The Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka Opens Up Highways Sector To India

  • Ending Chinese monopoly

By Camelia Nathaniel

Sri Lanka has opened up its highways construction sector to India, ending a near monopoly of Chinese companies. On February 11, the cabinet approved a proposal by Highways Minister Kabir Hashim to explore the possibility of entering into agreements with Indian agencies to execute road construction projects and signing MoUs during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka in March.

Indian media have reported that the Indian Railways’ construction subsidiary, IRCON International, which has experience of highway construction both in India and abroad, might bid for the Sri Lankan projects.

The Deputy Minister of Highways Eran Wickramaratne has said that the government is reviewing all the Chinese aided highway projects and those which do not measure up to the desired norms will be put up for fresh bidding. He said that for starters, the axe has fallen on the Northern Highway project (between Colombo and Kandy and between Colombo and Dambulla); and the last phase of the Colombo Outer Circular Expressway. “Any party, whether local or foreign, can bid. Our criteria will be expertise, experience and ability to bring in finances,” Wickramaratne said.

Under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, many major Chinese aided projects had been handed out without going for competitive bidding. Many were unsolicited proposals which were accepted in toto without much ado. They were under a category called the Strategic Development Plan which allowed the government considerable elbow room to accommodate the interests of the party making the unsolicited proposals.

The Chinese executed projects have received flak for being grossly overpriced and were a major issue in the last Presidential election. According to Dr. Amal S.Kumarage, Professor of Transport at the Moratuwa University, the accepted global norm is to charge US$ 7 million to 10 million per kilometer. But in Sri Lanka, the price ranges from US$ 19 million to US$ 172 million per km. In India, the Mumbai-Nashik highway cost only US$ 4.9 million per km and the Mumbai-Vadodra highway was even less, at US$ 2.9 million per km.

Given IRCON’s good track record in railway construction in Lanka (the Chinese charged four times more than IRCON did),  it should be able to put forth a competitive bid for the highway projects too, the Indian media said.


Road Development in Sri Lanka

According to the road development plan for 2007-2017, road density in Sri Lanka is high compared to many other developing countries. In 2007, Sri Lanka had 5.19 km of roads for every 1000 population, while Bangladesh had only 2 km and Pakistan even less, at 1.69 km. In 2010, Lanka had 12019 km of roads.

But 50 percent of Lankan roads are of poor quality, the document says. This adversely affects transport efficiency and also the economy because 90 percent travelers use road transport and 95 percent of the freight is sent by road. Tourist arrivals had increased by more than 6 percent in January and Sri Lanka is aiming at getting two million tourists per annum. But this increase can be sustained and the goal of attracting two million tourists per year can be reached, only if the roads improve dramatically. Bad roads leading to accidents are draining the national exchequer, costing the country more than Rs. 9 billion.

The road development plan envisages the redesigning of the roads to make them multi-lane. This, as well fresh road construction, would mean acquiring 4000 hectares of land in the next ten years. And this would also involve the displacement of 47,000 households.

The Rajapaksa government laid great emphasis on the development of Expressways. While Expressways are essential to link the various major economic and tourist centers, rural and interior roads also need to be developed as these could be future centers of growth. There is a crying need for foreign investment in highways.

4 Comments for “Sri Lanka Opens Up Highways Sector To India”

  1. kumar soysa

    Excellent decision! But why not Canadian, Israeli, UK, etc.? Way back in 1993, a Canadian construction company with which we were associated offered to do the 100 KM Southern expressway for USD 95 million, with a possible 10% cost over-run. The commission? USD 100,000/ plus expenses for us as ‘Facilitators’ !!!

  2. chabdra jayawardena

    Do not touch Indian workers even with a barge pole. They do shoddy work and our highways will be in trouble. Do you remember what Prince Phillip said about Indian workmanship?

  3. Reality

    Quality will be par excellence with open toilets on either side of expressways/highways.

  4. Ranjit Abeysinghe

    I am a civil engineer currently working in India in highway sector. Working practices of Indian contractors are of poor quality, love cutting corners by ganging up with government officials. Srilanka must look to European companies supervised by experienced qualified local engineers.

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