27 May, 2022


Looking For Milk & Honey; Mahaweli To The Port City

By Ravi Perera

Ravi Perera

“The Lord said to Moses: ‘and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…”

In the far away days of our youth, when our universe did not go beyond the shorelines of this little country, when everything was real and all things were possible, the Mahaweli Project was the magic wand, the multi-purpose development program that would make the country flow with milk and honey. From ancient times agriculture was our mainstay; industries, trading or exploration did not interest the inhabitants except as rudimentary activities. Mahaweli being primarily an agricultural project, had ready approval, evoking atavistic visions of overflowing tanks and green fields. Our young minds thrilled to the ambitious scope of the accelerated project, with the waters so diverted we would rise to true greatness, reclaim our destiny; export rice to a needy world, sell power to the crisis ridden Indian subcontinent, perhaps even waive off some of their debts.

More than the aid givers and the international funders, more than the planners, engineers, surveyors, technicians and the thousands of other workers, it was the ruling politicians we associated with the massive project. In the silky white national costume symbolizing their national mindedness, colour white for purity; photographs of politicians bent over maps of the area, receiving gifts of earth moving machines and tractors with beaming smiles, explaining the efficacy of the various canals and tunnels to foreign dignitaries, left a deep impression in our young minds.

The main actor, by far the most eminent, was the elderly JR Jayewardene; gravelly voiced, cosmopolitan and well-read. To reach the top of the greasy pole, he had gone through a hard school, navigated the labyrinth of our politics, out-manoeuvring all other schemers. Ours is not a politics of ideals, thinking or writing, but a melee for power and privilege, invariably using particularities like race, religion, caste or family. In 1977, having triumphed over an unpopular regime, JR quickly proceeded to arm himself with all the powers that a democracy could possibly bestow.

An immaculate white national costume contrasting sharply with an evident familiarity with Western thought and habit, Jayewardene cut an impressive figure; a bridge between two worlds? As later events revealed, there was the oriental too: inscrutable, ceremonious, sly and a certain facile quality which qualified the other attributes. Seemingly pious (cameras often caught him reciting the five precepts with the gravest demeanour), pithy put downs to hapless opponents, uproarious laughter (the best medicine!), sudden body-blow like manoeuvres to unbalance an already reeling opposition; JR was the lord of his universe, at least until 1983. That fateful year was the high water mark, then came the ebb, JR increasingly looking inadequate; a confused old man grappling with a complex world, issues gradually slipping out of his grasp; the futility of it all apparent.

About this time, I would get invited to the Colombo Swimming Club by some older friends who had prospered in the then booming business world, mainly as suppliers to the Mahaweli project. Things were very different those days; a European enclave, full of Engineers working on the project. When in town for a few days of rest and recreation, the club provided a haven; there was order, the beer was cold and the mugs were clean. As I recall, Television had not yet been introduced to the country, the roads were appalling, telephone connections were very poor, only Colombo offered even a semblance of services.

After several swigs of the amber stuff, the atmosphere at the bar became loud, jolly, talk flowed freely, I would catch snatches of the conversation among the expatriate workers. Chuckling and snorting, they expanded on the sleaze among the local low as well as the high; the little cheatings of the former, the wily manoeuvring of the latter; the driver who routinely fiddled with his overtime claims, the minister who connived to direct sub-contracts to his brother-in-law. Although I had heard about corruption in the system, its pervasive grip being spoken of by foreign mouths was new. They were contemptuous of a people for whom graft was not a matter of shame; more a way of life, an acceptable method of enrichment.

We would occasionally read in the newspapers about bribery and the inefficiencies of our public service. Generally, the criticism came from the opposition, with the attached hint of partisanship. By and large, the government ranks considered such criticism a challenge to their governance; reprobation depended on the culprit’s political/family affiliations.

The Sri Lankan public service was the only administration we knew, for its faults, we blamed a few rotten eggs, perhaps political appointees who haven’t had the benefit of graduating from one of the national universities. Naturally, our little experiences were limited only to the public services available in this country, there was no other standard we could compare them against. There was no judgment in our unexposed young minds.

The expatriate workers were scathing in their assessment of the public service. “There is no sense of urgency; you cannot get a clear answer ever; no one will accept responsibility, even the statistics are so doubtful; everything is just assumed, working on the hope that things will somehow work out” were some of the impressions they had formed of their native counterparts. One scornful assessment stuck in my mind “Not enough us building the generator for them, they will want us to switch it on for them every morning too” a youngish engineer observed. In their opinion, we had a public service distinguished only by its inertia, answering to no performance standard; unable or unwilling to deliver.

To my young mind, these words were an epiphany, shameful as they were. I did not think that our “adults”, who constituted the public service, could be looked at in this manner, subject to such critical assessment. I knew several “uncles” who were in the public service; were they not performing what they are paid to do, are they up to scratch? I began to wonder whether adulthood was only a simple matter of age. Perhaps, a meaningful maturity requires other qualities as well. In that light, familiar things began to look different, unreal, a mere pantomime. 

Their work done, the expatriates handed over their bungalows to the Mahaweli Authority, sold their cars, settled their bar bills and flew back to their countries. The country they left behind soon was engulfed in devastating terrorism; milk and honey did not flow, death and destruction pervaded the land. With hindsight, the politicians of our youth now assume another character, dabblers and adventurers whose personal agendas and ambitions left the country in utter misery. They had grossly over-estimated themselves, undertaking endeavours far beyond their skills; their personalities contradicting the principles they professed. The bloody price for their misadventures was paid by a hapless nation in full measure.

Now, nearly half a century later, the country reality is even more dismal, teetering on disaster. On 25,000 Square Miles live nearly 22 million people; a nation with huge debts, dwindling income sources and archaic systems. Desperate times call for desperate measures, once again, one big project has become the focus, a nation’s great white hope.

As a national endeavour, the Port City Project could not be more different (to the Mahaweli project). Only ten years ago, the six hundred something acres on which the project is situated did not even exist. It appeared like a phantom from the mists of the Indian Ocean, made possible by the capabilities of 21 Century engineering. There is no diverting of rivers or sowing of fields, we have simply reclaimed from the abundant ocean a dot of land on which will come up a contemporary mini-city, boasting world-class services, competing with dazzling international financial hubs like Singapore and Dubai.

Typically, the plan itself was never firm, the concept ill-defined; initially the talk was that there would be an entertainment centre on the reclaimed land: hotels, casinos, sporting facilities and high end apartments. When the government changed in 2015, the project was stopped abruptly, alleging that a proper environmental assessment was not carried out before the reclamation began. The Chinese developer claimed loss and we ended up incurring a huge contractual penalty. Before long however, the reclamation work recommenced, we do not know what became of the environmental assessment, whether there were changes made to the filling methods, or whether we just caved in. In this world, he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

One would have thought that before billions of dollars’ worth reclamation work was begun, all the laws applicable including the management structures would have been in place. Apparently, not so; the filling work advanced rapidly, but the laws are still being formulated. The developer must have nerves of steel, we are notorious for being erratic, as well as slow.

In the meantime, while we were debating environmental issues, the impetus of the project seems to have turned towards a financial centre, taking the above mentioned mega cities as models.

Apart from the evident success of financial centres like Singapore, we point to China’s belt and road initiative, the growing economy of India, our geographic location as encouraging factors. Often such virtues are more evident in theory than in reality; as the world changes, the relevance of various factors increase or decrease, adjusting to changing circumstances. While optimism is important, we must guard against fanciful expectations.

Mammoth Projects of this nature are not automatic successes, financial centres are easy to talk about but difficult to achieve; what works in one country may not work in another. One culture may enhance a concept; another could diminish it. A financial hub must offer security, efficiency, with world-class professionals and public officials performing at the highest level. The success of a financial centre is proportional to the confidence it commands. For the world to trust us with their money; stability, integrity, professionalism, honest accounting and an excellent legal system are essential; the host country must have a good record itself.

Long before Singapore became a global centre, these features were in place, statistically, they were a Developed country more than twenty years ago. Needless to say, Singapore’s public service is – A plus. That is an exceptional achievement.

Before any venture, it would be useful to recall the wise maxim at Delphi’s Temple of Apollo – “Know thyself”

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Latest comments

  • 12

    An excellent account of the jingoistic ballyhoo that accompanied the Mahaweli project. Yes, we planned to supply hydro-electricity to India, a country mired in socialist poverty, whose rupee was worth only 50 SL cents at the time. But our genius planners didn’t anticipate increase in demand. So now the Indian rupee has appreciated 600%, and they are willing to sell us electricity from Nuclear power stations if we install the cable.But, no thanks, we prefer to cover Norochcholai in coal ash and acid rain.
    Yes, we were supposed to achieve exportable surpluses in all food products, but our rice still can’t be exported except as cattle feed. The recent financial crunch has revealed that we even import cardamoms!
    I believe this situation resulted from a misguided belief in a “glorious past” with a “hydraulic civilization”. It would have been much better to wean away farmers from their wasteful 2500 year old water practices and train them in efficient agriculture.
    Even Tamil Nadu , without a 2500 year old irrigation system, or anything like the Mahaweli scheme, has in the same period gone from near-starvation to a huge exportable agricultural surplus. But then, will our farmers condescend to imitate what some mere Tamils do?

    • 2

      old codger,
      “I believe this situation resulted from a misguided belief in a “glorious past” with a “hydraulic civilization”.
      Although Tamils do not want to accept, Sinhalayo had a glorious past with an advanced hydraulic system based in the North and East of the country where they had their first Kingdoms. At the time Sinhala Kings ruled the country from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Sinhale was a trade hub between East and West. During that time Sinhale has exported rice to Hindusthan. That glorious time was destroyed by Dravida invaders who invaded Sinhale 52 times forcing Sinhalayo to retreat to the South. Then came European invaders. During European colonial rule, situation got further deteriorated.
      After Sinhalayo gained Independence, Hon. D.S.Senanayake took measures to develop North and East by renovating derelict reservoirs and irrigation systems. After his death, Dudley Senanayake continued with the work his father started. While the development work was progressing slowly but steadily, Tamil terrorism started bringing the work to a halt. If it is not for Tamil terrorism that lasted for three decades and chasing away Sinhalayo from North and East, Sinhalayo could have developed agriculture in the North and East and gone to their glorious past.

      • 2

        Eagle Blind Eye

        “…… Sinhalayo had a glorious past with an advanced hydraulic system based in the North and East of the country ……………”

        “….Sinhale was a trade hub between East and West. …..”

        “…. Tamil terrorism started bringing the work to a halt …”

        Could you provide evidences.

        • 1

          Native Vedda,
          I am not here to give tuition to people who do not know the history of Sinhale>Ceylon>Sri Lanka or pretend that they do not know and raise stupid questions. If you are keen to find out evidences, please go to the book shop of Ministry of Education in Isurupaya, Battaramulla and buy text books on history and read. I am sure Veddas can read Sinhala. Ministry of Education has revised all the history text books based on latest evidences uncovered from research conducted by historians and archeologists.

          • 2

            In short, you have no evidence.

      • 2

        If Sinhalayo had a “glorious” past, would you kindly name just one Sinhalayo philosopher, engineer, architect of the calibre of Kautilya, Nagarjuna, Chanakya, Asvaghosha……….etc. Glory comes from developing minds and ideas. Not making excuses.

  • 11

    A very good thoughtful, analytical article at this juncture. Unfortunately, our people are always biased towards fake patriotism, heroism and emotionally attached to their security can be easily mislead by the current ruling regime. Easter Bombing is a creation to keep the majority in fear of Islamic terrorism and continued militarisation in the North is to create the fear and justify the need for this project. But no one will come to invest in Sri Lanka where there is no stability and peace in this country. This country has now more enemies inside and outside Sri Lanka than during the 30 year war.

  • 10

    Ravi, True to the core and describes the state of affairs then and now. No different. Same old mould. With or without Viyathmaga, concept of Milk and Honey for Sri Lankan version are the same.
    Well said and written.

  • 8

    “Before any venture, it would be useful to recall the wise maxim at Delphi’s
    Temple of Apollo- ” know thyself.” What a way to finish it ! This has always
    and always been my position throughout my life and that gave me the
    power and strength to say “NO” to whatever and whoever deserved that
    answer . You need to know yourself and your limits first and foremost . Not
    ventures , let it e your personal , family or social life , this is the ultimate
    mantra for a meaningful and respectable life . Even the war victory from
    this view point , was not ours , nuts and bolts everything was from
    somewhere else and we were just used . The whole lot who still celebrate
    are truly in deep slumber ! The truth is country was destroyed beyond
    repair and now in the name of rebuilding , more and more are being
    destroyed . Singapore to become today’s Singapore first identified corruption
    as the main culprit in the way to progress . We are sowing , sowing and
    sowing with someone else’s money but still with all the weeds in place !
    Getting rid of weeds itself is a Mammoth project that never got off the
    ground ! How can we be optimistic of any single step that is aimed at
    developing the country before any meaningful weed out ?

    • 3

      An exceptionally great piece by Ravi Perera, to make the reader doubt his own views and to keep him captive at least for that relevant while. I hold with what he has perceived so incisively. Accelerating the Mahaweli from 30 years to 12 ie 7+ 5 dazzled nobody. I have nothing to add beyond the convincing presentation of RP.

      May I say a few words on the Port City? In recent times words of practicality have appeared and continue to emerge. The suggestion seems to be, that the project is beyond Sri Lanka to manage and to deliver. Induction that is foreign and orientation that is external are seen as the mantras to make the mechanism move. Paralyze any traction with the counter mantra of ‘Sovereignty’ is deemed the appropriate strategy to push the Port and the City back into the sea.

  • 2

    Then and Now! -A very beautifully written article. Yet…………

    Mahaveli is a multi sectoral project.

    Of course all of us at that time marveled at the vista of great opportunities that would open.

    But it turned out to be just another project.

    The Colombo Port City is another cattle of fish and it is overwhelmed with doubt and fear before it was even properly launched and it has become divisive and if not arrested at the beginning itself it might turn out to be a disaster..

    The bill has to be redesigned with consultation with all knowledgeable people and after taking into account the lessons learned from similar initiatives.

    It will take time and time is not a constraint

  • 3

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  • 2

    Looking for milk and honey ” in general has been way of thinking and living. Whether election or projects people are told such stories based on which they make their decisions. I remember 1) Mahaweli 2) Discovery of abundant oil in Mannar and North 3) recent discovery of gold caves 4) Port City and many more. To understand people just have to look into original plan, budget, time line to complete and assets of many (including politicians and cronies) before and after projects. to understand where such projects ended. 5) For example many are aware of countries/ governments ending up in massive debts after conducting just a one time event like the Olympic where post event the infra structure is a huge liability and cost and losses outweighs the gains / stimulation of local business / footfall /sponsorship / —etc. Many still do because of prestige and can afford. Where as a country like Greece ended up bankrupt.

  • 5

    We never tire of boasting of our long and rich history and the great achievements our forefathers left to us. Yet we do not seem to have learnt much from all that. What we seem to excel at is to repeat blunder after blunder, ensuring only that it becomes progressively bigger. The Port City Project, as I understand, was a concept that the enterprising Chinese ‘sold’ to us – not something we sought in the first instance . In the circumstances, our instincts and our experience should have told us to consider the project with caution and undertake a thorough and comprehensive study of what it entailed. But, no, our leaders were prepared to accept the thing with alacrity.
    BTW, remember that old quotation ‘beware the Greeks bearing gifts’ ? Well, maybe, its different when the gift bearers are the Chinese and some individuals have much to gain!

  • 0

    “‘Beware the Greeks bearing gifts’?
    Well, maybe so; it’s different when the gift bearers are the Chinese and some individuals have much to gain!”
    No doubt, I agree with your views. However, one to be cautious of the gift and review the proposal to arrive at an outcome/decision, to accept or reject the proposal would have been the best.
    Pray, tell me how it could have been able to do that any other way from that was offered, when the timeline from proposal to the next election, self-advanced to meet personal and astrological aspirations does not permit sufficient time frame, so that the SL voter could be inveigled to bite the “carrot” dangled of a Mega project, by the saviours of SL for re-election in January 2015. perhaps they were very optimistic of winning 2015, they would have thought of renegotiating post 2015election, when they came back to power as the reincarnate.
    Money and aggrandisement is the cause of all misery.

  • 1


    I second your view above.

    Timeo danaos et dona ferrentes is the celebrated quote.
    I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts
    The Chinese have replaced the Greeks in the Port City Project.

    The Trojan Horse, in Geek Mythology is a hollow wooden statue of a Horse in which the Greeks are said to have concealed themselves in order to enter Troy.
    Again Greeks can be replaced by the Chinese.
    How about Troy? Is it India via Colombo?.

    The Port City Project is the Separate State handed over on a platter. China merely bought it over. No armed revolt unlike the LTTE!

    Unlike the Mahaweli which flows into Trinco- The funds of-course flowed into Finco the reclaimed land in the Indian Ocean – 600 odd acres would end up as ?………………..

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