Sri Lanka Ports Authority at 40 | Daily News

Sri Lanka Ports Authority at 40

Development plant Port of Colombo
Development plant Port of Colombo

Celebrating four-decades long journey (1979 - 2019) of the premier institute of maritime industry in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) is completing four decades of its spectacular journey. It is indeed a historic moment to celebrate the achievements of the lifeline of the country and pay our gratitude to those who helped this nation to ensure smooth functioning of the Ports in the country.

We have reached here due to commitment, imperativeness, attentiveness, engagement, and obligations of many who still are breathing the air with us and those who have said goodbye to us by leaving charming and elegant memories of their contributions to the Port of Colombo and maritime industry in the country.

A group of employees joined us to share their views on the journey of the SLPA. Most of them joined the SLPA in the late 80s when Sri Lanka was yet again passing through turbulence due to the social instability. Then the island nation was burning from two fronts due to internal insurrections. Consequently, managing the most sensitive place like port was an extremely challenging and difficult exercise.

The Port is the gateway to international waters. If we can’t manage this efficiently with adequate measures and resources then the consequences shall be far worse than could be projected by ordinary imagination and assessment. Both of their narrations began with those horrific memories in the late 80s. Their narrations are reflecting, how to act in difficult times and keep the institute safe for export-import trading.

They started sharing their views. One was holding a walkie-talkie and timetable of the container ships scheduled to depart and arrive at the Port of Colombo, busiest port in South Asia. He is now working as an assistant superintendent and taking care of loading and unloading containers as well as other related activities in port management including yard operations and vassal operations.

Another one was looking at the Port Yard in Jaye (Jaya) Container Terminal as he was waiting for his term to climb a Rubber Tyred Container Gantry Crane known as Transfer-Crane to manage the containers.

Most of their journeys were longer than their life. Their memories are mixed with good, bad and ugly events. These both gentlemen’s stories are only two narratives out of thousands of workers in the Port of Colombo. It is because of all of their commitment and dedication that the Port has passed the groundbreaking milestone as the fastest-growing container port in the world.

“Despite all events we passed in our life, what we can see is rapid improvements in the business and the condition in the Port to cater to current marketing values and demands”, a group of employees who joined to discuss began their journey at Port while attributing credits to many people including his current and immediate supervisor Director Operation in the Port of Colombo.

“That’s true, without mighty collaboration and cohabitation of understating of duties we would have reached nowhere. Especially when you are having people who are taking care of each other in any situation, it is easier to overcome any challenges,” they observed.

Meanwhile, voicing the pathway the most of the employees in the group walked since the late 80s, they recalled the tight security arrangement during the internal insurrections and how they worked together to stable the Port functions.

“I joined the port as a laborer. We were all informed about the situation and worked around the clock to ensure the functions in the port. Our unity gained us more than what we expected. I believe, it is because of all our common understanding that resulted in the shining of the Colombo Port in word maritime map”, they said.

Along with their memories in the last few decades, let us overlook the journey of the Port of Colombo and other ports governed by SLPA. It requires a brief historical analogue to have a basic understanding of the pivotal role played by the SLPA in the maritime industry in the country since 1979.

Sri Lanka (formally Ceylon until 1972) was the most important location that stood as testimonial to the social-economic and political power of many countries for many centuries. In ancient times, Arabs, Romans, Greeks, and Chinese came here to exchange goods and to trade. Later, Europeans came here to conquer the land.

Stories and narrations of Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hien, Italian merchant & explorer Marco Polo, Moroccan scholar & explorer Ibn Battuta and Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, & fleet admiral Zheng Heprovide vivid pictures of the importance of Sri Lanka in trading and maritime voyages.

Throughout history, Sri Lanka played a pivotal role not because of any human creation but because of the location and the shape of this rich strategic Island with many natural and man-made ports and harbors. Nature has blessed this island nation with rich endowment, and it is up to the people in the country to build on nature for the betterment of humanity.

On the one hand, Sri Lanka was a trading centre and transit-point for many traders, scholars and explorers. On the other hand, this beautiful Island was the centre of world economic and political power- players to test their might. From ancient epic Ramayana to the modern-day accounts on World War II and beyond have confirmed this in detail.

Arabs, Chinese, Greeks and Romans stepped into the Island and maintained cordial and constructive relationships with the Monarchical rulers and the people. It is evidenced that Sri Lanka maintained various ports to facilitate demands of the industry since its early ages. Records show, that there were more than fifteen ports and harbors functioning ancient Sri Lanka.

It is quite significant to observe that many countries that conquered and colonized the territories and nations around the globe crossed to Sri Lanka and maintained various types of relationships. It is also important to see many key players of world order well understood Ceylon. Consequently, the island’s sea was never calm.

In addition to the French who controlled Trincomalee for a few days after the famous battle of Trincomalee, three nation-states, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, conquered and colonized Sri Lanka.

The Battle of Trincomalee in 1782 left unforgettable memories about the naval history of the world, while the Battle of Ceylon a.k.a. Easter Sunday Raids in 1942 by Japanese imperialist forces during World War II has been noted as one of the most dangerous events of the era.

While evaluating the Battle of Ceylon, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.” (Battle for the Skies)

No doubt it was under colonial era that the Maritime industry in Sri Lanka was decisively improved, institutionalized, and streamlined while we were pioneering the trading-industry through sea routes during the monarchical eras.

However, it is well recorded in many historical manuscripts; that various ports in the country were used to facilitate the logistics affairs of various traders. There was a time during the monarchical era when we were pioneering in exporting even giant elephants through sea routes and owning most notable ships at that time. Tons of weighted goods were transported carefully through magnificently built irrigation system connected with Ports and Harbors. However, most of the historical records suggest, that the Port of Colombo did not play an important role in trading until the 15th century.

In 1505, the local administrative system started suffering as foreign invaders began overtaking the most essential and invaluable places in the country. Thereafter, we started reading our history through the eyes of winners like many others do. Since then Port of Colombo turned into the major Port of the country.

In his comprehensive study on the transformation of the Port of Colombo into a hub port in the region, Dr K. Dharmasena has noted as follows,

“Historical evidence suggests that in the 15th-century Arab trade made Colombo the centre of their trading activities in the Indian Ocean. A century later, the Portuguese fortified it and enhanced its importance as the most popular emporium in the East. During the Dutch period (1658-1796) a future enhancement of Colombo’s importance was seen. Nevertheless, it was under the British with the extension of their sovereignty over the whole island that Colombo received the greatest impetus for its rise to eminence in the Indian Ocean region for which factors both endogenous and exogenous were responsible” ( The Port of Colombo 1940-1995 – Volume II)

Later, introduction of plantation products i.e. coffee, rubber, tea, & coconut, and fast developments in the maritime industry such as the opening of the Suez-Canal in 1869, the Colombo Port was crucial to both local economic affairs and maritime trading. Due to convenience in local transportation, the important roles played by Port of Trincomalee and Galle declined and Colombo Port turned into the main port in the country.

Therefore, as the landmark in port development in Sri Lanka, on December the 9th in 1875, King Edward VII laid the foundation stone for the South-West Breakwater. Henceforth, to formulate the port management, the first-ever governing body, Harbour Board was formed in 1882 to administer the Port of Colombo. Subsequently, North-East Breakwater, Island Breakwater and others were born to enhance functions in the Port of Colombo.

In his brief account, a former employee at Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Douglas B Ranasinghe penned some interesting historical facts as follows;

“The British who drove out the Dutch and the French from Lankan soil in the year 1796 took the whole island under their control in 1815. The Colombo Port also accordingly came under the British Crown. The British Government proclaimed in the years 1878, 1879, 1892, 1909, 1910, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1930, and 1931 as to what legal harbours and quays in Ceylon are and according to proclamation issued on behalf of the Governor of Ceylon, by the Colonial secretary on may 25, 1931 …” ( The Transformed Port of Colombo )

Documents leading to help understand the history of maritime trading in Sri Lanka suggest that by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Port of Colombo was illuminated in maritime industry while stifling the importance of other ports in the country. Dr K. Dharmasena in his study finds the following;

“As Colombo predominated in the economic development in Ceylon, the growth of other ports was stifled. The development of Galle as a port was discontinued since it was decided to concentrate on Colombo. The only use of Trincomalee, which was a naval station, was discontinued in 1904, when it ceased to be the headquarters, of the East India squadron”. (The Port of Colombo 1860-1939 – Volume I). Therefore the country started overwhelmingly depending on a single port while complicating the port management which later caused much criticism than appreciation.

To address the many issues that prevailed, therefore, Colombo Port Commission was formed in 1913 with the aim of developing and maintaining the port. Later, under the supervision of this body, petroleum oil facilities, lighter quays, jetties, warehouses, inner dry dock, and other facilities were completed to elevate the productivity of the Port.

In 1954, the Port of Colombo passed another milestone in its history. On April 10 in 1954, Queen Elizabeth Quay was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth. The royal yacht, Gothic, was the first vessel to berth at the Quay.

In the late 1950s to early 1970s the era of nationalization was promulgated in the country. The port management was significantly restructured. Subsequently, Port (Cargo) Cooperation and Port Tally & Protective Services Cooperation were established in 1958 and 1967 respectively.

In the same time, the global maritime industry started reengineering itself with innovation. American businessman Malcolm McLean introduced the modern intermodal shipping container in the 1950s which was the prime answer to complex stevedoring of break-bulk shipping.

Records suggest, “The first commercially successful container ship was Ideal X, a T2 tanker, owned by Malcolm McLean, which carried 58 metal containers between Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas, on its first voyage.”

Changes and innovations in the industry, directly and indirectly; influenced the functions in the port of Colombo. It needed to be improved to attract and expand its trading facilities. Consequently, in 1973 the first intermodal shipping container was handled in Port of Colombo.

Trading started booming globally and the competitiveness of the market further projected many challenges to overcome. The Port of Colombo, stood tall and workers, as well as policymakers, worked around the clock to redesign and reengineer the port management and trading facilities in the country.

By mid of the 1970s, mainly three bodies, Colombo Port Commission (established in 1917), Port Cargo Cooperation (established in 1958) and Port Tally & Protective Services (established in 1967) managed the ports and harbors in the country while prioritizing the trading at the Port of Colombo.

Later in 1979, these three institutions were amalgamated to address the marketing needs and improve the trading facilities. Subsequently, the birth of Sri Lanka Ports Authority marked on August 1st, 1979 the enactment of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act. It was the dawn of a new era.

According to reports, “The Ports Authority, as a body corporate was constituted under the provisions of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act, No 51 of 1979 as amended by Act, No 07 of 1984 and Act, No 35 of 1984, was established on 1st August 1979. The Ports Authority has been empowered to develop,maintain, operate, and provide Port & Other Services in the Ports of Colombo, Galle, and Trincomalee and any other Port in Sri Lanka.”

The act defines duties of the SLPA as follows, “ to provide in any specified port, efficient and regular services for stevedoring, lighterage, shipping and transshipping, landing and warehousing of dry and wet cargo and cargo in bulk; for wharfage, the supply of water, fuel and electricity to vessels, for handling petroleum, petroleum products and lubricating oils to and from vessels and between bunkers and depots; for pilotage and the mooring of vessels; for diving and under-water ship repairs and for other services…” (The Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act No. 51 of 1979).

Immense contributions and enthusiasm of many people led the developments of the Ports in Sri Lanka. The first Minister of Shipping P.B.G. Kalugalla and later Minister Lalith Athulathmudali who took over the portfolio played unforgettable roles in providing strong contributions to the industry.

Without their inclusive and sustentative contributions, we would have written a different story. This land was lucky to have great men and women who did their best not only to make themselves meaningful and needed but to secure strong future for the next generations to come.

David Soysa, a pioneer in the maritime industry, was the Director of Ceylon Merchant Shipping draws the attention on earlier leadership of the industry, “When Ceylon Shipping Corporation acquired its first ship MV Lanka Rani in 1970, it had to fly the British flag until our Merchant Shipping Act was passed. The first Minister of Shipping P.B.G. Kalugalla established Ceylon Shipping Corporation, Colombo Dockyard and the Central Freight Bureau. Minister Kalugalla’s successor Lalith Athulathmudali accepted the baton gratefully and made Sri Lanka the shipping hub of South Asia”. (Sunday Times, Colombo, 2009 -10-16)

As the pioneering authority, today, Sri Lanka Ports Authority is celebrating its rich history as more challenges are prevailing in this highly-valuable and competitive market. It is undoubted that Sri Lanka Ports Authority has been improved in many ways. It was under late Minister Athulathmudali, that the infrastructures and capacity building facilities for port workers were streamlined and strengthened.

It is important to note that dynamic state policies which monitored, evaluated, and designed needful actions to engineer more income by attracting leading stakeholders to the institution. It has strengthened the spinal cord of this nation.

Since 1979 not only the Port of Colombo but other ports & harbors in the country were central points of the national development plan. In 1980 with the assistance of the government of Japan, the master plan for the Port of Colombo was introduced. Subsequently, the expansion of the Port of Colombo has begun.

Making history, the first-ever Gantry Crane named Tango-80 was commissioned in the port of Colombo in 1982. At the end of the same year, construction was begun to have the much-needed requirement, a fully equipped container terminal.

It is important to note that 1980s was the most dynamic decade of the Port of Colombo, where many transfer-cranes started operating and fully equipped container terminal was inaugurated. That was the beginning of the Jaye Container Terminal which was later completed in four stages to handle over two point five million containers per annum.

In the late 80s and 90s, more terminals came into being, and currently Port of Colombo is operating five terminals, to handle container ships and passenger cruises.

To provide adequate services by overcoming challenges of present global logistics and supply chain management, the construction of East Container Terminal another landmark of the history of Sri Lanka Ports Authority, was undertaken . It is the utmost responsibility vested upon everyone who stands for the national interests of the country to ensure the immediate operationalization of the East Container Terminal.

There are many more developing plans in the pipeline. This was formulated through the national port master plan launched this year with objectives to “guide the port sector to strengthen its capacity and competitiveness in global market; ensure the port infrastructure is developed and operated in an optimum manner in-line with long term planning up to 2050; and identify short-term priority projects for the Port of Colombo and Port of Trincomalee.” (National Port Master Plan)

The plan has substantiated four main strategic goals to be achieved, first, “leading hub port in the region with frequent East-West trunk shipping services and direct connectivity to regional ports; second, most competitive Gateway Port for export and import offering best quality, lead time and cost; third, Intelligence logistic port, with a combination of most advanced IT environment, and sophisticated logistics services; forth, international maritime centre with accumulation of various trade-related services and maritime industries.” (Ibid) To achieve these goals port expansion is the need of the hour.

According to the Port of Colombo Development Plan, the 11 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit) will be handled with South Port expansion in 2050. At the same time, feasibility study on North-Port development is scheduled to start at the end of this year, 2019.

Modernization of Jaye Container Terminal, introducing LNG handling and storage facility, modernizing the warehouses to ensure the efficiency and reliability of logistics, improving the condition of Passenger Terminal on Bandaranaike Quay, establishing the Port Community system by centralizing proposed headquarters of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, and constructing the port access elevated highway, are main focal areas in the future development projects.

Meanwhile, development of Ports of Trincomalee, Kankesanthurai, and Galle are also in focus in the development program. The program includes – the development plan for the Port of Trincomalee, the expansion of the Ashroff jetty and service berths, construction of connecting railway to jetty, expansion of oil facilities; introducing night navigation and land allocation for industrial and logistical purposes.

This confirms a long journey ahead.

We have completed 40 years in our journey. Not thousands but hundred-thousands of people have spent their life to make this a better place that weas the nation are enjoying today. What is better is to get the best we learnt from history to shape the future for the betterment of the nation. Let us work together to shape the future and secure it for future generations.

(The writer is a senior manager at Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The views expressed in this article are the views of the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority)


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