stint as PM, he invited the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to develop the 99 giant British-era oil tanks jointly with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). The Lanka IOC (LIOC) refurbished and began using 14 of them. Between 2016 and 2019, when he was PM again, he launched a long-term development plan for Trincomalee (Trinco) and surrounding areas christened: “Eastern gateway to Sri Lanka by 2050”.
Trinco was to be developed as an export, tourism and leisure hub with the help of the Singapore infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong. Trinco was projected as a key export center in the Bay of Bengal region. Highways, transport, education, health and other facilities were planned to be built to generate more than a million new jobs.
“By the year 2050, the population in the Bay of Bengal region will be about three billion, and then there will be great improvements here. By that time, we need to develop Trincomalee as the Eastern Gateway to Sri Lanka,” Wickremesinghe had said.
But his plans languished due to political opposition, given his contradictions with President Maithripala Sirisena and anti-India feelings in the Sri Lankan polity. The political and communal unrest, the COVID 19 pandemic and his losing power in mid-2020, stopped all work.
Back in power in mid-2022 as President, Wickremesinghe revived his plans for Trinco with gusto. Recently, he announced a Trincomalee District Strategic Development Plan. Trinco Port should be developed as a “strategic port” with India’s assistance, he said. Recalling the objections raised when the oil tanks were to be handed over to India in 2003, he said that Sri Lanka “would not have faced a fuel crisis if the decision to provide the oil tanks had received the green light to be fully implemented.”
Trinco will not develop in a day, Wickremesinghe cautioned. “It will take another 10-15 years to develop Trincomalee and the Bay of Bengal region. Thailand’s development has yet to reach the Western Bay of Bengal. Development is yet to kick off in Myanmar and has just started in Bangladesh. And work is being done in Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. Therefore, Trincomalee will become a significant port only in the next 10-15 years. Our endeavor is to make a beginning now,” he said.
Referring to the strategic dimension of the development of Trincomalee, the President said that the port has to be developed as a naval hub. Here again, he preferred collaboration with India. “It is important that we work together with India when we plan these activities because India is located much closer to us.”
Wickremesinghe then went on to say that currently, India is discussing several programs with Sri Lanka including a 100 megawatt solar power plant in Sampur across the bay. He would prefer India’s involvement in the Trinco region’s development. “ Many objections were raised by the unions since 2003 against the provision of the oil tanks to India. Had the Trincomalee oil tank farm been given to India, we would have had fuel; we would have neither had to stay in queues nor to resort to riots. These problems arose because of the shortage of fuel. Such obstacles should not be allowed to transpire again,” he said.
Not to neglect the needs of the North and North Central Provinces, Wickremesinghe said: “We cannot limit the economic activities of this port solely to the Trincomalee District. This should be connected with the cities of Anuradhapura, Vavuniya and Dambulla. The districts of Wanni, Eastern and North Central are responsible for the bulk of our agricultural production. If we are to export agricultural produce, this region should be the starting point.”
“India has agreed to develop industries in this province. Therefore, we should create an industrial zone. I have proposed a joint mechanism between India and Sri Lanka towards this endeavor. Then, the port will also be connected to it and we are planning to establish a joint task force for this purpose.”
Although Trincomalee has an airport, it cannot accommodate large aircrafts, the President said and added that government would have to upgrade Hingurakgoda or Vavuniya into international airports. “There is an opportunity to develop the tourism industry from Trincomalee to Batticaloa,” he added.
Advantages and Drawbacks in Trinco harbor
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had done a study of the development potential of the Trincomalee port and declared that it would be worthwhile developing it as a hub in the Bay of Bengal. Trincomalee is a large natural harbor with water depths ranging from CD -20 m to CD -40 m. It is the only entirely sheltered harbor in the South Asian sub-continent, the ADB noted.
Although the current port of Trincomalee has a limited number of berths, vessels of any size can be accommodated in the anchorage, it said. “The sheltered bay is ideal for calm water vessel operations such as ship-to-ship transfer, lay-up of vessels, loading and discharging submersible structures and other shipping-related services,” the ADB study said.
The port handled 3.2 million tons in 2016 with the main commodities being dry bulk cargoes (wheat, clinker, gypsum and coal), liquid bulk (refined products) and breakbulk or general cargo (project cargo, steel products).
The port has several dedicated port terminals – the Tokyo Cement facility, the Lanka IOC oil facility and Sri Lanka Ports Authority oil berth, the Prima Flour grain facility, and the TTA tea facility – and a common berth for general cargo and dry bulks – the Ashroff jetty. Additionally, the giant oil tanks are nearby waiting to be developed. Some ship repair services are provided at the Mud Cove facility.
The access channel to Trincomalee port passes through the natural deep-water bay. As such, the channel has a minimum depth of CD -22.0m and a width of 1,554m. The depth of the navigable waters within the harbor vary between CD -11.0m and CD -30.0 m. However, due to a lack of adequate lights, buoys, and lighthouses, vessels are only allowed to enter and exit the port during daytime, ADB document says.
In terms of landside connectivity, the port is connected to the nearby A6 and A15 highways. However, the roads connecting the port terminals to the highways pass through the city premises, due to a lack of dedicated port access roads. While the privately-operated Prima Flour and Tokyo Cement terminals have direct rail access; the Ashroff facility currently lacks direct rail access.
At present the capacity of the common quay is limited, modern warehouses are lacking, and the land for industrial development is not directly connected to the port. To upgrade the port and to maximize the deep sea port potential, expansion of the Ashroff quay is required as well as unlocking the land available by providing new access roads and rail connections. This will facilitate settlements of industrial and logistical enterprises. The service activities in the bay require modern facilities at a one-stop shop location, the report said. The tourism industry is expected to increase as well. A marina and a cruise berth should cater to developments in this respect.
Political Consensus Needed
But all these require three things: political consensus; management of extreme nationalistic and anti-India and anti-foreign sentiments; environmental and legal clearances, and wide consultations with civil society groups so that decisions are not stalled by protests, court cases. The government must guard against poor implementation and political changes stalling the project. These obstacles are endemic in Sri Lanka. Hopefully, Wickremesinghe has plans up his sleeve to tackle them.