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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Failed projects in Hambantota and The Govt’s next target?

MR Air Port: Planes only in the drawing

Chrishanthi Christopher
In recent times, National Freedom Front Leader, and Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities, Wimal Weerawansa, has been vociferously attacking Treasury Secretary, P.B. Jayasundera, blaming him for all the economic woes of the government, alleging high levels of corruption in the Finance Ministry. The allegations against Jayasundera have been endless since early February this year.

However, many observers are of the view that Weerawansa has picked up cudgels with Jayasundera, as he cannot directly blame the Finance Minister who happens to be President Mahinda Rajapaksa, for the country’s economic ills. On the other hand, many wonder how Jayasundera could be looked upon as being more powerful than the Finance Minister or the Cabinet of Minister, as Weerawansa who is a Cabinet Minister, has seemingly overlooked that the onus of ensuring the economic prospects of the country is that of the Finance Minister in particular, and the Cabinet of Ministers in general.

IMF agenda

The latest salvo from Weerawansa is that Jayasundera is behind the controversial electricity tariff hike which is threatening to blow up into a major problem.

While the allegations against the Treasury Secretary are several, Weerawansa singles him out as the sole perpetrator of all wrong policies adopted by the government. Weerawansa claims the government is becoming unpopular among the people because of the foolhardy policies of the Treasury Secretary.

Interestingly, the accusations range from the decisions to introduce plastic craters to transport vegetables to inhibiting foreign cash flows into the country. He also claims that Jayasundera is a manipulated tool of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is using the powers vested in him by the President to carry out the IMF agenda.

But critics argue otherwise. They say that bad decisions and mismanagement of funds by the UPFA Government had led to the present economic maladies. Ever since the government came into power in 2005, it has been spending billions of rupees on unnecessary projects that have brought no tangible returns. It is estimated that loans along with the high interest rates at which they are obtained for projects runs into millions of dollars, adding that the repayment of the same will fall on the shoulders of the people of the country, who are already reeling under a gamut of taxes imposed on them for almost every essential services and goods.

The mega projects, all of which are concentrated in the Rajapaksa constituency, lie forlorn without generating any income. Many argue the projects will no doubt place Rajapaksa, and his home town Hambantota, prominently in history, but whether the ill-thought out projects would bring in revenue to compensate the repayments of loans obtained at high interest rates for the construction of these projects, remains to be seen.

Failed projects

The Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port which was built at a cost of US$ 1,300 million is to be an alternative to the Colombo Harbour. The harbour lies abandoned since its opening in 2010. Critics say that global shippers agencies are apprehensive of using the harbour which they believe does not conform to international standards.

The Hambantota Port has fallen short of its targeted revenue, generating only Rs 132 million last year. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) had set a target of Rs 500 – Rs 600 million in revenue but at present, the SLPA is siphoning out monies generated by the Colombo Port to service the loan borrowed from the Exim China Bank for the construction of the Hambantota Port.

Next is the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium built at a cost of Rs 700 million in Suriyawewa, Hambantota, which was opened in 2011 for the World Cup matches. The complex, with a seating capacity of 32,000, and standing on 47 acres of land, is hardly used. Except for the two World Cup cricket matches and a few isolated matches played there, the stadium stands desolate.

Another project is the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA), opened at the beginning of the year. Standing on 2,000 hectares of land, it was built at a cost of Rs 26 billion. The airport, which is 43 km from Hambantota town is close to an elephant infested jungle. Although the government is offering free landing and parking for airlines, and a 50% discount on handling fees, the concessions go abegging. Hitherto, no international airline has come forward to add Hambantota Airport as its destination. The only airline (Air Arabia) that was operating from the airport has now decided to withdraw from this month citing that it is not profitable to fly via MRIA, and therefore, not feasible to continue with flights to the country’s second international airport. As such, SriLankan Airlines has stepped into boost the activities of the airport and has daily flights from Katunayake to Mattala. It is argued that the much-needed second airport for the country has been constructed in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

The Hambantota Sports Zone, exclusively designed for the 2018 Commonwealth Games for which Sri Lanka vied, is another let down for the government. The project, which cost Rs 15 billion, is the third largest development zone in Suriyawewa, Hambantota, close to the new international cricket stadium. Hambantota lost the right to host the Commonwealth Games to the Gold Coast in Australia. Nevertheless, it is being prepared to host the Asian Youth Sports Festival scheduled to be held in 2017. The project is expected to be completed in 2016.

The Norochcholai Power Plant built with the honourable intention of providing cheap power to the people at minimum tariff has also become a white elephant. The plant, built at a cost of US$ 1,350 million is in a state of perpetual breakdown, and sources said the plant had broken down for the 19th time, last week. The government, which is unable to pay the loans borrowed for its construction, is considering transferring the power plant to the stakeholders (China) as a debt-equity swap.

Another of the failed enterprises is the Mahinda Rajapaksa National Tele Cinema Park built on 235 acres in Ranminitenna, Hambantota, at a cost of Rs 2 billion. It was opened in 2010. The park was constructed with money received from taxes on foreign films and teledramas. It is said there is little or no shooting taking place at the centre despite the concessions on offer.

Meanwhile, the Southern Expressway, running from Kottawa to Galle, too, has incurred huge losses to date. The vast expanse of 95 km stretch built at a cost of Rs 776 billion was expected to yield substantial income, that will cover the cost and generate profit. However, the annual revenue collected from vehicles using the highway is only Rs 1 billion, while debt service and maintenance cost is around Rs 6.5 billion, incurring a loss of Rs 5.5 billion, annually. Opposition parties say it is hilarious to note that the government which said Dr. P.B. Jayasundera is important to run the day-to-day financial affairs of the country, and that he is not expendable, has one of its ministers projecting him as the villain. A UNP Parliamentarian described Wimal Weerawansa as the ‘fence of duplicity’ maintained by the Rajapaksa Government. The MP said, if the government wants to send the Treasury Secretary home, it is welcome to do so. “They sent the Chief Justice home in 24 hours; why cannot they send the ‘economic hitman’ as referred to by Weerawansa, within an hour?” he asked, adding, “Why keep him … kick him off!”

The MP said Jayasundera, for some reason, has become a scapegoat and he dared Weerawansa to remove the Central Bank Governor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal.

Drama to divert people’s attention

However, critics see a similarity in the pattern of how Weerawansa attacks Jayasundera and have started comparing this with the ousting of the Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake. The rhetoric they believe comes with the blessings of the hierarchy and this could be the beginning of ousting another important bureaucrat from his position.

However, the Finance Secretary seems unperturbed, and is carrying out business as usual. He is taking all the adverse remarks made against him in his stride, and just labels them ‘as politics.’ Again, some believe that the outbursts of accusations may be a drama to divert the people’s attention from the numerous problems infesting the country.

Another opposition MP said that Weerawansa, if he actually means Dr. Jayasundera should be removed from his post, should sit and talk with the President and his Cabinet colleaguesin pursuit of a solution. “Instead, he is venting his venom to the media,” he added.

The MP further said Dr. Jayasundera is a bureaucrat who was found guilty by the Supreme Court and was ordered not to take up any post in the public sector. But the government found him indispensable and reappointed him as the Secretary to the Treasury. “We cannot hire and fire officials … let them do it,” he said.



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