ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 43
Financial Times  

Another white elephant

In Sri Lanka, we want to do big things and be recognized. Forget the cost: that’s immaterial for a country that has a sizable budget deficit and where our import costs exceed export revenues. There is no attempt to analyse the cost-to-economic return of projects. For example, the new international airport which is also geared to accommodate the world’s biggest planes, is being constructed in the deep south in Hambantota.

Much has been said about the project, its cost and benefits. But have President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government stopped for a moment to ponder its viability and return on investment? On the other hand, the environmental lobby is up in arms over the impact the proposed airport would have on wild life in the Yala National Park and other nearby nature havens. It seems strange that the government is going ahead with the project even before the compulsory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been obtained or approved by the Central Environmental Authority.

The more practical solution would have been to re-develop the Ratmalana airport to serve as a second regional airport and stopover for tourists visiting the south. Anyway the airport project is based on the plan that Hambantota being developed into a mega regional centre with a large port coming up and expectations of containers and cruise ships stopping over, would pave the way for the need of an airport – in addition to easy access to southern hotels and other nearby regions.

There is no doubt Hambantota is on the main international shipping route and some statistics indicate that hundreds of ships bypass Hambantota as a stopover-refuelling location because there are no such facilities. The new harbour would be beneficial and should have been done many years ago. In fact there is speculation in shipping industry circles that big shipping cartels and authorities that control mega ports in the region have used their ‘enormous influence’ to stop the Hambantota port project in the past – for fear of losing business. In this backdrop comes reports of the authorities planning to construct the country’s biggest conference hall in Hambantota, said to be bigger than what the BMICH offers.

Is this viable? Will such a conference hall in Hambantota have enough business to ensure its viability? Remember this is the tax-payers money that is being spent. Will it end up like the many white elephants that we see where politicians have gone on ego trips, and image-building exercises in the name of development.

What has happened to all those grand Gam Udawa buildings – at the cost of the taxpayer? What has happened to all the dozens of clock towers that sprung up under the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa? There are many ‘white elephants’ that the media has consistently highlighted in the past and our concern is that the new conference hall will also end up as a white elephant.

Minister of State Revenue and Finance, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya says the total cost of the Hambantota International Conference Hall is in the region of US$ 9 million of which the Korean government is granting US$ 6 million while the balance comes from the Sri Lankan government. It is unclear whether this conference hall will perform a role similar to the BMICH, which is the main convention and conference centre in the country.

Nevertheless to make the new conference hall a success, it would have to attract international clientele and also regional conferences like what the BMICH is doing to make it viable- a tough job in a conflict affected economy. The government is duty-bound in the name of transparency and governance to explain to the people how it expects to market this conference hall and how it expects to sustain it – without adding to the burden of the taxpayer.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.