it is essential for Sri Lanka to build a strong maritime nation while strengthening the Sri Lankan business community which will benefit the country also.
We are developing the Port of Trincomalee as an industrial port and the Port of Galle as a tourist port, Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Services Hon. Nimal Siripala de Silva said.
“The Port of Kankasanthurai, to which are grateful to the Indian Government and they gave us the seed money for the expansion of that port. We have completed our part and expect India to complete their part soon”, Minister added while making a speech at the Colombo International Maritime and Logistics conference held recently.
Excerpts of the speech;
It is indeed a great pleasure and privilege for me this evening to participate in the Colombo International Maritime and Logistics conference.
We are thankful to the foreign dignitaries who have come here to participate in this event as they are here to share their expertise, experience and knowledge with us.
You may question that Sri Lanka’s geographical location is vital as it derives numerous benefits and advantages if it is converted to a maritime hub and why can’t we do that? You can also say, “look at Singapore, Dubai and Malaysia, and why not Sri Lanka?”
I would say, yes we can, but you must understand the challenges we face.
When it comes to Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia under Mahathir Mohamad and even in Dubai, there are no trade union actions and there is industrial peace.
We are being dictated by many strong nations and they want us to comply with all the democratic norms and safeguard trade union rights. We cannot suppress them and at the same time, they expect us to perform, achieve and deliver.
Therefore, one must understand how an island nation rather than a small country develops despite terms being dictated by the international community. However, we recognize them, we respect them and we are trying to deliver and we are confident that we will deliver despite the economic recession that we face.
I must state that irrespective of the challenges we face, we have improved and developed while complying with the framework of democracy. Sri Lanka has a great maritime history and our forefathers conquered the Indian Ocean. As history records, we invaded Burma in the 11th Century AD. We have had our own military vessels in the 17th Century AD with our captains at the lead.
Our Ports in the present context were quite traditional. The transshipment operation came only in the 70s which started small-scale. But now we are transforming ourselves while we compete with Dubai, India and Singapore. For instance, our ports were controlled by the Government, and now we have departed methodically. We invited the Sri Lankan private sector, and they have invested jointly with foreign partners. As of date, we have only one terminal fully operated by Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
We invited India to come and invest in the Port of Colombo, and Adani Group of Companies have invested in Colombo Western International Terminal which we inaugurated on November 9. I have also instructed all stakeholders to expedite the construction and operation of the terminal at their earliest.
It is also significant to mention that the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) which I call as the Trade Union’s Terminal as Unions are very keen on completing Eastern Terminal as early as possible. It is equally important to listen to the trade unions and satisfy them. Perception then and now, most of the foreign investors are vigilant on Eastern Terminal and they are eyeing to invest there. But, I must say that the pressure and recession from the public, Sri Lanka Ports Authority have started to develop the terminal and I am trying to find money to continue the construction work amid the foreign currency crisis. When I assumed duties as the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation, foreign currency payments for ECT were not paid due to the forex issue. I collected the foreign currency income of the Ports Authority in a separate account and I was able to pay the installments for the construction work and now it is progressing without a delay.
However, there is a thought that the maritime industry must be fully liberalized. We have liberalized it. All our monopolies are gone now. But, I admit that there are certain areas which must be upgraded and developed.
In order to change and develop what is necessary, we must have a country to survive and political stability must be in place. We are also bound to look after our people who have been a part of this industry for many decades. For instance, Shipping Agents here in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, we don’t have any ship owners in the country.
So I always say, people who have money in Sri Lanka which they earn in foreign currency, is parked in other countries and they don’t bring that money here. If you go through the English papers, you can see, the profit before tax is 40 billion in some companies. Our Sri Lankan entrepreneurs are making profits and I appeal to them to buy some ships. When Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister, the Shipping Corporation of Ceylon owned 17 ships whereas now, we only have two ships.
Therefore, it is essential for Sri Lanka to build a strong maritime nation while strengthening the Sri Lankan business community which will benefit the country also.
I am not against foreign investment as we have made enough room for foreign investors. But I would encourage the business community of Sri Lanka to invest in the maritime industry and they must become maritime entrepreneurs. They must have the strength and courage to invest in these sectors other than Casinos and Hotels.
On the other hand, we are sending many housemaids to the Middle East and many other countries and foreign employment remittances brought in around 8 billion USD which is now reduced.
When you consider a nation like the Philippines, 10% of their foreign employees are seafarers whereas in Sri Lanka it is less than 1% even though we are an island nation. So, we must start enlightening the young generation of this country to encourage them to become seafarers where they can earn money and it will benefit the country. That is mainly due to no proper training and a lack of opportunities for the trained seafarers to get the apprenticeship in ships. It is easy for one to ask why Sri Lanka can’t. But no one talks about Sri Lanka not being able to accommodate at least 20 seafarers for internship.
There are constraints when we are a small nation. Had we been a big nation no one will challenge us. When you are a small nation, people try to exploit you. Therefore, the Government of Sri Lanka has done its duty to protect our entrepreneurs as we have allowed foreign investors to do business here but they have to form partnerships with local entrepreneurs.
For example, in the Port of Colombo, the bunkering facilities are limited. When I took over this ministry, I decided that it must be expanded. We have now called for a very transparent expression of interest to bring more bunker fuel to Sri Lanka. I am evacuating some of the employees from their official houses and providing them alternative accommodation, and giving six plots of land for the private entrepreneurs of Sri Lanka or for foreign investors to operate jointly.
And, at the same time, we have some shortcomings in our maritime industry here. We have digitalized many parts of this industry. Unfortunately, we do not have a port community system. ADB is assisting us as they have just concluded the report on how to establish the system. I am very keen and interested in pursuing the matter, and I am dedicated to ensuring that the community system will come into play within a very short period of time. That has been our road map.
We are also developing the Port of Trincomalee where I have carried a Cabinet Memorandum about a month ago which was approved where the Trincomalee will be an industrial port.
And, the Port of Galle, is to be developed as a tourist port marina hub, for which we have already called for expression of interest ( EOI), and few foreign investors are interested.
The Port of Kankasanthurai, to which are grateful to the Indian Government they have given us the seed money for the expansion of that port. We have completed our part as Sri Lanka and expecting India to complete their part.
Therefore, we have not left any Port and we are hopeful that we will be able to succeed. We are facing the worst economic downfall of all time in Sri Lanka and we need foreign exchange. Therefore, the maritime industry in Sri Lanka must be vital and it must progress.
At the same time, we are also expanding facilities to provide additional services to the ships. As correctly stated by my colleague, Minister Ali Sabry, there is a difference when you work with the private sector other than the Government sector. There is no port in Sri Lanka that is fully privatized whereas in other regions of the world, ports are fully privatized and they are at liberty to take rapid business decisions and implement the same in no time.
But we as in Sri Lanka, have not yet come to that stage and if we try to do that, you will not know what will happen to the Government. So, it must be done methodically and strategically.
I am confident that Sri Lanka can attract more shipping lines if we have continuous and constant support from shipping agents and other parties in the shipping industry.
My ministry and the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that this industry will be safeguarded to thrive on progress and we must keep in our mind, nothing will progress if there is no political stability in a country. I must mention that Sri Lanka is progressing slowly compared to what happened in the past few months. I am thankful to President Ranil Wickremesinghe who came forward to take up the challenge when others were reluctant to assume the risk. We are experiencing a difficult period and I am confident and positive that we will eventually come back better and stronger.
Therefore, we must look at it positively and we are confident despite all negative factors, Sri Lanka will progress and we will be able to become a Maritime Hub in the Indian Ocean.