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  Interviews  


Hítota airport to take Lanka to new heights
Continuing with the hype and buzz, Sri Lanka is presently attracting, along with some of the islandís best infrastructure projects likely to come off during the next few years, the Sri Lankan Government is to launch another mega landmark project with the construction of the islandís second international airport, commencing November 27, 2009. Hambantota International Airport (HIA), at an estimated cost of US$ 200 million, and funded by the Chinese Government, is a basic eco-friendly airport in Mattala, about 15 miles from the new upcoming Hambantota Port. This is according to the 10-year development plan of the ĎMahinda Chintanaí, where it is categorically stated that an alternative airport is needed in Sri Lanka to position the island as a logistics hub in the region. Last week, The Nation met up with the Chairman- Airport andAviation Services Ltd, Prasanna Wickramasuriya, to find out details about this airport and how it could bear a positive impact on the islandís economy as a whole.

By Azhar Razak
Following are excerpts:

Q: What is the need for an alternative airport?

A:
Sri Lankaís aviation sector presently consists of only a single international airport built over 40 years ago and 12 domestic airports. As Sri Lanka enters a new resurgent growth era, with the end of the long drawn out conflict, demand for passenger traffic as well as cargo growth volumes is on the rise. Therefore, it is important that we stand in a position to leverage on the economic and social opportunity that comes our way to further enhance our skills for the countryís development. On the other hand, the need is for emergency purposes, as we do not have an alternative airport. And the other reason is to save money on fuel, since, if we donít have another international airport, as is the case now, the problem that airlines face is that they have to bring in excess/additional load of fuel in case they want to divert the traffic. Therefore, having an airport can save a huge amount of money to the country and also attract more international airlines to fly into the country.

Q: Can you justify the location of the airport in Hambantota?
A:
There are many reasons that I could argue. This is the ideal location, because with the port and other developments coming up in the surrounding region, there is a valuable commercial hub shaping up in Hambantota. I am firmly of the view that, if our country is to be developed, both sea and air development concepts should go together, which could benefit regional cargo movements and international cargo movements. And as you know, cargo business worldwide is a huge business, so having an airport and port in close proximity, we could attract an increased amount of cargo movements, especially applicable for perishable goods such as fish, fruits and vegetables, where the world is moving to a trend placing high conscience on food hygiene. Also, if you take Hambantota domestically, it is located close to the Eastern Province as well other coastal areas, where an abundance of exportable items are available, coupled with a range of tourist attractions. And the other reason is in terms of air routes, as airlines coming from both east and west, airlines can save fuel as the location is central and closer. Therefore, we expect the new airport to create a large number of job opportunities, and the effectiveness of this new airport will benefit the whole country. We mainly expect that underprivileged districts such as Hambantota, Moneragala, Matara and Ratnapura too would develop with this airport. It should also be noted that the airport is to be strategically located in areas where major road projects such as Colombo-Matara and Hambantota-Batticaloa highway projects are being built.

Q: What are the advantages that the airport would have on the country as a whole?

A:
In any country, when you see that the transport system is in order, that is a sign of rapid development. This is the vision of our President Rajapaksa, as well as the guidance that is built upon from the Minister of Ports, Aviation and Water Management, Chamal Rajapaksa. There will be tremendous potential for infrastructure facilities such as hotels, roads, bridges and other facilities, while job opportunities will flow from all sectors once the airport is built. It would be a blessing for the development of these areas and to the whole country as well. There will be both direct aeronautical advantages as well as non-aeronautical benefits to reap from. In terms of direct aeronautical advantages, the airport will attract domestic passenger traffic, regional passenger traffic and international passenger traffic. People could make use of this airport as a regional passenger hub and also as a domestic passenger hub. There will be indirect aeronautical benefits as well, such as expansion of pilot training institutes, MROs maintenance hubs, charters, private jet parking facilities, mechanic training institutes etc. Other tourism related business will also flourish as tourist attractions are already around the airport. Airport related industries such as aircraft painting, aircraft workshops and engine repair shops will also take ground. So the main thing is we Sri Lankans should be ready for the challenge and nurture ourselves from now on with the required skills, so that by the time things open up, we would be prepared.

Q: How have you proposed to construct the airport and what is the duration of the project?

A:
It is going to be a basic eco-friendly airport of medium size. The extent of the land available is about 2000 hectares of State land. The initial development will be on 800 hectares, for which the environment impact assessment clearance has already been obtained. During the first phase of the project, only around 400 hectares of land is to be utilised, while the remaining 400 hectares will be used later to develop aviation related industries, such as Maintenance, Repair Operations (MRO) and other facilities. The airport would consist of one four-kilometre long runway and a taxiway built, so that even a big aircraft like an A380 could land. As I am very adamant that the project be completed on schedule, I want to see the first aircraft take off from Hambantota International Airport by the end of 2011.

Q: What is the amount of passenger and cargo traffic you expect to create at the new airport in the next few years?

A:
We are expecting that from 2013 onwards, annually, there will be at least one million passengers using the new airport. At present, even in Katunayake we are handling about 5 million passengers per annum, and our target is to double the amount by 2012. This new airport will reduce congestion at the Bandaranaike International Airport and the tourism and hospitality industry will gather momentum.

 

Unions labour with Work-to-Rule
As the government tries to downplay the impact of the three-day work-to-rule campaign, the joint trade unions threaten to carry on with the campaign. The Nation spoke to the Minister of Labour Relations and Manpower, Athauda Seneviratne, to ascertain how the government proposes to bridge this rift between the workers and the administration

By Rathindra Kuruwita
Q: The trade unions that planned to end the work-to-rule campaign last Friday night have decided to continue the strike. One of the reasons for that is because a Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) was assaulted on the last day of the work-to-rule campaign?
A:
First of all, I would like to state that I am against any attack on workers. But I would also like to point out that this work-to-rule campaign cannot be categorised as a union action because, as I see it, the President solved all their issues. It is true that they were supposed to get an increment from January this year, but because the government had to spend billions above the planned Defence expenditure, we could not give them the salary increase. But, after their initial union action in October, the President held talks with the union leaders, the administration of statutory bodies and the Treasury officials, and it was decided that a salary increment will be given from January 2010. A 22% salary hike has been given and also the salary increments of November and December will be added to the January salary. So what reason is there to take union action, when their demands are met? So, I think that the driving force behind this work-to-rule campaign is a political one. The two main factions leading this are the JVP and the UNP affiliated trade unions, but unfortunately for them, the majority of the workers are with us. If you take the CPC, more than 3,000 workers are with the SLFP affiliated unions. Therefore, they cannot go for a general strike and settle for a work-to-rule campaign. The JVP and the UNP are on a losing streak, having lost all the elections were held recently. While the UNP was not able win a single district, we saw the JVP reduced to a tenth of what it was. So what they want is to show the people that they still have some power, that they are a power to be reckoned with. But that effort is bound to fail like their previous ones.

Q: You say that the work-to-rule campaign has been a failure. But on Friday the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) warned that delays at Colombo port caused by disruptive labour union action may prompt international shipping lines to opt for other ports?
A:
Some disruption may have taken place, but overall, the work-to-rule campaign has been a failure. Then again, a work-to-rule campaign is to do no more than the minimum required by the rules of a workplace, and it could do nothing more than slowing down the process, but since most workers are with us and we have backups, I donít think it will create much of an issue.

Q: So, do you agree that there has been a marked slowing down of activities?
A:
I would not call it a marked slow down, no one can say that. Only minor delays, and the worst part of this is that these institutions are the highest paying institutions of the country. There are many people who make a lot less, but carry on with their work realising that the government cares about them and will address their issues in due time. I want to urge these unions to think about the country and agree with our terms.

Q: But does this salary hike cover only the CPC and CEB?
A:
Not at all, we will increase everyoneís wages at the same time. As a responsible government we cannot do that. So, as promised, we will give everyone a salary hike from January 2010.

Q: How do you plan to find money for this additional expense? This has not been mentioned on the Vote on Accounts passed in Parliament earlier this month?
A:
The government has the ability to acquire the necessary finances to carry this out. It does not have to be in the Budget. Havenít we found the finances for sudden salary hikes or for defence expenditure in the recent past? Finances are flowing into the Treasury every day; the financial situation of the country is getting better each day and we are also getting a lot of foreign loans, so I can guarantee that we can find the necessary finances to facilitate a salary hike.

Q: A MoU was signed between the National Institute of Labour Studies (NILS) and V.V. Giri National Labour Institute of India on Friday. On that occasion you claimed that the NILS was established in 2007 to look into the Labour policy of the country and submit recommendations to the Ministry of Education and the University Grants Commission (UGC) on what areas our education should focus on. What progress have you made?
A:
As you said, the institute was established only in 2007, and we are still in an infant stage. When we established NILS, we wanted to focus not only on the present situation but also on the future of our labour force. One of our biggest concerns is that our education system is not in tune with the present realities of the professional world and we wanted to work closely with the Ministry of Education and the UGC, so that, they can introduce new courses and amend the existing ones.
Progress has been slow, but I think that, with the support of this Indian Institution, which was established in 1974, we can quicken the pace.