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Unpacking port patriotism: Lack of internal process and its external effects

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by Rajan Philips

The first consequential announcement that the ECT deal is kaput came from Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Early last week he was reported to have assured the port workers that the East Container Terminal (marked East on the map) “will neither be sold to any country nor handed over to any country for administration.” The PM’s announcement came as a surprise to everyone, most of all to the Indian High Commission in Colombo. It was not clear if, when and how India and Japan were formally advised of the government’s decision. It was clear, however, that the Prime Minister was trying to diffuse a gathering political storm at home and was not worrying about diplomatic niceties.

Both local politics and diplomatic caution were clearly lost on the Indian High Commission spokesperson who blurted out the same day that he wanted “to reiterate the expectation of the Government of India for expeditious implementation of the trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) signed in May 2019 among the Governments of India, Japan and Sri Lanka for the development of ECT with participation from these three countries.” It was hardly the way to express India’s position given the context in which the Sri Lankan Prime Minister had announced his government’s decision. Indian diplomacy can still learn a lot from the Chinese about being suave in dealing with smaller countries with worrisome politics. That difference first showed up way back when in Bandung, between Jawaharlal Nehru’s impatience and Zhou Enlai’s charm.  

Never mind. By Wednesday, Prime Minister Modi (Nehru’s current antithesis) was calling the Sri Lankan PM to felicitate Sri Lanka’s 73rd Independence anniversary. He was the first foreign leader to do so, beating Xi Jinping to the wire. The Chinese President later sent a message of felicitations to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Mr. Modi may have taken the high road in his call with the Sri Lankan PM, without harping on the ECT deal cancellation, and leaving it to his High Commissioner in Colombo to formally register a protest with the Sri Lankan government. High Commissioner Gopal Baglay has reportedly done just that, and has called on the President and the Prime Minister separately in a double registration of India’s protest.

 

What will India do?

What will India do? For now, it is all a matter of speculation. Will it retaliate by reducing the transhipment of Indian goods via Colombo? Indian goods account for the largest volume (70%) of cargo in Colombo, and according to Indian commentators “Colombo tranships more Indian goods than all of India’s own ports.” Sri Lankan commentators have noted that without the Indian volume, Colombo will not be able to maintain its current port-status in the world – 25th largest container port and 19th best-connected.

The new port in Vizhinjam, Kerala, has been touted as a response to this regional imbalance, and as a new deep water (20-24 metres) port Vizhinjam is anticipated to be India’s first Mega Transshipment Container Terminal. Coincidentally or not, the private developer of the port is none other than Adani Ports apparently India’s leading private sector port developer and operator. The USD 930 M port is being developed as a Public-Private BOT undertaking with the Kerala State government as owner and the Central government providing USD 110 M gap funding support. Prime Minister Modi is also reported to have mused about a new transhipment port in the Great Nicobar Island, which too could be a threat to Colombo’s current status.

How will the Vizhinjam port affect Colombo? According to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who joined the ECT fray with his own little statement, the now defunct 2019 ECT Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) that his team had negotiated included a condition that committed India to treat the Kerala and Colombo ports equally without giving preference to the new Kerala port. Will India continue to do that? Or will it divert and reduce Indian transhipment through Colombo? Could it be that India cannot do anything about its cargo that now passes through Colombo because it suits India’s own distribution requirements. For example, increasing the country’s cargo handling in Kerala, at the expense of Colombo, might require significant expansion in the ground transportation infrastructure within India. So, Sri Lanka might be left with the better of both worlds. Keep the ECT as a sovereign enterprise and still receive the same volume of Indian transhipment cargo.

More speculatively, how will India and Japan respond to what the Indian media is calling Sri Lanka’s “compensatory offer” of the West Container Terminal (WCT) to be developed as a Public Private Partnership undertaking. As can be seen in the map above, the contentious East Terminal is partially developed, whereas the West Terminal (that will be to the left of CICT in the map) will be an entirely new undertaking involving a full construction component. Colombo government sources have apparently touted it as a bigger and better deal for India and Japan. According to the same media reports, sources in Colombo have indicated that the Indian response to the WCT offer has been “ambiguous” and “almost rejecting.” Indian officials, on the other hand, are said to have countered that there had been “no formal communication about WCT” from the Sri Lankan side. I have not seen any formal government announcement about the compensatory WCT offer by Sri Lanka.

As well, to Indian media queries about the likelihood of a future political opposition to WCT down the road, the Sri Lanka government sources have reportedly ruled out “chances of any further trouble on the cabinet-proposed West Terminal offer.” Can anyone be so sure that the ECT history will not be repeated for a future WCT deal? If an apparently smaller ECT is so crucial to be kept under 100% Sri Lankan control, how could the bigger WCT be given to foreigners in the future, and that too to the Adani group that is allegedly in cahoots with the Modi government?

 

Port Development

The first major development in the Colombo harbour was the late 19th century (1872-85) construction of the Southwest Breakwater. It was directly undertaken by the colonial government without hiring contractors to keep costs within estimates and loans repayable. Both were accomplished successfully. The loan repayment was made entirely out of the port revenue. The cost of construction was kept lower than normal because the labour used was convict labour supplied cheap by the Prisons Department, which collected less than minimum wages as its revenue and fed the convicts with “wholesome food”. The convicts were preferred apparently because of their “superior physical strength … and a certain degree of regimentation.” It was also because of the short supply of regular “coolies,” local or Indian, and their alleged lack of physical strength and regimentation. The harbour expansions thereafter were few and far between. Notable milestones are the conversion to a “sheltered harbour” in 1912, and the completion of the Queen Elizabeth Quay and expansions in 1954.

Much container cargo has trans-shipped through the Colombo port in the intervening years, but all of the current container terminals were added only after 1985. Three of them under the protection of the old breakwaters – the Jaye Container Terminal (JCT), Unity Container Terminal (UCT) and the South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT) – were developed between 1985 and 1999. The South Asia Gateway Terminal is the expansion of the old Queen Elizabeth Quay and is the first and perhaps the most successful Public-Private Partnership undertaking in the Port and in Sri Lanka.

The subsequent expansion of the port facilities has been under the umbrella of the South Harbour Development Project, the technical studies for which were completed in 2006. The South Harbour expansion is a significant addition to port’s terminal and operational capacities. The expansion is based on the construction of new breakwaters and the development of three new container terminals, viz., The Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT, already built, and known previously as the South Container Terminal); the now famous East Container Terminal; and the now-touted-compensatory West Container Terminal.

But the procurement process for developing these facilities has been getting murkier and murkier with every passing cargo ship. Not everything was transparent in the selection of the consortium for the CICT facility, although the main consultant and the contactors apparently did a good job of work, at least according to the project evaluation report of the Asian Development Bank, which has been the prime lender for the South Harbour undertakings. And nothing was made transparent about the negotiations and the eventual agreement for the ECT. Why?

The answer may lie in the internal decision making processes of the government of Sri Lanka. Rather, the answer is in the lack of any process for the procurement of public goods and service, big or small, local, or foreign. Things get complicated when public undertakings are large and involve foreign participation. Add to the lack of process in procurement, the lacuna of parliamentary scrutiny and overall transparency. In fact, there is no better and more compact example for the deteriorations in process, scrutiny, and transparency in the matter of public undertakings in Sri Lanka than what you can find in the saga of the development of the port of Colombo and its terminals.



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All communities should be treated equally without distinction

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by Jehan Perera

The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.

Due to the timely intervention of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, in whose diocese the two most serious attacks took place, there was no retaliation against the Muslim population by those who had lost their kith and kin. However, in the weeks that followed, there were mob attacks against the Muslim community in parts of the country that were distant from the bomb attacks. These attacks were not spontaneous but organised and intended to loot Muslim property and cause fear in them. The government, which was under political siege for having failed to prevent the suicide bomb attacks, failed once again to adequately protect the Muslim community.

It is in this context that Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s statement on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Easter bombings takes on significance. About two months ago he gave a deadline by which he asked the government to identify who was behind the Easter attacks and the cause for them. The Cardinal has consistently spoken up on the issue of the Easter bombing, first to ask for restraint on the part of the victims, then to ask the government to identify the perpetrators and prior to the elections to take the position that the people needed a government that could protect them. Now he has said that “Our brethren were attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it to use the attackers as pawns in order to strengthen their political power.”

MUSLIM OUTREACH

Two years after the Easter bombings in which they were branded as supporters of religious extremism, the Muslim community seeks in many different ways to overcome the suspicion that once engulfed them and which they fear can do so again. The use of the black Islamic dress that was an increasing trend among Muslim women has been much reduced. Muslim organisations are making energetic efforts to network with other religious organisations, join inter-religious groups and to liaise with civil society. They make available to them the Islamic teachings on peace and coexistence. This weekend I was invited to the opening of a community centre in the Kurunegala District by a Muslim organization.

On the walls of the community centre there were panels put up with sayings from the different religions on a number of important matters, such as how to treat others, and the role of spiritual values in everyday life. The foremost place at the opening ceremony was given to Buddhist monks who had come to attend the ceremony along with government officials and police officers. The monks who spoke said that the Muslim community living in the village had good relations with the Sinhalese living in the neighbouring villages, and this had continued for generations. Another monk said that after the Easter bombings they had heard there were violent gangs heading in the direction of the Muslim village, they had come there to ensure no harm would befall those people.

In this context, the announcement that the government will ban 11 Muslim organisations sends a negative message to the country at large about the Muslim community. It creates an impression that Muslims organisations are under suspicion and possibly even close to performing acts of violence which necessitates them being banned. Of the 11 banned organisations, two are foreign ones, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda which have been reported internationally as engaging in violence. However, the other nine are Sri Lankan organisations which do not have a track record of violence or illegality. Four of them have the name “Thowheed” in them, which in the Arabic language means “faith.”

 

DIFFERENT TREATMENT

The ban on these Thowheed organisations may be due to the fact that the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran, was part of an organisation that had the name “Thowheed” in it. The ban on them may also be due to the fact that the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter bombings recommended such action against them. However, the Commission also recommended that other non-Muslim organisations be banned which has not happened. This suggests that the Muslim organisations are being treated differently. The danger is that when it treats organisations differently, the government may be generating resentment in the Muslim community, especially the youth. If the words of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith are correct, the problem lies not in Muslim extremism but in partisan power politics.

Sri Lanka has experienced Sinhalese youth insurrections twice and even the Tamil militant movement was started by youth, who were once called “the boys.” Perhaps in anticipation of such a radicalisation phenomenon, the government has recently passed an add-on called the “De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This will permit people who fall into its ambit to be send to rehabilitation centres for up to two years without trial. This may provide the government with an opportunity to release up to 250 Muslim citizens currently under detention on suspicion of being involved in the Easter bombings and send them for rehabilitation. On the other hand, this regulation may be used in the future in regard to other persons and other groups. The better way to prevent radicalization is to make people feel that the law is even-handed to all, and also to encourage engagement between communities.

During the discussion that took place at the opening of the community centre in Kurunegala, it was noted that the younger generation had fewer inter-community linkages than those of older generations. This may be due to the changing nature of society and the economy where people spend less time with other people and more time with machines or doing narrow and specialised jobs. In multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in which there is conflictual relations, the tendency on the part of those from different communities will be to live in their own silos rather than interact with those of other communities. Living in peace in plural societies requires purposeful and energetic interaction which is organised. Where there has been ethnic and religious strife the world over, the better answer has been to provide people with encouragement and incentives to mix together, which is what the Muslim organization in Kurunegala was trying to do.

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TNGlive…a boon to artistes affected by the pandemic

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No doubt, Covid-19 has ruined the entertainment industry, throughout the world.

Entertainment venues have been shut down, concerts cancelled…and musicians are finding the going pretty tough.

However, it’s heartening to know that there are performers who find solace in keeping the public entertained, via online performances.

In this instance, those responsible for TNGlive must be congratulated for creating this platform, on social media, in order to give lots of folks, from around the globe, the opportunity to showcase their talent, on a regular basis.

Quite a few Sri Lankans have been featured on TNGlive, including Melantha Perera, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger), Sureshni Wanigasuriya, Yasmin de Silva, and Kay Jay Gunesekere,

Suzi did this scene twice, and on both occasions her performance was highly rated, with bouquets galore coming her way…on social media.

On Saturday, April 10th, she was featured (8.00 pm Sri Lankan time) doing songs from the country and western catalogue.

It was a very entertaining programme, which also contained some dance scenes (line dancing) from the audience present, in her living room – her friends.

Her repertoire included ‘Joline, ‘Me And Bobby McGee, “Johnny B. Goode,’ ‘Blue By You,’ ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ ‘Rose Garden,’ ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe.’

Suzi is to make her third appearance, on TNGlive, shortly, but this time it won’t be a solo effort, she says.

“For variety, I would be having a guy from the Philippines, and he sings the hit songs of Tom Jones and Engelbert.”

So get ready for another special from Suzi, who now resides in Switzerland.

Suzi was the frontline vocalist for the group Friends who were, at that point in time, top of the pops!

Another artiste who impressed viewers, performing on TNGlive, with his daughter, was Nigel Gerrard John Galway.

Nigel is from India, and has been a Chef for the last 23 years, with 12 years spent at the Oberoi hotels. He was also an executive Sous Chef at Taj, in Coimbatore.

In fact, Allwyn Stephen, TNGlive chief, referred to Nigel as…probably the first Singing/Dancing Chef in the world!

He, and his 18-year-old daughter, Lean Pamela Mary, did get the attention of many, with their unique style of presentation; while Nigel handled the vocals, Lean, using only gestures, expression, and movements, brought out the meaning of the lyrics in most of the songs her dad did. And, she did it beautifully.

Yes, she also did exercise her vocal cords, on this particular programme

Says Nigel: “We come from a family of musicians, but we attempted singing, only during the pandemic, on various social media groups, and we did so only because we were all stuck at home.

“We joined TNGlive, through a friend, and have been performing ever since. The love and support we received from people around only encouraged us to keep growing and now we have a page of our own called THE SINGING CHEF.”

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Heard at the club

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Part II

A member reminisced an incident that happened long years ago, during those peaceful times when terrorism was unheard of. He had been driving his car, on the Deniyaya Road, when about six miles from Galle, he saw a village in a state of panic. So he stopped his car near the village boutique and asked the mudalali what was happening? The mudalali had said that the self-opinionated ‘mudliyar’ of the village (a court interpreter) had organised a ‘dane’ (an alms giving) and was awaiting the procession of monks, complete with drummers, from the temple. And, seeing it coming over the paddy fields which was a short cut, instead of the village road as show off, put him in a paddy, and he had chased the monks away. So the monks had gone back to the temple. As the meal time deadline for monks was fast approaching, the villagers brought the meals they had cooked in their homes, to serve the monks! That was the panic.

He was an unpopular villager who rose to a high position in the public service with political influence. Cussed by nature, he used his official position to harass villagers. When he met with an untimely death and, right at the moment the coffin was taken to the hearse, the whole village reverberated with the sound of fire crackers, organised by the irate villagers.

****

Once a terrible post office blunder very nearly wrecked a marriage. A certain sales rep sometimes sold his wares on credit. One such creditor was the owner of a shop named ‘Chandra Cafe’ who was slack in his payments. So the sales rep sent him a telegram that he would be coming to collect his dues, next Monday. On receipt, the owner of Chandra Cafe telegraphed the rep asking him not to come on Monday and the telegram received by him read, ‘Do not come on Monday – Chandra K.P.’ And when the rep’s wife read the telegram there was some misunderstanding at home which nearly rocked his marriage.

****

This reminded us of another telegram. An army officer was to go back to camp by the night mail. When he arrived at the railway station, he found a lady in an advanced state of pregnancy, almost in tears, because no berths were available. Gallantly the officer offered her his berth and, at the nearest post office, sent a telegram to his commanding officer saying ‘Unable to return tomorrow as ordered. Gave berth to lady. Arriving tomorrow evening.’

Obviously, the vital word ‘berth’ had been misspelt as ‘birth’, for the gallant officer received this reply from his commanding officer, ‘Your next confinement will be to barracks’.

****

A philanthropist donated a building to his old school. An opening ceremony was held with a VVIP as the chief guest. A group photograph was also taken. As the donor was keen to get this photograph published in the newspapers without delay, he sent the local correspondent in his limousine to Colombo. He met the editor who happened to be an old boy of the same school. After a look at the photograph, he folded it in such away to eliminate the principal and sent it for publication. The editor seemed to have an axe to grind with the principal!

****

It was in the early 60s and I was on my way to the club in the evening, when I met a friend near the club. With him was another, I invited them both to the club and after a few drinks we were headed out of the club, when near the gate, my friend pulled me aside and said that his friend was going for some trade union work to Hambantota and was short of funds. I told him that he should have told me that before I paid the club bill and also told him I had only Rs.18.00 which I gave. This trade union leader was non other than Rohana Wijeweera, who was to become JVP leader.

****

It was towards the end of the 1980s and a club member, a tea factory owner was on his way home all alone in his car, at the break of down, after finishing his factory work. He had to travel 12 miles. After about five miles, he saw a youth profusely bleeding with injuries, coming down a hill. The good Samaritan that he was, he took him in his car to the hospital. On the way, the police took him and the injured youth into custody for terrorist activities. Fortunately for him, Major-General Lucky Wijeratna, who was a classmate of his at school, was there to save him.

 

****

This happened several decades ago. There was a certain popular elderly club member, who was a wealthy businessman and drank nothing but whisky. That day when he came to the club, he seemed to have lost his bearings. He told his friends that he was going to donate all his wealth to the Home for Disabled Children which was close to his house, because his only child, a daughter, had eloped. His friends prevailed on him to defer his decision for a few months. About a year or so later, he came to the club one evening carrying a big flask in his hand. He said that it was for his errant daughter who has now reconciled, adding that he was a grandfather now!

****

A busy garage was located in a residential area and it was open day and night. To highlight their services, they put up an impressive signboard, ‘We never sleep’. The following day a prankster had written below it ‘and neither do the neighbours’.

During the day of insanity – 29th July 1987, the Open University at Matara was burnt down and the Ruhunu University remained closed. A wall poster came up. It read: ‘Close the Open University’ and ‘Open the closed University’.

****

A young teacher, met a young man at the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens. Although their native villages were far apart, they

became close friends and planned to get married in the near future. He posed as a private bus owner. One day on a visit to his fiancée, he stayed the night over and muttered in his sleep, “Borella – Battaramulla! Borella – Battaramulla!” This aroused serious suspicions about his identity. So a few days later, her parents came to the Borella junction, to see him in a sarong loading passengers to private buses as a ‘bus crier’. And the love story ended right there.

****

A long time ago a wealthy industrialist, a popular member of the club, was having his drink in a secluded corner of the club, most unlike him. He appeared to be quite agitated. Some concerned friends asked him what happened. He said that his only daughter (he also had a son) had married a man of her choice adding that his wife was in favour of the marriage. The daughter he said, was 22 years old. His friends told him that at that age, she was entitled to choose her partner in life and appealed to him to take things easy as his wife too approved of the marriage. After about a year or so, a friend visited him. Proudly pointing out a large multiple storey house in his sprawling garden, he had said that it was built by his son-in-law.

****

A certain member served abroad for many years. One morning he come back to his native Galle in a hired helicopter. That evening he came to the club and ordered a case of beer for his friends!

****

Several years ago, a member had gone to the Galle Post Office to send a telegram to a close relative. He was informed by the postal authorities that there was a breakdown in the telegraphic services and that it was unlikely that his message, about a bereavement in the friend’s family, would reach his relative in time. They advised our friend to telephone someone in the area where his relative lived and to get the message delivered orally. Those were the days when only a few had telephones. As the member did not know anyone in that area with a telephone, he thought of S. Jayasinghe, known as Mr. S, who was not know to him personally and who was a Junior Minister residing in the area where our friend’s relative lived.

When our friend telephoned him from the post office, he had just got into his car to go somewhere. Soon after he was speaking to our friend over the phone as if he was talking to an old friend. He also told our friend that he was about to go to the site where he was building a new house. Our friend then gave him the message and appealed to him to get it delivered. The rest of the story was told to our friend by his relative who had said that during a heavy shower of rain, he found a car near his gate and that when he went up to the car he recognized him to be the Junior Minister. Like my friend, he did not personally know the Junior Minister. Instead of giving the message then and there, he had got off the car and had gone to our friend’s house and not only given the message but also consoled him by talking to him for a few minutes.

****

It was in the late 1980s, at the height of the insurrection, that this member was travelling all alone to Galle in his jeep. He was going through the Kottawa Forest which was famous at the time for tyre pyres. The Navy had stopped his vehicle and asked him to take a young man who was injured in a motorcycle accident, to the Galle Hospital, about eight miles away. The young man was bleeding profusely. He got him admitted to the hospital but our friend was forced to stay there for a long length of time, culminating in his having to give his consent for a surgical operation on the injured, whom he had never seen before. Alas! The purpose of his visit to Galle was lost.

****

A member had two sons, twins aged three years. As they fell ill, he channelled a specialist doctor who examined one twin and refused to examine the other, as an appointment was not made for him. So our friend had the other twin channelled as well. Certainly, it was no personification of Hippocrates!

****

A popular elderly member used to come to the club only on his pay day to keep himself warm. He worked at ‘Sathosa’ (C.W.E). The younger members would then tell him that he is very fortunate to work in a historic establishment like ‘Sathosa’ which is also referred to in Guttila Kavya (an epic) thus:

‘Sara Salelu Jana Sathose.’

Highly elated he would order a round of drinks, adding ‘Surapana karathi mese’.

****

This happened many decades ago. A member who was an inveterate gambler once lost heavily at the card table and mortgaged his expensive wrist watch. A member who was not well disposed towards him had sent a post card to his wife informing her that her husband sold his watch to gamble. He also had a 15-acre well-maintained tea estate which he had to sell when his gambles failed.

****

This story was related by a member and is about the ‘kings’ in the planting circles. A planter in the coconut belt of the North Western Province who owned acres of coconut, once named himself ‘King Coconut’. He argued that if a planter in the Kalutara District who owned vast acres of rubber could be referred to as a ‘Rubber King’ why shouldn’t he be called ‘King Coconut’.

****

One day a member related a story, which is hard to believe. A teacher who served in an uncongenial station, in his quest for higher knowledge, had studied for an external degree at a university. And he passed the examination with flying colours, obtaining first class honours and was highly commended by the university authorities for his brilliance, while serving in a different area. He had confided to his friends that his success at the exam was due to the gift of seeing all the question papers in a dream, before the examination!

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