Rajapaksa envisaged turning Hambantota into a second capital with infrastructure and jobs; it has instead become host to a set of white elephant projects
“One job per family” is what Sri Lankan authorities promised families like that of Y.B. Henry while taking over their land in 2009 for a deep-water container port.
Now ‘resettled’ on government-allocated land located 15 km away from the port, the nearly 475 families are faced with a basic question about livelihood. “My son is 40, he has a diploma qualification but he does not have a job till now,” said the 73-year-old.
According to official data, the district’s unemployment rate is 5.2%, higher than the national average of 4.4%, and comparable to rates in Vavuniya and Batticaloa in the country’s war-hit north and east. Officials said as many as 450 locals work at the port, most of whom are employed as temporary contractual labourers.
Located in the island’s Southern Province, Hambantota is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s development dream — envisioned by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a native of the once-neglected district.
“You should read The Village in the Jungle to understand how people saw Hambantota earlier,” said W.H. Karunarathne, the district’s Government Agent (equivalent to Collector in India). He was referring to the 1913 novel by Leonard Woolf, a British civil servant in Hambantota. In telling the story of a hunter’s family, Woolf highlighted the everyday harshness of life near a jungle — a bleak picture of danger and deprivation which, in Mr. Karunarathne’s view, mirrored a reality that persisted for nearly a century.
The rise of Hambantota’s profile coincided with the political ascent of Mr. Rajapaksa who, in his decade in power, built the $1.1-billion Magam Ruhunupura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port and the $209-million Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport with mostly Chinese loans.
As per Mr. Rajapaksa’s vision, the two facilities, along with a plush convention centre, an international cricket stadium and an investment zone in the city, would transform his hometown into the island’s second capital after Colombo, about 230 km northwest.
This, coupled with the tourist draw of the nearby Yala National Park and the Kataragama temple, promised to generate jobs for locals. However, none of the big projects picked up along lines his government hoped.
After Mr. Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 election, the successor government formed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe inherited the loss-making state assets that had become a liability.
Tweaking its game plan, Sri Lanka sold a 70% stake in the port to the state-run China Merchants Port Holdings in July, to operate it on a 99-year lease. This was the government’s only option to service the looming Chinese loans to the tune of $8 billion.
Apart from the $1.1-billion sale price to be used to service part of the debt, the deal entails an additional $600 million investment by China. The lease also covers a proposed 15,000-acre investment zone adjacent to the port.
World’s emptiest airport
Further, amid growing Chinese presence, India expressed interest in running the Mattala airport, often headlined “the world’s emptiest airport” with barely two flights a day. Clearly, strategic reasons had outweighed commercial logic.
A renewed push for development following the government’s recent agreement with China has fuelled concerns among locals. “It is not about India or China. Whoever it is, if they come and invest here in people’s land, we will protest,” said Vimalabudhdhi Thero, the head monk at the Beragama village Buddhist temple, in nearby Ambalantota.
“We are an agricultural society. First and foremost, farmers need their land for cultivation. All this so-called development is alien to their lives,” said the monk, who led anti-government protests opposing the investment zone in January.
In October, another group of locals protested outside the Indian Consulate, the only diplomatic mission in Hambantota, opposing India’s interest in the airport. The apprehension of the people living in Hambantota is centred on their right to land. They fear that increased development might lead to greater demand for people’s land.
After parting with the front yard of his home in Suriyawewa town for highway expansion, Ajith Wijesinghe is still waiting for the promised compensation. He fears losing the remaining land on which his brick-walled home now stands.
“When my father moved in here in the 1970s, this was a forested area. Even land permits were out of the question because most people did not want to live here. But now, all this development has put a premium on our land,” the 41-year-old farmer said.