Port City
Posted on March 12th, 2016

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Nobody would have been surprised that the Colombo Port City project, on hold for the past several months, is now on the verge of resuming. Trade and Strategic Development Minister Malik Samarawickrema had a strategy for trickling out the information that it was taking off in the short term. Before his recent visit to China, the minister who wears a second hat as Chairman of the UNP, granted an interview to a Sunday newspaper when he revealed that the project will resume “in weeks.” In the course of that interview he released a nugget of information that the developer will not get any freehold land as agreed when the original deal was struck. He also indicated that talks were continuing about reducing the size of the reclamation but said that as the project design was linked to the actual extent of land being reclaimed, this may not be feasible. The unstated bottom line was that the developer was willing to convert the relatively small extent he was getting freehold in terms of the original agreement into a 99-year leasehold (as was the case of the bulk of the land he will get in return for picking up the USD 1.4 billion project tab), but there will be no downsizing of the reclamation.

Then Samarawickrema and his cabinet colleague, Sagala Ratnayake, who is the International Affairs Secretary of the UNP, took off for China. While they were there, information was released that the UNP and the Communist Party of China were “deepening” their relationship. Some lucky young UNPers will now get the opportunity of seeing China. No doubt Port City, the biggest ever single foreign investment ever attracted into this country, is important both for the developer as well as for us. As in any commercial deal, the project is profit driven and China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC), a subsidiary of the Fortune 500 China Communication Construction Company (CCCC), will have a keen eye on the return. This will be largely dependent on whether Sri Lanka will take off economically as envisaged by the present government. If that happens, the prime land that is being reclaimed right next to the Colombo harbour will command a value that will be more than enough to recover the investment plus a tidy profit. If not, well the answer is obvious and need not be laboured here.

Why some UNP leaders threatened to scrap the Port City project “when” they came into power and not “if” they won the election is beyond understanding. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his UPFA coalition were not voted out of office because of this mega project. Whether it had an impact on the election result is debatable. Yet there was the threat of scrapping the development during the campaign and work was suspended for several months soon after the regime change. No doubt the project was hurried and most likely no proper Environment Impact Report was done. The then president was keen on the man-made island and it was all systems go by a compliant bureaucracy to have everything ready for launch when Chinese President Xi Jinping was here in September 2014. A project as big as Port City must have an environmental impact; and that is inevitable. Saying there is no environmental impact is similar to the empty claim of zero civilian casualties during the last phase of the war. We can already see a new beach forming in the Galle Face area in front of the old parliament as a result of the part completed breakwater and other project connected work. It can be credibly argued that this is all to the good. Such a massive reclamation must necessarily have an effect on ocean currents and marine life. Then there is the effect of the vast volume of boulders that will continue to be blasted in the hinterland for the landfill. But that does not mean that such projects must not be undertaken. Such an inflexible approach will mean that nothing can be done. What is necessary is the right cost-benefit balance.

It would be rank bad diplomacy to slight a country as big and as powerful as China. Quite apart from the fact that we are massively indebted to her, we can never forget that she was a steadfast friend during the war years when the Chinese and Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council did not permit the West to kick us around like a football. The mere fact that the last regime had a cozy relationship with this country or that must not mean that such countries should become enemies of a successor regime. The national interest must always be paramount and the present government deserves much credit for the fence-mending it has done with the Western powers with whom relations had been needlessly soured during the Rajapaksa dispensation. All this entails a price to the nation. While we must not subserviently cave into anybody’s agenda for unacceptable material or other reasons, we must not knowingly shoot ourselves in the foot. Unfortunately we have a talent for doing just that.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s forthcoming visit to China early next month will enable the finishing touches to be applied not only to the revival/resumption of the Port City project but for also ensuring that some other Chinese projects here proceed as planned; and on the best possible terms. A recent newspaper headline ahead of the Samarawickrema visit to China referred to the “Return of the Dragon.” The dragon must be made welcome and the best possible investment deals must be won. China herself is sparing no effort to stamp down hard on the corruption that has been a part of its miraculous development story. There is no doubt that kickbacks have been very much a part of that culture and countries like ours do not lack takers. The present leaders must know that many functionaries among their own supporters are no better in this regard than their predecessors. The prime minister spoke of robbers of the previous regime in parliament on Friday. He must not forget that species abounds elsewhere too.

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