Why Is South Asia’s Finest Natural Harbor Still Undeveloped?
Focus on Colombo port for political, logistic reasons
The natural endowments and the strategic value of Trincomalee port have been well-known for a long time. Yet, to date, very little concrete has been done to develop and use it.
There has been no dearth of reports and plans. But except for the partial development of the giant oil tanks in collaboration with India, there has been no development of the port and the hinterland.
According to an ADB report, Trincomalee is a large natural harbour with water depths ranging from CD -20 m to CD -40 m. It is also the only entirely sheltered harbour in the South Asian subcontinent. In the Polonnaruwa era of Sri Lankan history (1055-1232 CE) it was a major commercial port.
The Western powers sensed Trincomalee’s strategic value in the 18th.Century. British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) said that Trincomalee was "the most valuable colonial possession on the globe” as it gave Britain’s Indian Empire a kind of security that “it had not enjoyed since the Empire’s establishment.”
When the British took over Trincomalee in 1796 from the Dutch, Napoleon remarked: "He who controls Trincomalee controls the Indian Ocean.”
The first Indian to write about the strategic importance of Trincomalee for India was the historian-diplomat K.M. Panikkar. In his seminal work India and the Indian Ocean: an essay on the influence of sea power on Indian history published in the 1940s, he stressed the importance of Colombo and Trincomalee ports for the defence of India.
As war clouds gathered in the 1930s, the British turned Trincomalee into an energy hub and built 101 giant oil tanks. Wanting to retain their security assets in the island even after Sri Lanka’s independence, they took the precaution of entering into a Defense Pact in 1947 itself.
After these assets were taken back by the nationalist government of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1957, Trincomalee port and the oil tanks fell into disuse. Successive Lankan governments concentrated on the development of the Western coast and the Colombo port for political and logistic reasons.
However, in the 1980s, Trincomalee again attracted the West’s attention. According to www.porttoport.in a high-level UN committee reported that Trincomalee port has “controllable space for the creation of a Free Port” and made recommendations for its use.
The Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute of Japan (OCDI) submitted a similar report in 1984 entitled: "Master Plan and Development project of Trincomalee Port" that suggested a Container Trans-shipment facility and a berth for passenger Cruise Liners. In 1986, Sri Lanka's National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) also recommended the development of the port.
But in the1980s, geopolitical factors came into play. According to www.porttoport.in, a reference in a 1981 Pentagon map to the possibility of a US naval base in Trincomalee raised the hackles in New Delhi. India was pro-Soviet and anti-US at that time.
When Sri Lanka called worldwide tenders for the development of the Trincomalee oil tanks in 1982, India suspected that the deal favoured bidders with links to the US Navy. The tender was cancelled.
In the letters exchanged between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene as part of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, it was stated that Trincomalee or any other port in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests.
It was also stipulated that the restoration of the Trincomalee oil tanks will be undertaken by an Indo-Lankan joint venture. However, due to nationalist opposition to the Accord, it was only in 2003, that the 99 surviving oil tanks were given to the Indian company Lanka IOC on a 35-year lease. Fifteen of the 99 tanks were refurbished and put to use. But it was not until 2015 that LIOC started its bunkering business at Trinco port.
The legality of the 2003 deal, the issue of land, the 30-year war and calls by nationalists to take over the tanks, stymied further development. In 2022, another deal was signed according to which the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) got 24 tanks; the joint India-Lankan venture Trinco Petroleum Terminal (TPT) got 61 tanks, and the Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) got 14. However, in the context of the ongoing financial crisis, implementation faces a fresh challenge.
As for the Trincomalee port, the Ministry of Shipping and Ports had proposed the creation of ship repair and ship-building and bunkering facilities. An ADB report noted that Trincomalee’s “sheltered bay is ideal for calm water vessel operations such as ship-to-ship transfer, lay-up of vessels, loading and discharging submersible structures and other shipping-related services.” There is no shipbuilding yet, but the “afloat repair service” of the Colombo Dockyard Co. was extended to Trincomalee in 2021.
Facilities in the port badly need to be upgraded. “Due to a lack of adequate lights, buoys, and lighthouses, vessels are only allowed to enter and exit the port during daytime,” the ADB pointed out.
Rohan Samarajiva of the Colombo-based think tank LIRNEasia, said in a paper on the Trincomalee port in 2017, that the port has been in the doldrums partly because the Bay of Bengal has not been a hotspot of maritime trade, given the state of economic development of the littoral states (such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar).
But he sees bright prospects with South India and Bangladesh developing fast. Myanmar’s Sitwe and Kyaukphyu ports should also boost prospects, but for this, the security situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State should improve, he adds. President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in 2022 that it would take another 10 to 15 years for economic activity in the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal to pick up.
Wickremesinghe’s immediate plan is to develop Trincomalee as an energy hub with Indian help. To begin with, Sampur will have a 100 MW solar plant. To develop the hinterland, he has roped in Singapore’s urban development organisation Surbana Jurong. He plans to integrate Trincomalee with the North Central and Northern provinces, which have agricultural export potential.
Rohan Samarajiva sees Trincomalee port developing as a “secondary port” of Sri Lanka along with Hambantota. Colombo will continue to be Sri Lanka’s principal port given its established facilities and the hinterland which accounts for 42% of Sri Lanka’s GDP as against 5.8% contributed by the Eastern Province in which Trincomalee is located.
But even to be a secondary port, Trincomalee will have to have better connectivity with Colombo, he says. No action is evident on the modernization of the railway. The port has no railyard of its own. Samarajiva suggests connectivity in the form of a “dry canal,” or a seamless container rail line between Colombo and Trinco. In 2018, the ADB had initiated a comprehensive development plan for the Colombo-Trincomalee Economic Corridor (CTEC). Samarajiva also suggests upgrading the China Bay airport in Trincomalee to serve as a civil airport.
Trincomalee is not located in an arid zone, as it gets more than 50 inches of annual rainfall, Samarajiva points out. But as a port and industrial zone, it will have to have a lot of water, he warns. It will also require adequate social infrastructure in terms of housing, educational and medical facilities for the large number of Sri Lankan and foreign personnel who will congregate there.
Even as it faces these problems, another obstacle has come to light, namely, the rumour that the US and India are aiming to establish a naval base in Trinco, triggered by the sudden visit of the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Jedidiah Royal. Though baseless, the rumour has the potential to stall Trincomalee port’s development.