Shipping industry threatens to shut Colombo Port in showdown with Minister


Colombo Port is in for a showdown with those doing business with it as a result of a Sri Lanka Ports Authority decision to hike port entry permit charges by ‘unconscionable’ percentages from this month. Shipping industry sources yesterday warned of  an impending boycott of the harbour particularly by the transporters as a warning  for at least two days costing the country as much as USD 150 million to USD 200 million.

While most of the port users are up in arms calling for immediate action, President of the Association of Container Transporters, Upali Gunawardena, however insisted that it was still not time for ‘obstruction’ and they would try to manage the problem instead of going for any showdown.

Gunawardena feels that Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga is not being told the truth by senior officials and, therefore, the massive increases had been ordered without any consultations with stakeholders.

What has got the transporters’ goat is the fact that for example a permit for a prime mover which was Rs. 300 per year has been suddenly jacked up to Rs 12,000 and the annual permit for a person has gone up from Rs 250 to Rs 10,000. So a prime mover operator who employs a driver and cleaner now has to pay as much as Rs 32,000 annually just for entry permits compared to less than Rs 1,000 earlier.

The ACT President told The Island that even Singapore, which was considered the guiding light for other regional ports charges a mere USD 1.07 for a five year permit issued to regular port users.

Gunawardena said they would have to eventually pass the increase in the fee on to the consumers by charging more for clearing import as well as export cargo.

Others who were more forthright alleged that they could not reason with the Minister after he having allegedly stormed out of a meeting with the industry accusing most of them of being crooks.

They said if there were wrongdoers he should take action against such people instead of making sweeping statements.

Industry sources also accused the Minister of being blind to institutionalised corruption in the port, where at every turn the private industry had to oil palms to get anything done.

The industry feels that a person of the calibre of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom they see as a level headed person with much maturity would have given them a reasonable solution. But they had apparently refrained from taking their problems to him as one veteran industry source pointed out that Minister Ranatunga was a favourite of President Maithripala Sirisena.

Most shipping firms too said they each had on average about 75 personnel visiting the port on official duties therefore their permits for employees and vehicles too would amount to a huge sum annually with the new increases.

They too warned that before the January grace period was over when they too had to renew their permits something drastic needed to be done to reverse the situation

A veteran shipping man said the problem with the SLPA was that it was overstaffed by several thousands and each Minster who had held the portfolio had added to the problem by filling it with their supporters. Periodically they had been extending the golden handshake to get rid of the excess, but no sooner such voluntary retirement schemes were implemented the sitting Minister refilled the port with his own supporters.

According to the veteran the SLPA employed about 8,000 workers and it handled about two million TEUs per year and in comparison the Chinese run Colombo International Container Terminal in the South Harbour within just two years of operations had a throughput of about 1.3 million TEUs with a work force of just 1000.

He warned that any disruption of port activities over the latest issue could have drastic long term effects as massive round-the-world carriers that now call on Colombo might take their business elsewhere due to such problems. A single such vessel carrying as many as 18,000 TEUS cost their operators as much as UD 400,000 per day to keep them running smoothly so they did not take kindly to any forced diversions or delays.

Our attempts to contact Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga since Wednesday failed. Yesterday, we were told by an assistant of the Minister that he would call back, but up to the time of going to press we did not hear from him.

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