26 October, 2021

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East Container Terminal, Socially Coded For State Ownership?

By Ravi Perera

Ravi Perera

I have been to the Colombo harbour only once, and that was to browse through the books on the floating library MV Logos, which docked there some years back. Harbours are big places; after a longish walk in the hot sun, the eager book lovers formed a slow moving line on the quay where the ship was moored. The ship could accommodate only a certain number, and choosing books take time. The queue shuffled forward patiently, as batches were taken up in order. We felt a thrill when we eventually reached the last barrier before crossing over to the ship on what appeared to us landlubbers an unsteady plank. Reassured by the alert gaze of the smartly turned out sailors manning the entry point, we hobbled on clumsily to the ship, gripping the wire railing hard.

Occasionally, my interest has been drawn to harbour related news, mainly labour union activity, a threatening statement by a union, a strike, sometimes a customs inquiry into an irregular shipment. By the widespread protests against the governments’ move to bring in an Indian company as a major shareholder of the East Container Terminal our attention is once again directed at the Colombo Harbour, the backbone of our import/export economy. Although its history predates the arrival of the Europeans on our shores, historically, modernization and the expansion of the port of Colombo ran concomitant to the plantation industry. In 1948, the departing British left behind a large and a well-developed harbour for those times.

The years immediately after independence saw heightened trade union activity. Nearly all unions in that era were under the control of leftist parties such as the LSSP, CP and MEP. Naturally, with its large labour force, the Colombo Port was a hive of politically motivated agitation, strikes which paralyzed the economy were the order of the day. In 1958, the anxiety driven Bandaranaike government, running helter-skelter, moved to nationalise the port and stevedoring, placing these services under the management of the Port Cargo Corporation. It must be noted that nationalisation did not end politically inspired strikes, they were a common tactic of the left parties as they bargained for power. In 1964, the Mrs. Bandaranaike government moved to nationalise the Galle Port. Later, the same fate fell on Trincomalee.

For perspective of those days of relentless union activity, we should bear in mind that Colombo was only a minor port relative to global economic scales. In terms of export volume/ value, in 1947 we exported 287 million lbs of Tea valued at 170 million US$. Twenty-five years later, in 1970, our export volume of Tea had increased to 459 million lbs but our earnings only 188 million US$. In Rubber, the ratio in 1947 was 182 million lbs earning 39 million US$, while in 1970 it was 354 million lbs earning US$ 74 million. Although a few did benefit immensely, it is clear that agricultural commodities did not pave the way to riches, taking the country as a whole. Considering our miniscule volume of trade, the Colombo Port was always a small player, even in regional terms. All this political/union agitation was happening in a small pond; economic small fry, getting smaller.

Much water has flown under the bridge since those mad confused days. Today harbours are huge pulsating engines, working round the clock to meet the ever increasing demands of trade. In a country like Singapore, the port, run as a private company, is the heart of their amazing economy. Modern ports, to remain relevant, call for billions of dollars in investment and sharp decision making. Servicing the ships, modern docking facilities, efficient cargo handling, cleanly(honestly) run container yards, huge cranes, gantries, go downs, demand cutting edge expertise and mega capital investments. Cargo ship handlers abhor bureaucratic delays, time spent in the harbour needlessly, is opportunity lost, money wasted. Importers want their raw material promptly, exporters want their goods delivered, a meaninglessly day pushing paper, is a cost unnecessarily incurred, efficiency impaired.

That Sri Lanka runs to an unhurried beat, needs no highlighting. Keeping with this slow rhythm of life, or possibly for that very reason, is a wide-spread belief that the State is a beneficent patron, a mother you can always run to. Such familial references resonate culturally, reassures; like that which belongs to your parents, ownership by the State amounts to enjoyment rights. 

A little meditation on the subject however will soon disillusion the hopeful. Whether State owned or not, every economic asset has to be maintained, and, if not efficiently managed, eventually we will spend more than we should on an asset relative to its utility. In other words, because they are run less efficiently or at a loss, the people have to bear the additional cost sooner or later. Compounding the problem, we have the dreadful culture of political appointments, the Minister appointing his relatives and cronies to run State institutions. For the politician’s family, political appointments have become a sure way to enrich themselves, and, to climb the social ladder.

The law in this country distinguishes State property, it is in a superior class to other categories of property; say to the house you bought after a life time of sweating. A criminal may set fire to your house, break in, rob it, the law will take its course, slowly, erratically. Offences against State property on the other hand, can invite immediate, rather painful consequences, even before the trial. When you consider the overwhelming multiplicity of property that fall under this category: jungles, mountains, beaches, waterways, roads, railways, government owned buildings and motor vehicles to the mundane office stationery, wittingly or unwittingly, the citizen walks on dangerous ground. For those facing an allegation of offending any State property, there is no bail until trial. Confirming the farcical nature of the exercise, the most abused property in the country is also perhaps the very same State property. Across the board there is abuse, waste, neglect; it is generally believed that State contracts are invariably corrupted, many of its functions undermined by bribery. Even when services are performed, they are lacklustre and uneconomical.

Not everyone agrees that the institution of the State is necessarily benevolent, arguing that this behemoth is only a necessary evil. Several leading political theorists have defined the State as an instrument of oppression by the ruling classes, only that the oppression is camouflaged, baring its fangs only occasionally. From about early 19 Century, reformist have introduced measures which gradually pushed the State towards welfarism, an idea which works well when the economy of a particular country is robust. Where the economies are weak, State services soon degenerate, becoming a bed of corruption and favouritism, as a few well-placed individuals grab for themselves the scarce resources of the country. Those who are well placed in the system, by election or appointment to high office, have a field day.

However, we cannot yet conceive of a country without the instrument of a State, particularly to meet the many functions that cannot be performed by any other entity; security, infrastructure, policy making, welfare and sometimes health, education and so on. The problem arises when the State moves into areas of economic activity, which could be handled more effectively by the private sector, thus allocating the limited resources of the State in a less efficient manner. 

There is the glaring example of the SriLankan, an airline which is a major factor in the nation’s indebtedness. In the power sector, notoriously corrupt, we are per unit one of the most expensive in the region, thus making our industries less competitive. Having introduced non fee levying education in the 1930s, during the early years of independence we scored well in general education (up to the secondary level) against other newly independent countries. Now these countries have got their act together, and are powering ahead. While we are stuck in a particular mind set, educational theories have undergone rapid changes, more specialization is called for, new fields of employment are opening up on almost a daily basis. Meanwhile, we have become less competitive, a country known for only low level technology, earning foreign exchange by exporting untrained or semi-skilled labour. In per person productivity, we lag behind our industrial/agricultural competitors. Clearly, there is something missing in the country’s education and training. It is a noteworthy fact that nearly all the top universities in the world are privately run. Our universities have a deplorable reputation for their brutal rag!

Heathrow, the main airport in Great Britain is privately owned, a major shareholder of Heathrow being the Qatar Government, an Arab country which is hardly an ally of Britain both culturally as well as politically. It is said that more than 10% of the properties in London are owned by foreign parties. The British surely know a thing or two about governance. Britain is prosperous and well managed, with a much regarded civil service as well as a widely respected judiciary. Many a country has adopted British methods as an aspired standard.

In the larger scheme of things, whether the Eastern Container Terminal remains in State hands or not perhaps is immaterial. Since the debate is couched in terms of patriotism, the pro State lobby can be declared winner, even without hearing the other side. It however beggars the question, if State ownership is more desirable, why is it then that a preponderance of the economies of all the Developed countries, are in private hands? Perhaps, these countries are populated by less patriotic people! 

We may amount to only the occasional footnote in world history, the smallness of the country and our location away from the paths of migrating tribes ensured its relative isolation. New ideas and methods were much delayed in their arrival. Yet, for political inspiration our point of reference is often the era of the kings, when he and he alone owned everything. Every other political idea seems out of place beside that august presence. In our bio or social coding, reality is a conspiracy, facts are relative, myth preferable to failure; the illusion alone matters. By keeping as much of the economy under State ownership, we perhaps affirm our particularity.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    2

    If Sri Lanka fails to honor the agreement with India and Japan to give a 49% share India may consider developing the Sedhu Samutra project so that Traffic to Colono harbor will be affected Sri Lankans are asking the question of whether China used its influence with trade unions and Minister Weerwansa to abort the agreement It is also said in some newspapers that Si Lanka got a loan from China to pay back the money given by India I short Sri Lanka is falling into the Loan net thrown by China. Be that the cabinet agreed to give the Electricity project to China in the three islands near Rameswtaram there is a good chance India may insist on getting back Kachitheevu and build a naval base there. Already ginger group with Weerwansa as the leader with the blessings of Buddhist monks is a headache for PM Mahinda The question is raised by media as to who is running the government whther it is Trade unions or Buddhist Monks over ambitious Weerwansa?

    • 5
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      “We may amount to only the occasional footnote in world history, the smallness of the country and our location away from the paths of migrating tribes ensured its relative isolation. “
      Wait, weren’t we the granary of the East, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, the guardians of pure Buddhism? Isn’t Trinco the world’s best harbour? Isn’t Colombo port comparable to Singapore?
      Ravi Peters, your brutal honesty is a breath of fresh air, but will disappoint many fake patriots.

    • 4
      5

      K
      The cancelled deal was with an Indian business of poor repute.
      Why is India making it a state to state matter?
      *
      Some years ago, India used it local proxies to deny the people of the North Chinese-built concrete houses (under Yahapalana). The Chinese accepted the withdrawal of the project gracefully.
      The projects in the islands are for renewable energy. India could have bettered the offer if it chose to help the northern Tamils and control the islands the way it fears that the Chinese would.
      India can do what it likes about abrogating a treaty of 1974 and deepening Palk Strait. India once unilaterally started to dig but gave up. With Hambantota in operation, there will be little for India to gain but cut the nose to spite the face.
      *
      BTW, what is your take on Indian poaching on the southern part of Palk Strait.
      In brief, on whose side are you?

      • 4
        2

        “India to gain but cut the nose to spite the face. “

        You are classic example of face barks, the tails wags. You don’t have the talent to hide the internal boiling between the King & the Old King in ECT. King may even investigate Old King’s war crime and hand him over to Geneva, if that is needed. Today’s report is Lankawe aging setting up to buy Indian vaccines. China’s vaccine is still not approved. Another round of computer games to be played within two weeks time.
        BTW, who work with Appe Anduwa for nationalize and change as Buddhist Center, the India built Tamil Cultural center? Is that UOJ’s paramilitaries?

        • 0
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          As far as Srilankan Tamils are concerned, India is a necessary evil. The evil the committed was to assist the Srilankan army in killing the Tamils They too were responsible for the genocide. Initially they pretended to support the Tamil cause but, subsequently let them down like hot potatoes. Once again India trying to show that the are helping the Tamils by building houses and rail roads, but they took no interest to implement the 13th amendment. They made no move to put a stop to the east and north being demerged despite the 1987 agreement . Delhi is really not keen about the Tamils either in India or Srilanka. Now they are are showing keenness in the Srilankan Tamils to bully Srilanka rather than t o ensure the rights of the Tamils. If they get the eastern terminal their love for the Tamils will drown in the waves of the port.
          Unfortunately, the Tamils will face more trouble if they don’t support India. If Srilankan government knows how to address the Tamil Issue the fear of India both for the Tamils and Srilanka will wane off.

      • 4
        1

        SJ,
        You say Indian business of poor repute? Can you explain why they made an agreement with India and Japan in the first place knowing that it was poor repute?
        Why did you get the free vaccine from a poor repute state?
        Why couldn’t you get rid of the 99 year deal with China if the policy of the country is not to sell any harbour or land?

        • 2
          1

          A
          “Indian business of poor repute” refers to Adani Group.
          You must have heard a little about of its reputation within India and outside.
          *
          Read more on why the Hambantota harbour development went to China.
          It was Yahapalanaya bungling that led to the 99 year lease, which was not a good idea. (Even MR opposed it.) But there is no military deal as it is made out by some.
          *
          I do not like the Port City idea or Coal power plants either and have made no secret of my position.
          *
          Regret that I am not in a position to “get rid of the 99 year deal with China”.
          If you are really serious, make me President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, I promise that will give it a shot.

  • 3
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    All labour unions, from blue collar workers to professionals in the GMOA, are politically aligned. They have campaigned for selfish reasons & political gain & not necessarily for the overall benefit country or its citizens. The political influence has made the average citizen highly suspicious of the ‘West’ & NGOs but ignore the Chinese threat. Who sold the country to who is politically biased but internationally, SL has become a pariah state, just like the African States ruled by despots. Tough talking to the world, as implied by the current leaders, has made them heroes among the local ‘patriots’ because of the hatred towards the old colonialists but ignore the fact that SL needs access to their markets, favourable trade deals & direct investment. As long as the masses are gullible enough to be persuaded by political rhetoric, SL will never prosper but slide deeper into the Chinese debt trap.

    • 4
      4

      R-UK
      Are not trade unions in your country politically aligned?

      • 5
        0

        Do you know what was the Indo_Lanka accord made in 1987?

        • 1
          1

          A, you ask:
          “Do you know what was the Indo_Lanka accord made in 1987?”
          If the question addresses me, I understand neither the question nor its context.
          Kindly elaborate.
          *
          It may interest you to read the full text of the Accord of 1987.
          Even the JVP missed the juicy bits (which the SLFP noticed as did some Marxists in the North to protest about India’s hidden agenda).

      • 3
        2

        So which party the union of UOJ Saddampies? Salap Party or the Chitanta government party?

      • 2
        1

        “States ruled by despots”
        What will you call Donald T and Boris J?
        *
        You should sooner than later get out of the ‘White man’s burden’ mindset.

        • 0
          0

          SJ

          Trump was voted in by white nationalist who believed in the ‘America first’ rhetoric but, US not being a third world country, was not re-elected. Boris J is joker but not a despot & was voted by the English nationalist to ‘make Brexit happen’ & unlikely to win another term. That’s the difference between third world countries & first world democracies but common to both are those who are in denial of reality.

          • 1
            0

            Even Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were elected to power backed by nationalistic rhetoric.
            If Boris J is a joker, British politics will reduce to a joke for electing him with a huge mandate.
            *
            Africa elected leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Ahmed Sékou Touré, and Léopold Sédar Senghor to name a few, to whom there are very few in the West who could hold a candle. They killed an outstanding elected leaders like Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Cabral
            A big problem in the Third World is meddling by foreign powers, the US especially and former colonial powers. The struggle to build the country faces an enormous subversive challenge from imperialism.

      • 0
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        SJ

        For your information, Trade Unions in UK are not politically aligned but protects the the rights of its members, apart from the biggest blue collar trade union which has influence within the Labour party. The Labour party supports the working man, whereas, the only other mainstream party, the Conservatives, have been suppressing worker rights, such as, the ‘zero hour’ contracts brought by the Cameron govt. Trade union role is limited to negotiating better conditions for its members/workers but has not much clout politically & unable to prevent a sell-out or closure of its industry. The militant trade union action of the early 70s which caused the collapse of the indigenous British Motor Industry is long gone, the unions having learnt the lesson.

        • 0
          0

          R-UK
          The British Labour Party was created as the Labour Representation Committee, as a result of an 1899 resolution by the Trade Union Congress. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_movement]
          *
          Kindly look at “The Labour Party and the trade unions”
          http://www.historyandpolicy.org/trade-union-forum/meeting/the-labour-party-and-the-trade-unions
          *
          The following article has even more information:
          “Trade unionists and the Labour Party in Britain: the bedrock of success”
          (Les syndicalistes et le parti travailliste en Grande-Bretagne : le socle du succès)
          Chris Wrigley”
          [https://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/1138]
          *
          I well remember the role played by trade unions in the election of the lerader of the Labour Party.

  • 0
    0

    Mr. Ravi Perera: You say: ” Heathrow the main airport in Great Britain is privately owned, a major shareholder being the Qutar Government, an Arab country”. NO, not correct. Heathrow airport is “RUN” by a “Consortium” – Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd. Co. owned by FGP Topco Ltd. The “Consortium” shares are distributed in the following:- Infrastructure Specialist Ferrovial S.A (25%), Qatar Investment Authority (20%), Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (C.D.P.Q) (12.62%), G.I.C. (11.20%), Alinda Capital Partners of U.S.(11.8%), China Investment Corporation (10.00%) and Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) (10%). This “Consortium” is “SUBJECT” to Financial Regulations by Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Competition and Market Authority (CMA). In the matters of SAFETY and SECURITY, is regulated by the Government and CAA.
    You could see here HOW matters of this nature are handled in a very “Transparent” and within “CLEARLY” defined boundaries. Do we see any such “Approach” by the “Authorities” in Sri Lanka pertaining to the “Management” of the National Assets? What the “Authorities” (Government) use to “Define” the “Deals” are words such as “Investment”, “Lease”, “Tax Holidays”, “MOUs, etc. and the people are “Forced” to “BELIEVE” the “Interpretations” dictated by the Political Hierarchy. This is HOW the problem arises. Naturally, everyone is left to their own “Dictates” and nothing goes forward in a constructive and transparent, honest way.

  • 2
    0

    A little point of history.
    Author says: “In 1964, the Mrs. Bandaranaike government moved to nationalise the Galle Port. Later, the same fate fell on Trincomalee.”
    *
    I am not sure if there was a need to ‘nationalise’ Galle harbour.
    Trincomalee had a British naval base that was taken over in 1957 and the other British base was the Royal Air Force base in Katunayake which too went in 1957 under SWRDB. (The ‘patriotic’ UNP and the ‘not so patriotic’ FP opposed the move.)
    Mrs B did only one nationalisation that irked the West, that was the take over of petroleum companies in 1961. (One may suggest that in 1964 she took over the LSSP.)
    The coup of 1962 cannot be pinned on the West, but those who attempted it had loyalties leaning that way.

  • 2
    0

    Trade unions particularly in the Public Sector are more concerned about their own benefits. Since the nationalization of Colombo Port in 1956 , only the employees and political parties who were in power were benefited. The government was losing its revenue each year from more than 50% of the Corporation- sector as per Auditor General’s Reports.This article is a vital and valid prove of What is happening in the State Corporations and successive Governments are also responsible for this situation.

    • 2
      1

      PL
      Is it not the job a trade union to fight for the rights of the workers?
      When one wins even members of other unions benefit.
      *
      Kindly tell me what is happening in the privatized plantation sector.

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