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An empty Lankan airport holds promise for India

The writer is a senior foreign correspondent and the author of Sri Lanka: The New Country
Published : Jul 9, 2018, 3:33 am IST
Updated : Jul 9, 2018, 5:44 am IST

If Mattala airport is well marketed and incentivised by Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities, it may well be a commercial success.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (Photo: AFP)
 Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (Photo: AFP)

In an interview to this writer last year, Sri Lanka’s PM Ranil Wickremesinghe extended some invitations to India. One of them has just reached fruition. For at least 40 years and through a majority stake in a joint venture, India will soon run Mattala, the Sri Lankan airport in the southeastern coastal district of Hambantota. Also known as the Mattala (Mahinda) Rajapaksa International Airport, after the country’s former President and current strongman of Sri Lanka’s Joint Opposition, the terminals threw open their doors in 2013. Five years on, they are still waiting for someone to check in.

Hambantota, 240 km southeast of the Sri Lankan capital, is also home to a controversial, China-built seaport, which, like Mattala airport, has been visited by more journalists than ships so far. Just before I met the PM, I had spoken to angry subsistence farmers and Buddhist monks who were protesting against the decision by Mr Wickremesinghe’s government to hand over the port and an additional 15,000 acres of mostly farmland back to China for 99 years. At the time of the controversial debt-for-equity swap, Sri Lanka owed China $8 billion, one-twelfth of its staggering overall overseas debt.

If it earlier bristled over Chinese submarines “dropping in” on Colombo without prior warning to India, China’s debt-trap stranglehold over Sri Lanka in Hambantota multiplied New Delhi’s concerns tenfold. Yet, Mr Wickremesinghe brushed off India’s worries. “We have always been friendly with China, but not at the expense of India,” he said. “If there is still some uneasiness, it is (because of) the Indian media, that reports from their point of view. There is nothing I can do about it.”

And as if to offer India a head-rub with the island-nation’s famous Siddhalepa pain balm, the PM disclosed plans aimed at inviting India to invest in Sri Lanka. These included Mattala airport.

The airport was built to handle one million passengers, 50,000 tonnes of cargo and 6,250 air traffic operations every year. Earlier this year, it lost its last customer and its hangars are reportedly being used by local farmers to store rice. So, much like the police arriving last at the scene of the crime in a Bollywood flick, why on earth is the otherwise astute and booming economy, India, investing in a dud and that too in southern Sri Lanka, long after China gained the upper hand?

Setting parody aside, it’s not such a dumb idea at all.

Hambantota seaport is firmly in China’s hands. Rumours that Beijing intends it for military use are so persistent that the Sri Lankan Navy is relocating its southern naval command to the region. Mattala airport is just 35 km away. Establishing a presence there will give India the opportunity to literally breathe down China’s neck and monitor its every movement.

There is already close cooperation between the Indian and Sri Lankan navies. The host country, along with Japan and Australia, recently participated in a “humanitarian” naval mission under US command in the seas off Hambantota. China’s string of pearls has not escaped anyone’s notice, least of all that of the United States.

The argument that the small island-nation doesn’t need two international airports overlooks several crucial aspects. Tourism is one of the main revenue-earners for ethereally beautiful Sri Lanka. More than 1.5 lakh visitors arrived in Sri Lanka over the previous year alone and those figures have been on a steady, upward graph.

In the era of terrorism, arrivals and departures by air are the least pleasurable aspects of a holiday. Even when its long-overdue expansion is completed, Colombo airport will remain a fraction of the size of Delhi’s Terminal 3, which, despite its gargantuan proportions, is already overwhelmed by traffic. It’s only a matter of time before tourists in Sri Lanka will yearn for alternatives.

What do visitors do in Sri Lanka? Given its excellent roads and nationwide tourism infrastructure, most hire a car and traverse the entire country within a week or two, returning to Colombo to depart again. An arrival on one coast and departure from another would save travellers days of precious holiday time.

Consequentially, almost everything points to the fact that if Mattala airport is well marketed and incentivised by Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities, it may well be a commercial success. And even if it isn’t, India’s reported investment of $300 million into the airport will reap other strategic rewards.

Still, even the most sure-footed elephant can stumble, if it focuses only on the juicy fruit above and ignores the rumbling on the ground.

Up to last year, ordinary Sri Lankans were largely upbeat about China’s massive investments in their country. Barely a year later, there is growing resentment over what many see as a “sellout” to China. And as in most small island nations, the growing presence of Chinese expats has exacerbated the fear of a “cultural invasion” too.

India has much to gain from its joint venture in Mattala and other places, but New Delhi would be wise to read the signals. India-bashing is the favourite pastime of all neighbouring countries anyway. And despite the cultural cousinhood between India and Sri Lanka, Sri Lankans are anything but serendipitous about the big neighbour. Historically, India has not endeared itself to Sri Lanka for its dodgy role in first training and later fighting the terror group LTTE, and by Tamil Nadu’s shrill support of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka.

But the civil war is long over. Of late, Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists are more concerned about growing Hindu chauvinism over the “Ramayan link” in Sri Lanka. They fear that Indian investment too — especially in Sinhalese-dominated districts — may be a smokescreen for cultural subjugation.

Hambantota is not in Hindu-majority Jaffna. This is the deep, Buddhist-Sinhalese south and — the stronghold of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, during whose tenure ties with India were in a deep freeze. Though relations between Mr Rajapaksa and India’s ruling BJP have been improving in leaps and bounds, it will take more than one joint venture to convince all Sri Lankans that India’s intentions are honourable.

On top of a promontory overlooking the China-held Hambantota seaport, is the picturesque Gotha Papitha Buddhist monastery. This, along with many other scenic spots, will be swallowed up by China’s Special Economic Zone. As with all big-ticket projects and especially along one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world, real estate vultures will invariably hover: highrise condominiums at spots like the monastery guarantee a killing.

“Yes, Buddhism is a peaceful religion,” chief monk and fierce protester Thera Gotabhaya Amitha told this writer. “But Buddhism’s connection with our people is like a tree and its skin. We will do more than what it takes to resist this port. And if we die? We don’t care.”

Indians are throwing money around on real estate all over the world. If Indian investors do not ignore the temptation to milk the entire area around Mattala airport for profit and insist on lending airport operations a strongly Indian, instead of Sri Lankan identity, they will meet the wrath of tens of thousands of such protesters across Sri Lankan political party lines.

But if India plays the sensitive friend and not the bully big brother, its arrival in Sinhalese-dominated southern Sri Lanka could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

D07

Tags: ranil wickremesinghe, mattala airport