Eastern Development?

Hambantota: Into the future, but what about the people?

While people await eagerly the many development projects in this once backwater area, there is a lot of heartburn over relocation plans, reports……

By Rohan Abeywardena

Hambantota may have been in LankaA?a??a??s backwater for a very long time and a pertinent question that used to be asked by political rivals here from the most powerful clan from this backward district, the RajapaksaA?a??a??s of Giruwapattuwa was what they have done for the region all these years?

RajapaksaA?a??a??s may have been thinking of the greater national good while holding many ministerial posts over the years, instead of merely enriching a pocket borough, but now with them being at the helm of the country, Hambantota is being truly transformed into the 21st century.

We toured the region last week to get a first hand look at what is in store and we found that though much local and international attention has gone to the construction of the proposed international harbour and airport here, there are many other complementary and supplementary projects that are either under construction or are about to take off the ground.

One project that is working full steam with ADB assistance is the upgrading of the existing natural fishery harbour. Here the China Harbour Engineering Company is building two breakwaters of 173 metres and 253 metres to enable this fishery harbour to be used through out the year. This part of the contract amounting Rs.334 million, includes deepening its approach to a depth of five metres and a width of 70 metres, deepening the inner basin to a depth of 3.5 metres and building a 150 metre quay. On completion in July it will be able to accommodate 70 multi-day boats and other smaller craft. The project originally set to be completed last April has got delayed, according to its Assistant Resident Engineer W.A.N. Silva due to the contractor finding it difficult to obtain adequate amount of large boulders for the breakwater construction on time.

Its Project Director from the Fishery Harbours Corporation Nissanka Perera adds that these are no ordinary granite boulders, with each weighing as much as three to five tonnes. He assures that the contract for the second half of the project, the building of the shore facilities, including the fish auction building, a net mending facility, and an administrative complex too will be awarded shortly and that too will be ready by the end of the year.

Another project, the work on which has just been started is a US$20 million modern administrative complex for the new Hambantota town. The South Korean construction giant Keangnam has been awarded the contract. It is being funded by a soft loan from the Korean government. The repayment is spread over a long period, according to Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development Dr. P Ramunajam

Almost adjoining this office complex will see the construction of an international conference hall, 70 per cent of its total cost of US$ 8 million is being met by the South Korean government as a gift to Sri Lanka. One hundred acres have been set aside for the office complex and the conference hall.

Another 400 acres have been set aside adjacent to the new harbour for a BOI approved oil refinery project. Parallel to these projects, work is also in progress on the construction of infrastructure and other support facilities such as a new Galle Road through the interior circling the new harbour as a big portion of the present Galle Road will disappear with the construction of the port inland between Mirijjawila junction and encompassing the Karagan Saltern lagoon. This lagoon, as its Sinhala name suggests originally a saltern, but has not been used for that purpose for a long time since waste water had been flowing into it from the nearby government base hospital.

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While practically everyone in Hambantota is now eagerly and proudly awaiting these massive projects, there is much heartburn especially over the compensation packages on offer among several hundred families who will have to be shifted to accommodate the flag ship projects, the international harbour and the airport at Weerawila, . Unlike all the other projects which are coming up on recently cleared virgin shrub jungle, these two massive projects and their support facilities expected to cost initially US$360 million and US$ 125 million, require thousands of acres of land now occupied by people.

Because of these frictions and the enormity of the tasks ahead, one cannot really blame President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointing his elder brother Chamal to the portfolio of Shipping and Aviation early this month. The haughty attitude of some officials attached to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority may have contributed to the deepening of friction with the affected people.

A policeman stands guard at the foundation stone site of the airport. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

When we tried to raise the grievances of people who will have to be moved out for the harbour project, from a senior Ports Authority engineer, such as the low compensation amounts offered to them , he at once maintained that 192 families had already agreed to leave the area accepting the package offered and only 78 were holding back for more. And when it was pointed out that there are grave shortcomings in the infrastructure of the new township being prepared to resettle those people at Siribopura, he immediately cut the call.

The affected people took us to the new scheme, which was devoid of any trees, where the drains were being built and the inner roads were being macadamized at a cost of Rs. 60 million. It was obvious to anyone that the tar was being poured over a layer of metal not even two inches thick and beneath that thin layer of metal was just plain earth. And the drains and the hume pipes used for culverts couldnA?a??a??t have been even one foot in diameter.

SLPA Chief Engineer Janaka Kurukulasuriya was more accommodating and assured us that he would personally inspect the scheme to see that everything was done according to specifications. He maintained that the diameter of drains and culverts had to be 300 mm and the contractor should ensure that the roads should have two layers of metal totalling 75mm of thickness.

In addition to the dispute over compensation package, the affected people also complain about having to move to an area which is barren amidst unbearable arid weather conditions in the district. They also fear wild animals and especially wild elephants, for Siribopura adjoins elephant infested shrub jungle. In fact while we were there around noon, we ourselves observed a wild elephant feeding at a garbage dump nearby. So without an electric fence it would be suicidal to live there.

Even the 78 families who have so far not signed up to leave, are willing to vacate, if a compensation package similar to the extremely lucrative ones given to affected people at places like Norochcholai and areas coming under the southern hi-way, is offerd to them.

Though these two big projects are definitely needed for the development of the whole country, raising the required finances appears to be the problem facing the authorities.

Government Agent, Hambantota, R.M.D. Meegasmulla hit the nail on the head when he admitted that compensation packages offered at Norichcholai and for areas coming under the southern hi – way were high, thanks to donor funding, but the problem here was much of the funding has to be raised locally.

It appears that even the launching of the harbour project has been somewhat delayed over the issue of raising the required finances, but Minister Chamal Rajapaksa told The Sunday Times that they would now lay the foundation stone with a soft ceremony on June 07.

The new port is earmarked to be completed in three years and three months, while the new international airport is expected to go into basic operation in 2009.

He said officials of the Ex-Im Bank of China, which is to provide a loan to finance the venture visited the area last Sunday in this regard. Pending the finalization of the loan they were going ahead with the project with SLPA funds.

President Rajapaksa during his state visit to China earlier this year has already signed the general agreement with Beijing to build the port.

Chief Engineer Kurukulasuriya assures speeding up of compensation payments to 150 families out of the 192 already agreed to leave, within the next two to three weeks. As for the balance 42 he said there are disputes about ownership and other issues preventing them from disbursing any funds to them. As for those refusing to sign up to vacate, Minister Rajapksa has met the members of the Association of Those Losing Properties to the Proposed Port early this week and have agreed to review their individual cases with a view to paying maximum compensation possible.

Unlike people being ousted by the harbour project who have been ever ready to leave provided they are provided the right compensation package, those being asked to leave to facilitate the new airport at Weerawila, the request has come like a bolt of lightning late last year, for earlier under the previous UNP regime the second international airport was earmarked to be built at Kuda Oya in the Moneragala District about 30 miles north of the present location.

Here, about 362 families in Colony 10 and few families in Colony 11 face the prospect of having to be uprooted after struggling to build their lives for the past 22 years. They were settled here in 1985 under the Lunugamvehera scheme. The scheme was a failure till few years back due to inadequate supply of water, but with the bringing in of additional water through the newly constructed Weherahgala canal people have begun enjoying bountiful harvests during both seasons.

According to the Airport and Aviation Services sources Kuda Oya site was a hasty selection done without giving consideration to access to infrastructure and even the presence of a nearby mountain range in Wellawaya is seen as a potential threat to the safe operation of an airport.

But at Weerawila, there is a greater problem over the threat faced by the adjoining Bundala bird sanctuary. An Environmental Impact Assessment prepared for the Weerawila airport project is said to be now under the review of a high-powered committee appoited by the Central Environmental Authority.

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Director General of the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce Azmi Thassim too feels the build up of friction. Therefore, he appeals to authorities to take the people into confidence and to march forward as a team to achieve these goals. A?a??A?These are good ideas and if properly managed they are not impossible to achieve. Instead of ad hoc decisions, people must be taken into confidence and from there work as a team, through continuous engagement of the community.A?a??A?

Tourism being the main income source of the region and the airport also being an urgent need, he suggests that the new airport be sited at least ten kilometres from Yala and at least 50 kilometres from Bundala to ensure that no harm is done to the two nature reserves by aircraft landing and taking off. With certainty, he says the harbour and the airport are the answers to the economic woes faced by them as those two alone would make the area centre of a lucrative triangle. To the east, he points to Arugam Bay, the best surfing destination in the world; to the west the golden beaches of the South and to the North the cool climes of hill destinations.

The Director General recalls that the current crisis facing the district is unprecedented. and far worse than the troubles they faced during the first and second JVP insurrections and the tsunami.

Similar desperate sentiments are echoed by Hambantota Regional President of the Hoteliers Association, Priyankara Wickramasekera. He says not only the survival of hotels are at stake, but thousands of their direct employees, suppliers, and everyone down the chain are in jeopardy.

Even with the Weerawila airport project, again the authorities have obviously run into a financial problem, which is envisaged to be resolved through raising the required funds from national lotteries run by the Lotteries Board. As such all Rs10 lottery tickets will double in price from August. The Lotteries Board will also introduce two new dollar denominated lottery tickets eying foreign travellers.


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