It was a wonderful Thursday morning. A slight shower had given way to bright sunshine, with the rain drops on the leaves of the margosa tree gently falling to the ground and quickly evaporating. At the gate, the trio was having an argument with the hapless Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya, over the sugar content in [...]

Business Times

Wasting our resources


It was a wonderful Thursday morning. A slight shower had given way to bright sunshine, with the rain drops on the leaves of the margosa tree gently falling to the ground and quickly evaporating.

At the gate, the trio was having an argument with the hapless Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya, over the sugar content in the gal bunis and other sweetened bread like kimbula bunis.

May davaswala aharavala seeni vedei (There is too much sugar in the food these days),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

Mama monava karannada, Miss (What can I do, Miss),” replied Aldoris helplessly. “Ogollo, me kema hadana saha vikunana ayathana-walata eka kiyanna one (You must tell those places which make and sell the food about it),” said Serapina.

Seeni vedipura thiyena-eka ape saukhyayata honda ne-ne (Too much sugar is not good for our health),” interjected Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Aney Miss, mama meva vikunanava vitarai ne. Mama eva nispadanaya karanne neha-ne (Aney Miss, I am only selling them. I don’t produce them),” replied Aldoris meekly, quickly getting into his 3-wheeler and beating a hasty retreat.

As I watched and heard the conversation, my mind wandered to a recent news video doing the rounds on the plight of the abandoned Kantalai sugar factory in the eastern Trincomalee district. Along with other sugar factories, Kantalai started in 1960 and was gifted by the government of Czechoslovakia during the tenure of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. It was shut in 1994 largely due to the fighting between government forces and the LTTE.

According to the news video, Kantalai was a thriving township with more than 800 workers who had quarters in the premises. There were shops, a temple, a school and a small hospital.

While I reflected on these issues, the landline rang. It was Dosai Danny, my new verti-clad friend from Trincomalee. Danny is a veritable powerhouse of information on the region. Anything that happens there, he is aware of.

“Hi friend, thought of calling you after a long time. How are you?” he asked.

“Fine, fine…..good that you called as I am writing about the Kantalai sugar factory. Do you have any information on that,” I said in response. “Well there have been attempts to restart this but so far without success. It was a very important development in the region,” he said.

As I recall, the Business Times ran a series of stories in 2018 focusing attention on efforts to restart this factory.

In July 2015, the Board of Investment signed an agreement with India-based MG Sugars Lanka Pvt. Ltd, to revive the factory on 500 acres of land. The company is a partnership between Bangalore-based Shri Prabulingeshwar Sugars Chemicals Ltd and Singapore’s SLI Development Pte Ltd.

It had planned to process 500,000 metric tonnes (MTs) of sugarcane within 18 months after re-launching the factory, providing benefits to 25,000 farmer families in the area. The total investment in the project was to be US$110 million. The total number of jobs to be generated directly would have been around 1,220. It was to produce 72,000 MTs of sugar per year.

The revival of this factory then ran into trouble and was embroiled in legal issues, a scrap iron tender and alleged bribery issues. Subsequently, the then President’s former Chief of Staff K. Mahanama, who was earlier the Lands Ministry Secretary under whose purview the Kantalai factory came, and former State Timber Corporation Chairman Piyadasa Dissanayaka were convicted in December 2019 after being found guilty of soliciting and accepting a bribe from the Indian investor in the project. They were sentenced to prison terms of 20 years and 12 years, respectively.

“Why has this project got stalled? There was an Indian investor who was interested in reviving this,” asked Danny. “There were delays even after the agreement was signed and then came the bribery scandal,” I explained to Danny.

We continued the conversation on this issue and other developments and ended our chat “hoping to catch up again in the near future”.

The failed Kantalai project raises the all-important question as to why Sri Lanka is wasting all its resources. Some of Sri Lanka’s large manufacturing plants like the Paranthan Chemicals Corporation and the Valachchenai Paper Mills not only produced a large quantum of the country’s requirements in those sectors but also provided employment to many people and helped the area’s economy. These have been abandoned, largely due to the 1983-2009 conflict with failed efforts thereafter to revive them.

Over the past several years, the country hasn’t seen any major development projects apart from the number of garment factories in different parts of Sri Lanka which helps to provide employment to people in the area and also economically develop those areas.

The country is filled with natural resources and also an able workforce. Why can’t we channel these resources on the right path of development? In the case of sugar, it is estimated that Sri Lanka needs over 650,000 MTs per annum. Only a fraction of this (about 7 per cent) is produced locally while the balance is imported. There are also reports that sugar production is dropping because sugar producers are producing more ethanol for alcohol use, from sugar-cane.

Sri Lanka needs a roadmap to revive these industries and the new government can get these projects re-started with foreign investor assistance. Most of the countries in the region particularly Vietnam, which was far behind Sri Lanka many years ago, are developing rapidly and Sri Lanka is now, unfortunately, trying to play catch-up.

As I wound up my column, Kussi Amma Sera walked in with a cup of plain tea (without sugar which is what I prefer), saying: “Ape seeni banisvala seeni vedi (Our sugar buns have too much sugar).”

Eka aththa (That’s true),” I said, however, wondering wistfully why Sri Lanka’s large natural and labour resources could not be put to better use to develop the country, particularly in reducing the import content of consumption and thereby saving valuable foreign exchange.

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