Developing Sri Lanka’s ports
The Cabinet has approved a proposal by President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
as Minister of Ports, to rehabilitate and further develop the
Kankesanturai (KKS) port with Indian aid. According to a government
statement, this project is considered important ‘in the context of the
security of the country and the economic and social development of the
KKS has been identified with Jambukola - the main seaport for
passenger traffic with India - which was one of a number of ports with
which this island was blessed from ancient times along its coastline.
The oldest recorded was Thambapanni, where the legendary King Vijaya
was reputed to have landed - probably the Hippuri mentioned by Pliny and
generally identified with Kudremalai on the north-west coast. However,
it was just one of many which existed from prehistoric times.
Magampura Port. File photo
Ancient Egyptian mummies have been found to contain Cinnamon, so
there must have been trade with Sri Lanka in pre-Vijayan times. James
Emerson Tennant considered Galle to be the Biblical Tarshish, whence
King Solomon received peacocks and spices.
Among the ports mentioned in the ancient chronicles were Mahatitta
(near Mannar), Urutota (Kayts) and Godavaya (Gota pabbata pattana) on
the south coast, which was a major entrepot for East-West trade from
about the first century CE.
Ibn Batuta mentions ports at Puttalam, Chilaw, Dondra, Galle and
Colombo, while Ma Huan and Marignolli mention Beruwela. There were other
ports at Trincomalee and Hambantota, as well as smaller havens dotted
around the coast.
In the 19th century, Colombo and Galle competed for the position of
main seaport, particularly after coal-burning steam ships became popular
and increased in size. The British Admiralty favoured developing Galle
as a coaling station, at an estimated cost of about Rs 300,000 (multiply
a thousand-fold to get the value in today’s money).
However, the colonial government decided that Colombo would more
usefully serve the plantations of the interior and the harbour was built
at a cost of about Rs 700,000. The greater cost was due to Colombo not
being a natural port, as Galle was.
Largest container port
A major naval base was built at Trincomalee and Galle and Point Pedro
were kept as minor harbours, but port facilities were concentrated in
This key entrepot was kept so busy with shipping from all over that
it was called ‘the Clapham Junction of the East’.
Containerisation, begun in the mid-1970s, led to further expansion.
Colombo became the 30th largest container port in the world and South
Asia’s major trans-shipment port (with about one sixth of the region’s
The Colombo South Harbour Development Project, which will triple
container-handling capacity, is expected to increase trans-shipment
traffic, further enhancing the port’s status as a shipping hub in this
It was the decision to site the country’s main port in Colombo that
led to it becoming the metropolis it is today. It became the financial
and commercial capital, with the country’s wealth concentrated within
its limits, diffusing into its hinterland but not into the broader
In consequence of this lop-sided development, the inequality between
the city and the rural areas was exacerbated, a state of affairs aptly
summed up by the Sinhala rusticism ‘kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri’
(‘Colombo has milk, but the village only has cooking melons’).
This unhealthy centralisation of economic power needed to be
dissipated, but at the same time the rapid economic growth which was its
corollary could not overly be trammelled.
The desired outcome could perhaps be achieved by the creation of
additional ports in other areas, which might be expected to reproduce -
albeit to a lesser extent - the economic growth that has occurred in the
This has been the doctrine underlying the construction of new ports
at Hambantota and Oluvil, and the development of Galle and Trincomalee
as regional commercial and tourist harbours.
Another concern, that of security, was highlighted during the recent
Had the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam succeeded in their plans to
attack Colombo harbour, the country could have faced starvation. Hence
the development of alternative ports became a necessity. In the case of
Hambantota, it was decided to build a harbour which would eventually
rival that at Colombo.
The reasoning behind this was the same as that fundamental to the
argument between Colombo and Galle in the 19th century - the former lies
far from the main sea route past Dondra Head and is hence less desirable
for coaling or bunkering.
Hambantota was also desirable because it possessed a nearly virgin
hinterland, allowing for almost unlimited development - whereas the
higher property costs in Colombo preclude greater expansion inland from
This hinterland had hitherto been among the poorest areas in Sri
Lanka, so the investment would result in spectacular gains in social
KKS, like Oluvil, will be far less ambitious. The aim here is to
reduce costs in transporting goods to and from the north of the country.
This could be expected to revive and rejuvenate the province’s commerce,
which was moribund as a result of the recently ended conflict.
The Jaffna peninsula used to be a centre of economic growth,
particularly in the agricultural sector. With post-conflict
reconstruction under way there, it has the potential to be a major
growth hub. The development of KKS would facilitate this process
It is significant that the government feels sufficiently confident of
its capability to handle any centrifugal forces which may be caused by
increased overseas trade through a northern seaport.
Half a century ago, much of the trade between Maldives and Sri Lanka
was carried out from Addu, the southernmost atoll in the island chain.
However, following the suppression of the separatist Suvadhivu
Republic, the Maldives government ordained that, to increase the
country’s cohesion, all overseas trade was to pass through the port of
This is patently not the case in relation to KKS. The development of
the port there is likely greater to integrate the peninsular into the
island’s economy than otherwise.