Where clashes of geopolitics, politics and economic interests intersect
Posted on November 13th, 2017

Meera Srinivasan Courtesy The Hindu

Hambantota, a theatre for India-China geopolitical conflict, is also a battleground for the political aspirations of scions from two families

Home to about six lakh people and investments worth billions of dollars, the district of Hambantota, along Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, is currently witness to at least three clashes.

At the geopolitical level, China and India have competing interests. From being almost invisible within the island to becoming the most-watched district in Sri Lanka, Hambantota’s image makeover with ‘mega development’ foretells Sri Lanka’s pivotal role in the Indian Ocean Region, more so after Colombo sold majority of its stake in the Hambantota port to China.

India in turn has offered to run the nearby Mattala airport, famous for its emptiness. While there is no final word yet, New Delhi is exploring options of using the airport facility to manage its own surging air traffic and to run a flight school.

Also watching from India’s side are countries such as the U.S. and Japan. They share India’s concern over the heightened presence of China, which pumped in billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in post-war Sri Lanka. China sees the port town as a valuable transshipment hub in its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.

A protest in Colombo in February this year against the proposed sale of stake in the Hambantota port.   | Photo Credit: ISHARA S. KODIKARA

In domestic politics, it is the constituency where Sajith Premadasa and Namal Rajapaksa are building their political futures. Their fathers, both former Presidents — Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa — rose to power with a strong rural backing.

Living in uncertainty

The third clash, which is the least apparent but the most telling, is that between the people of Hambantota, the animals inhabiting the district and the ‘development’ that is threatening to shake its ecosystem.

Our lives have remained uncertain from the time of the tsunami in 2004,” says G. Milani Harim, an aspiring politician who plans to contest local polls in 2018. People are in perpetual fear, worrying when their land might be gazetted for development activity,” she said, flagging the apprehension of farmers and fisher-folk who constitute over 90% of the district’s population.

With forest cover diminishing in the wake of development, locals point to an increase in incidence of human-elephant conflict — often leading to destruction of agricultural fields, damage to houses, and, at times, grave injury or death to humans encountering the tusker. At least 25 people in the district died between 2010 to 2017 succumbing to wild elephant attacks, local newspaper The Sunday Times reported. As many as 57 elephants got killed in the same period.

However, Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman of the NGO Centre of Conservation and Research, argued that there is scope for pursuing both conservation and development. Nearly 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka are found in 62% of the country’s expanse. Of those, 70% live outside national parks and that is because elephants can coexist with humans,” he said, countering popular anxiety. In his opinion, planned development where elephant paths are clearly demarcated with electric fencing can make a difference.

Development question

On the one hand are farmers, fishermen and community leaders like Ms. Harim who remain sceptical of the huge projects surrounding them. On the other are local businessmen who are counting heavily on the mega development and the investment they hope it will bring.

It does not matter if the investment comes from China, India or America, we want businesses in our district to benefit,” said K.A. Hemantha Padmalal, a former president of the Hambantota Chamber of Commerce, an organisation with representatives from the 4,000-strong local business community. India being like a brother” could invest in the local agriculture and information technology sectors and boost them, Mr. Padmalal said. India can also set up an automobile assembly facility, considering that car manufacturers in India transship their vehicles through the port,” he added.

Ms. Harim has a different perspective. In her view, development should speak to the needs of an entire family. Be it education, health, or access to jobs — all these should improve. At present, we can see the development, but not feel it.”

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