India running Mattala airport far worse than H’tota port deal with China-Wimal


by Shamindra Ferdinando

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, MP, yesterday alleged that direct Indian involvement in operating Sri Lanka’s second international airport situated at Mattala would be 100 times more dangerous than leasing Hambantota port to China.

Sri Lanka entered into 99-year lease agreement with China Merchants Holdings Company Limited on July 29, 2017.

Weerawansa said the proposed Mattala deal would place Sri Lanka in an extremely vulnerable situation. The NFF leader was addressing a gathering at Galle Municipal Council, which was the sixth lecture of a series meant to educate the public of the dangers posed by current government policies.

The government recently cleared Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva’s request for a committee to study Indian proposal to ‘operate, manage, maintain and develop’ the airport through a joint venture, holding 70% of the equity for 40 years. According to the Minister’s Cabinet paper, India is to invest $205 mn in the venture, while Sri Lanka would invest the balance $88 million.

MP Weerawansa said that contrary to government claims Sri Lanka had the wherewithal to manage the Hambantota port. The Colombo District MP emphasized that there was absolutely no requirement to give port on such a long lease. However, having had blamed the previous government for heavy losses suffered in port operations during 2011-2016 period, the government leased Hambantota port on a USD 1.1 bn deal.

The gathering was told that of USD 1,670 mn loan obtained by the previous Rajapaksa administration to build the port, USD 500 had been repaid and the government could have settled the remaining amount over a 20-year-period. Instead of repaying the remaining loan with annual payments amounting to USD 95 mn, the UNP-SLFP coalition leased it to China on terms disadvantageous to the country.

The MP likened the yahapalana government’s economic policy to that of a farmer who had sold paddy field owned by the family to settle what he owed the village boutique.

Pointing out that a major flour and milk powder importers had been given annual tax exemptions amounting to over 300 mn, MP Weerawansa said the government falsely claimed its inability to service the Hambantota port loan hence the decision to lease it.

The NFF Leader said Hambantota and Mattala deals couldn’t be compared under any circumstances. Claiming that Mattala airport lacked any commercial value for regional power India, Weerawansa expressed concern over how India could use the facility.

Weerawansa said India was planning to invest USD 260 mn to run the airport for a 40 year period. The MP’s claim differed from Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva’s cabinet paper that proposed USD 205 mn: USD 88 mn investment by India and Sri Lanka, respectively.

Having repeatedly promised to usher in a new era, yahapalana leaders had ended up working overtime to sell national assets at the expense of national security and economic well being of the people, MP Weerawansa said. Since the change of government in January 2015, the country was in turmoil with every sector in chaos, the MP said, vowing his party’s determination to resist ongoing government projects.

Weerawansa also explained how India was seeking to expand its presence in Sri Lanka with the focus on Trincomalee. For want of clear foreign policy strategy, the country was at the mercy for global and regional powers hell bent on promoting their interests at the expense of Sri Lanka.

The MP said handing over of national assets for long periods to foreign control could jeopardize Sri Lanka’s security. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government couldn’t be unaware of ground realities, he said, alleging that the incumbent government didn’t care and was only interested in appeasing its Western and Indian masters.

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