Colombo International Maritime Conference Organising Committee Chairman Rohan Masakorala presenting a memento to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in the background  Pic by Kithsiri De Mel

By Shabiya Ali Ahlam

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday went a step further in envisioning a new future for Sri Lanka stating that the ultimate aim is to make the nation a sea and air-based economy, a potential the country had for decades but remained untapped.

Thinking big, the premier expressed confidence in the unity government’s ability to pick up from what President J.R. Jayewardene started decades ago in this regard.

“Today we want to get into that mode, to be a sea and air-based economy. We will get back to what President J.R Jeyawardene started. With our unity government, the plan is to build on our strengths, which are our location and people,” Wickremesinghe told a fully- packed audience at the Colombo International Maritime Conference.

The premier outlined his strategies in his keynote address regarding Sri Lanka’s maritime industry vision, opportunities and way forward. He elaborated that plans are afoot for reinvigorating Sri Lanka, transforming it into a centre for shipping, airline, communication, logistics and business.

Painting a vibrant picture on what the island nation’s future would look like in the medium term, he  stated that added to the list will be a North Port, which is expected to be built by 2030. The port would allow the current South Asia Gateway Terminals (SAGT) to be made into a larger back-to-back terminal, with the East Terminal taking the capacity to 25 million.

“We are providing a logistics hub with a financial hub for the Indian Ocean, filling in the vacuum between Singapore and Dubai, UAE,” asserted the premier while justifying the said plans.  Not leaving out the Mattala airport and Hambantota port, which Wickremesinghe on previous occasions has referred to as the ‘world’s largest swimming pool’, it was said that the government is currently working with China to make them commercially viable and the project will be managed as a public-private partnership (PPP). He said the selection process for the same has already kicked off.

With the new air and sea-based projects coming up, the premier said the projects would be managed with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which have the regulatory powers. Not forgetting to mention Sri Lanka’s keenness in further strengthening its relationship with its neighbouring giant, India, it was asserted that the island nation would support India’s Sagaramala programme, which aims at building ports around the country.

“We will use paradiplomacy to build stronger links with the key Southern Indian state and joining Sagaramala is an advantage for us,” he said. Adding that Sri Lanka is also looking to engage in paradiplomacy directly with the Southern Indian states, which would include Tamil Nadu and Kerala, to closely integrate with their economies, the premier expressed confidence that together a US $ 500 billion economy could be formed in the region.

In his concluding remarks he said the greater goal is to have the Bay of Bengal compete with the Caribbean.  “That can be done. We will start in a small way and if we do succeed in that, there is a lot of scope,” he said.