By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — This remote coastal scrubland, a haven for wild elephants and migratory birds that is several hours away from the nearest city, seems like an odd place to attempt to create a major commercial hub.
Yet such was the whim of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a local son who, thanks to Chinese loans, poured immense sums into pet projects during the decade he held this island nation in his grip.
Since he was voted out of office in January, Rajapaksa’s extravagant spending in his home district, much of it named for himself, looks ever more like monuments to folly.
A giant Indian Ocean harbor being blasted out of the island’s southern shoreline is costing well over $1 billion, and officials say it is unlikely to break even for years. A $210 million international airport built two years ago has hundreds of employees but receives just a few passengers a day.
The 35,000-seat Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium and a new convention center are rarely used, as are miles of expansive new highways that get little traffic apart from the occasional herd of cattle.
“It’s a crying shame how much money was spent,” said Harsha de Silva, deputy minister for policy planning and economic affairs in Sri Lanka’s new government. “Why is an airport in the middle of nowhere? Why are you building a road to the middle of nowhere?”
It’s not as though Sri Lankans didn’t ask those questions before, but under Rajapaksa’s increasingly despotic administration, dissent was ignored or punished. After his narrow and surprising election defeat, the country of 20 million is waking up to the excesses of his rule.
SriLankan Airlines, the deeply indebted national carrier, announced that it would cease operating from Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in the town of Mattala, north of Hambantota. The twice-daily flights were losing the airline $8 million a year, company officials said.
The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, ordered a review of all of Rajapaksa’s projects — a long list. To cement the government’s victory in a 26-year civil war against northern Tamil rebels, Rajapaksa embarked on a $6 billion infrastructure spending binge starting in 2009.
More than two-thirds of the projects, including the port and airport at Hambantota, were financed by Chinese banks at interest rates as high as 6.3 percent annually, several times what other lenders offered, without open bidding, officials say.
Authorities are investigating whether contracts were padded to benefit members of Rajapaksa’s government, which included more than two dozen members of his extended family. No charges have been filed.
In the meantime, finance officials are exploring ways to restructure the Chinese loans. Government lawyers are poring over contracts, trying to scale back some projects that haven’t yet begun, such as a 500 acre development on reclaimed land in the capital, Colombo, where the Rajapaksa envisioned luxury high-rises and a Formula One racetrack.
Rajapaksa and members of his family did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview last month with the South China Morning Post, he defended his actions.
“I wanted development for Sri Lanka, and China was the only one which had the resources and the inclination to help me,” Rajapaksa said.
Opponents counter that he built by fiat, bypassing environmental studies and economic assessments, and that China, seeking to boost its influence on the doorstep of rival India, took advantage of his haste.
“They were vanity projects for Rajapaksa, plain and simple, and China was quite happy to nurture his vanity,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.
Business leaders in Hambantota said they were never consulted about the giant structures that began proliferating in their district like mushrooms after a monsoon.
Rajapaksa inaugurated the country’s second international airport with fanfare in March 2013, with state media proclaiming it “an initiative that changed the face of global aviation.” By mid-2014, however, its financial state was already precarious: Under questioning from opposition lawmakers, aviation officials reported that the airport’s total revenue in one month was 16,000 rupees, or about $120.
With SriLankan Airlines having pulled out, only one commercial airline operates at Rajapaksa International: low-cost carrier Flydubai, which arrives every morning via Colombo, disgorging a few European tourists bound for the island’s southern beaches. An hour later, it returns to Dubai.
For the rest of the day, the fountains and air-conditioning are switched off to save costs and the airy, modern passenger terminal is vacant except for some of the 500-odd employees who remain on the payroll.
The 3-square-mile site has upended the local ecosystem. Wild elephants often roam up to the airport perimeter, which is ringed by an electric fence. Peacocks have occasionally flown into the runway area and collided with moving aircraft.
“It was not the most logical place for an airport,” said Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Center for Conservation and Research, an independent environmental group.
Aviation officials are reportedly considering marketing the airport as a transshipment hub for global couriers such as FedEx and UPS, or converting it into a flight school.
Officials seem more optimistic about the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, which was carved out of bedrock on a 4,000-acre site next to Hambantota town. Sri Lanka has long sought a second port to alleviate congestion in Colombo and take advantage of its position near shipping lanes connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and the Middle East.
But experts say Hambantota harbor requires near-constant dredging, possibly interfering with sea life. The better choice, they say, would have been a site on the eastern edge of the island, Trincomalee, one of the best natural deepwater harbors in the Indian Ocean.
According to a report in the Sunday Leader newspaper, a study showing the challenges at the Hambantota site was submitted to Rajapaksa in the early 2000s, when he was minister of ports and fisheries.
“He didn’t care,” Saravanamuttu said. “He thought that if he ruled long enough, from here to eternity, he could move the capital down there.”
(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Photo: The deserted international airport in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, constructed in 2013 as a vanity project by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now receives only one flight per day. (Shashank Bengali/Los Angeles Times/TNS)