Business Times

Hasty move on vehicle imports

The plan to shift the whole gamut of vehicle imports to Hambantota is nothing short of a hasty decision.
While the motor vehicle industry is up in arms over the move, as we reported some weeks back, the plan will result in a lot of logistics issues in transporting these vehicles to the commercial capital, Colombo.
The move comes in the wake of speeding up business and development at the Hambantota port, which has not picked up as the authorities expected. Few ships have called at the port and these few too been persuaded to do so.

Thus in a bid to rev up the demand, the authorities have come up with this ridiculous plan to shift the entire vehicles imports operation to Hambantota from Colombo. This means all importers would be housed in Hambantota and vehicles transported to Colombo - the hub of the motor vehicle business.
Some years back, when the Hambantota airport was in the drawing boards, it was going to be a second international airport to cater to foreign visitors and locals. The plan appears to have changed now with the authorities focusing it on essentially being a cargo hub and less for passenger use.

Development cannot be based on political agendas as Hambantota –home base of the Rajapaksa family - is clearly seen to be. While the port has been an option over the past three decades as it is on a key shipping route and can serve as a refueling and R&R (Rest & Recreation) stop, the other facilities – airport, international cricket stadium, international conference hall and other infrastructure are difficult to market particularly when Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family cease to control the country.

A classic example of politicization is the Dambulla cricket stadium which is hardly used and is now being turned into an all-sports arena. What a waste of funds during the Thilanga Sumathipala-led Sri Lanka cricket regime. Now because of political influence, most of the international cricket matches outside Colombo will be either played in Hambantota or Pallekelle. The moment the UPFA and President Rajapaksa are out of power, the interest in Hambantota will dwindle not only for cricket but in other facilities too. Even worse is the proposed Commonwealth Games taking place in Hambantota (if Sri Lanka wins the bid) at a cost of more than Rs 8 billion. The new infrastructure here is aimed at establishing a new international conference and events centre in the region.

But given the divisive politics that Sri Lanka is familiar with where it is a case of ‘one party constructs (while in power) and the opposition destructs (when it assumes power)’, new infrastructure becomes white elephants unless there is national support (ruling party, opposition and the people) for particular projects. That again is a rare feature in Sri Lanka. Infrastructure development needs to be planned with the people’s consent and spread across the country, instead of only in one region (Hambantota).

Furthermore development as in the case of shifting vehicle imports to the deep-south port of Hambantota from Colombo can succeed only if all the infrastructure is in place. For example, does Sri Lanka have highways or expressways for speedy transport to other cities from Hambantota? The only organized highway is the Colombo-Matara expressway due to be opened in September which will help to some extent to transport vehicles to Colombo from Hambantota. That’s however means cost of vehicles would go up – even more in the next few years with Sri Lanka planning to discontinue second hand vehicle imports and permit only new ones.

For changes like this infrastructure needs to be organized and roads in particular well connected for Hambantota –as the import centre for vehicles - to work. Sri Lanka’s biggest problem at the moment is roads and transportation, as our special columnist on transportation (Prof. Amal Kumarage) has been discussing in recent weeks. Changes are made at the whims and fancies of high officials without proper analysis and planning as Prof. Kumarage has repeatedly explained, particularly in the case of the traffic flow changes on Duplication Road and Galle Road towards Fort from Wellawatte where the focus has been to pander to the motorist without considering pedestrians and bus passengers.

Take cities like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia (which this columnist has been visiting over the past 10 days), the traffic is so organized and caters, equally, to all users of the roads. Pedestrian crossings are clearly marked and vehicles diligently stop for pedestrians to cross. Similarly, decent arrangements are there for bus stops and passengers need not walk long distances to take a bus (as in the case of the Duplication Road arrangements).

Public transportation is very efficient in both Singapore and Malaysia with buses and trains (on the subway and outside) running on schedule and no speeding maniacs (private bus drivers competing with each other) on the roads, putting others at peril.

The transportation needs and wide, expansive highways have made it possible for many KL residents to buy or rent apartments outside the capital and commute to the workplace from 30-40 km away. For example a friend or business contact ‘living in KL’ could well be residing 30-40 km away. This is just like residing in Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy or Avissawella and commuting to work daily which in the Sri Lankan case is a hassle and time-consuming.

Thus grand schemes like shifting vehicles imports to Hambantota should take all these needs into consideration in addition to the views of the industry instead of a hasty rush to boost business at the new port.

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