Lalith - The architect of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority

lalith.jpg (11874 bytes)On April 23, 2003 the grateful people of Sri Lanka will commemorate the 10th death anniversary of the late Lalith Athulathmudali, erstwhile Minister of Trade and Shipping, Minister of National Security and Deputy Minister of Defence. With his erudite and multifaceted characteristics this noble son of mother Lanka contributed immensely to bring about tremendous changes in the political, economic and social life in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka.

I consider it a great honour and privilege to pen a few lines to pay our tribute to a leader par excellence. I had the good fortune to associate with this great personality in projects related to development of Ports in Sri Lanka and the Port of Colombo in particular.

As a comparatively young, dynamic minister in the J. R. Jayewardene government in 1977, Lalith was entrusted with one of the important portfolios i.e. Trade and Shipping. Tackling the gigantic task which indeed was a great challenge opened an opportunity for Lalith to prove his ability and capability. The late minister had a clear vision for the ports in Sri Lanka with the emphasis laid on the Port of Colombo. He observed that there was great potential in this field which had not been tapped over the years.


Lalith was determined to transform the Port of Colombo from a country port to an economically viable and commercially profitable port in the South Asian region. To achieve this objective he with his creative mind took positive and innovative steps to restructure the existing Port of Colombo.

Creation of the Sri Lanka Port Authority on August 01, 1979 was the brain-child of Lalith Athulathmudali, which was a historic landmark in the annals of the Port of Colombo. This brought about the merger of three separate entities i.e. Colombo Port Commission, Port (Cargo) Corporation and Port Tally & Protective Services Corporation into a single Authority. This gave reality to the concept of a unified and autonomous body under a single line of command in order to better coordinate and direct Port activities and their future development, thus eliminating problems of dual control, overlapping of functions, lack of co-ordination and made it possible for overall planning for development and efficient management of the port. The complex task of integration was effected smoothly with the blessings and co-operation of 23,000 employees in 63 trades in the three organisations which indeed is an unique achievement by any standard.

Provision of the container handling berth (QEO extension)

Containers made their first appearance in Colombo in December 1973. The American President Line (APL) brought them mostly on board their self operational vessels which even had their own prime movers and trailers. In the mid sixties, the then Colombo Port Commission planned to establish a bulk handling berth by way of an extension to the Queen Elizabeth Quay. But as the container mode was catching on at the time and the trend gathered momentum, the Port Commission decided to use it for container handling. Due to financial constraints the proposed project could not get off the ground. However the newly created Ports Authority gave top priority to this project. This container berth which was designed and constructed by our engineering and technical staff at a cost of Rs. 100 million was ceremonially commissioned by President J. R. Jayewardene on the invitation of Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, Minister of Trade and Shipping on the occasion of the first Anniversary of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority on August 01, 1980. It is noteworthy that the Port of Colombo was the first port in South Asia to install a gantry crane from SLPA’s own funds. In 1989 another gantry crane was introduced with a loan granted by the Japanese government. This terminal provided an annual handling capacity of 250,000 TEUs.

JCT flag ship terminal in the Port of Colombo

Based on a Master Plan for port development submitted by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in March 1980, recommending the construction of new container berths, and an in-depth study of the Master Plan by a Technical Committee of the Ports Authority, it was agreed to site the new terminal in the northern area of the port (coal jetties). The government of Japan generously agreed to extend financial assistance to this massive project.

The construction of berth number I which has a length of 300 meters and along side draft of 12 meters commenced in December 1982 and was completed and ceremonially commissioned as Jaye Container Terminal (JCT) on August 2, 1985 by President J. R. Jayewardene. The work progressed into JCT number 2 as well and completed in 1987. JCT No 3 berth construction commenced in 1991 continuing to No. 4 berth.

In 1980 at the inception, the Port of Colombo handled only 41,622 TEUs ranking at 139th position among the international container Ports and in 1988 Colombo Port handled 628,485 TEUs and rated at 26th position. The greatest achievement of Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was transforming of the country port of Colombo into a modern hub port of South Asia.

The following figures indicate the steady growth in the container throughput (TEUs) at the Port of Colombo for the period 1978 to 1988.

Year Number of cintainers (TEU’s)

1978 8,543

1979 17,680

1980 41,622

1981 59,471

1982 106,120

1983 146,590

1984 187,727

1985 220,207

1986 348,142

1987 435,618

1988 628,485

It would be relevant to mention here the very words of the late Lalith Athulathmudali, architect of the SLPA which amply demonstrates the vision he had for the Port of Colombo.

"For us at the Port of Colombo, this is only one step forward, among many steps already taken and many more to be taken. For us the tasks ahead are quite clear. We intend to give our customers from all over the world a service, a little bit more than what they want. Our conception of the Port of Colombo is not only as the chief port of Sri Lanka, but as the most important, the most modern and the fastest and most efficient port in the Indian ocean," 2nd August, 1985.

(On the occasion of the ceremonial inauguration of stage 1 of Jaye Container Terminal)

It would be unkind and unethical for anyone to speak or write about the Jaye Container Terminal, Flag Ship Terminal of the Port of Colombo, disregarding the name of Lalith Athulathmudali. It was his brain child and it was he who laid the firm foundation for the Port of Colombo to reach the status it has achieved today. It is the late Minister who put the Port of Colombo on the world shipping and maritime map.

Marketing & Business Development

Though there had been no specific division to market the Port of Colombo, the architect of the SLPA Lalith Athulathmudali with his sagacious outlook ensured that the Colombo Port as the premier port of Sri Lanka must strive to be the most leading port of South Asia. Under his able, inspiring and dynamic leadership we were able to sustain growth, protect our market share and attract major shipping lines to Colombo.

The Publicity and Public Relations Bureau of the SLPA played a positive and key role towards this end. A number of programmes and projects were planned, designed and implemented to promote the corporate image of the SLPA with emphasis laid on the Port of Colombo.

There were regular meetings with the media personnel "Meet The Mass Media", monthly meetings with the members of CASA. Seminars and panel discussion were conducted with Chambers of Commerce, Exporters and Vessel Operators. All these contributed to promote and maintain cordial relations between the SLPA and the above mentioned important institutions and organisations and the end result was any disputes arisen could be sorted out promptly without adversely effecting the cordial relations maintained.

A Port Handbook was released every three years with updated data and information. Colourful brochures embodying facilities and infrastructure available and quality service offered were circulated regularly for the benefit of the local and international shipping community. Seminars were conducted at national and international level and the SLPA participated in seminars and exhibitions held abroad. Ministry officials and members of the management of the SLPA represented the interests of the Port of Colombo and other Ports at the IAPH, ESCAP and UNCTAD thus promoting Colombo as a leading hub port in this region.

The Maha Pola Training Institute

The inauguration of the Maha Pola Training Institute on January 21, 1987, in the Port of Colombo marked a major milestone in the annals of the history of the Port of Colombo. The brain child of Lalith Athulathmudali, the main objective of the M.P.T.I. was to upgrade the skills in three major areas i.e. a) Port operations b) Management and c) Technical fields. The SLPA set apart Rs. 45 million from it’s own funds towards this project assisted by UNDP through the UNCTAD, ILO Project.

Varaya Sambuddha Jayanthi Chaitya

Another significant milestone in the Athulathmudali era in the Port of Colombo was the completion of the "Varaya Sambuddha Jayanthi Chaitya" work of which had been progressing at a snail’s space. After the creation of the SLPA by Lalith Athulathmudali a decision was taken that the SLPA should release all necessary funds and materials to expedite the work on the Chaitya. Accordingly a sum of Rs. 6 million was set apart from the SLPA funds for this purpose.

On March 13,1986 on the invitation of Lalith Athulathmudali, the then Minister of National Security and the Deputy Minister of Defence, President J. R. Jayewardene declared open the Varaya Sambuddha Jayanthi Chaitya for public veneration. This was indeed another mission of him for the spiritual advancement of the people of this country and port employees in particular.

He renounced ego boosting hype

A significant characteristic in the life of the late Lalith Athulathmudali was that he discouraged ego boosting hype. Instead he cultivated a media friendly culture and in response the media extended their wholehearted support to people centred and people friendly programs and major projects in port development implemented by this great leader.

The Golden era of the Port of Colombo

On the foregoing facts without hesitation it could be mentioned that the Athulathmudali era was the golden era of the Port of Colombo.


I believe that it would be appropriate to end this note of appreciation with a statement made by the late leader.

"Pride of place should be given not to the individual but to the concept. If not with the demise of the individual concept would be lost in thin air" — Lalith Athulathmudali
A. Godwin de Alwis,
General Secretary,
Pragna Study Circle.