Colombo, December 13 (The New Indian Express): The recent detention of a Japanese vessel by striking workers at Hambantota port in south Sri Lanka, has given international shipping lines yet another reason to avoid the port.
Sri Lankan Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga told the media on Monday, that following the detention of the Japanese car carrying vessel, causing it a loss of US$ 400,000, some ships had had to be diverted to Colombo while others just skirted Sri Lanka and went elsewhere.
The port, constructed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa with a Chinese loan of US$ 1.4 billion, has been without business so far because it has no worthwhile hinterland. Unable to pay back the loan, the present Sri Lankan government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had recently given 80 % stake and near total operational control to a Chinese company.
But even as the government was battling trenchant public criticism of the deal, workers at the port went on a flash strike and detained a Japanese vessel. The strike had to be broken up by the Sri Lanka navy by force. The use of force caused a public outcry. The opposition condemned the use of force against workers who only wanted their jobs to be regularized. And the media condemned it because a cameraman of a leading publishing group was manhandled by the Navy Commander Vice Adm.R.Wijegunaratne himself.
Even as the government ordered a probe into the series of incidents in the harbor, Ports Minister Ranatunga told newspersons that some international shipping lines had informed Sri Lanka that they might not use Hambantota port.
“The detention of the vessel has eroded the confidence of the international maritime sector. The damage by the protesters is severe,” he said.
Ranatunga further said that the workers had damaged a 13 storey building as well as other equipment in the harbor. He blamed the “Nil Balakaya”, an organization floated by MP Namal Rajapaksa who is also the son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
As expected, the opposition led by the Rajapaksas condemned the breaking up of the strike and criticized the deal with the Chinese company which not only envisages the grant of 80 % equity in the port’s Joint Venture company, but a 99 year lease also.
The deal had faced opposition in the government itself, with Ports Minister Ranatunga appealing to the Prime Minister not to deprive the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) of control over the port. But Prime Minister Wickremesinghe over-ruled him and got the Framework Agreement signed by two other ministers, Strategic Development Minister Malik Samarawickrama and Minister for Special Assignments, Dr.Sarath Amunugama.
The Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa has also lambasted the government’s decision to hand over 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese to build an Economic Zone near Hambantota port to enable the creation of a suitable hinterland for it. According to the Joint Opposition, this is a major give away. It also wonders how 15,000 acres can be acquired without social and economic disruption in the poverty stricken Hambantota district.
Since the government has promised to give China 15,000 acres, it cannot back out of it, even if the issue extracts an political price from it in the local bodies’ elections in mid-2017.
(The featured picture at the top shows the Japanese vessels detained by workers at Hambantota harbor. The insets show cranes placed to bar movement)