Dec 25 (Xinhua) COLOMBO- It was early in the morning as 25-year-old Harshana Tennekoon zipped across southern Sri Lanka's Hambantota International Port (HIP) in his hatchback to welcome the first roll-on/roll-off (RORO) ship of the day.
The massive vessel, carrying automobiles manufactured in India and destined for markets as far off as South Africa and Cuba, dwarfed Tennekoon.
Armed with a walkie talkie, hardhat and reflective vest, the young duty manager-in-training must oversee a team of around 90, who would spend the next few hours discharging the ship's load and preparing it for the next leg of the journey.
It was a painstaking process, requiring precision, coordination and collective effort. But under Tennekoon's supervision, the team worked like a well-oiled machine, able to discharge over 120 vehicles in an hour.
This is Tennekoon's first job, of which his parents are quite proud. He joined the HIP in December 2017, shortly after the management of the port was transferred to the Hambantota International Ports Group (HIPG), a joint-venture between the China Merchants Port Holdings (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).
For Tennekoon, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "I love this job," he told Xinhua in mid-December when the Hambantota Port was celebrating the second anniversary since its operations were given on a 99-year lease to the HIPG.
"My aim is to go as far as I can in this industry," he said.
CATALYST FOR LOCAL DEVELOPMENT
A master plan for developing industries around the Hambantota Port, undertaken by an international group of companies, has almost been finalized, said Ravindra Jayawickrema, CEO of HIPG subsidiary Hambantota International Port Services.
Once the plan is finalized, the port operator HIPG will go to the market to attract investors to set up export-oriented manufacturing to take advantage of the Hambantota Port's free port policy and strategic access to an international shipping lane in the Indian Ocean located just 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) south of the port.
Along with industrial development, the port operator hoped to catch the container overflow from the congested Port of Colombo and develop Hambantota's bunkering and fuel supply operations once the tank farm comes into operation early next year, Jayawickrema said.
"Sri Lanka lies between Singapore and Fujairah, two of the largest fuel depots in the world that supply over 60 million tonnes of fuel per year. We are trying to tap into that market to a certain extent," he said.
Pradeep Kumara, a security guard at the Hambantota Port, watched cautiously as a RORO ship began the berthing process, assisted by tugboats and ground staff.
He came to work in a relatively underdeveloped Hambantota just four months ago after quitting a job in the capital Colombo. "Thanks to the port I now have a good income in my hometown and I can stay with my family," said Kumara.
Kumara's story is not unusual at the Hambantota Port. According to HIPG General Manager Human Resources Jeevan Premasara, 97 percent of the staff at the port are Sri Lankans, and 67 percent are recruited from Hambantota and surrounding districts.
The HIPG has been working closely with Sri Lanka's National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) to upgrade facilities and provide training in port operations.
HIPG CEO Ray Ren, who worked at CMPH flagship port in south China's Shenzhen for 10 years before coming to Sri Lanka, said the company is committed to providing training and skill transfer to local young workers.
"There are a lot of talents and potential in Sri Lanka," he said.
GIVING BACK TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES
Thero Karunasena, a monk from the Samudraramaya Buddhist temple located just a few meters away from the entrance of Hambantota Port, rested under a sacred bodhi tree after conducting weekly religious classes for some 100 local children.
"Two years ago, I received less than half that number of students, but things changed when the HIPG began providing us with free breakfasts for children," Karunasena said.
Hambantota used to be one of the poorest regions in Sri Lanka, with economic activity restricted to artisanal fishing and seasonal agriculture. But the emergence of Hambantota Port has provided many opportunities for local entrepreneurs.
"In the past there were no jobs and no infrastructure, but today locals employed at the port benefit from a steady monthly income and their hard earned money circulates in the village," said Karunasena.
Thanks to automobile imports from the port, vehicle repair shops have mushroomed in the area. In Ambalantota, the closest town to the port, locals supplement their income by renting rooms to workers and starting restaurants to feed new visitors.
In October, the China Merchants Charity Foundation donated a two-story building equipped with a computer room, music room and library to the Tissapura Junior School in Weerawila.
The project was the result of consultations between school principal A. H. Weerakeerthi and HIPG CEO Ren.
A young girl named Nethma declared the inauguration of the building as her "happiest day", saying that the new environment would make her studies more productive.
The company has donated supplies to locals displaced by heavy floods and supported local healthcare initiatives, including paying for free cataract surgeries. It also offered financial assistance to beach clean-ups and elephant and turtle conservation.
"At first people were misled by rumors about losing their land, but now their attitude is more positive. They see how this port benefits them and their children," Karunasena said, reflecting on HIPG's contribution to local communities since 2017.
"DEBT TRAP" HYPE DISMISSED
The Hambantota Port has witnessed remarkable growth since operations were leased to the HIPG and received steady support and praise from Sri Lankan leaders.
In December 2017 when the management was transferred to the HIPG, then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the port fit in with Sri Lanka's own vision of "transforming into a hub in the Indian Ocean."
More recently, new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa dismissed a "debt trap" hyped up by some Western media, saying that Sri Lanka was committed to strengthening ties with China for mutual benefit.
"We are very confident that Sri Lanka can very clearly repay the loans for the Hambantota Port and other development projects. Today, the economy has collapsed but when we rebuild it, paying back loans won't be a question," Rajapaksa told Xinhua in an interview earlier this month.
Sri Lanka's debt problem was not created by China, said Local scholar Dushni Weerakoon and Sisira Jayasuriya, professor of economics at Australia's Monash University.
Chinese loans comprise merely about 10 percent of Sri Lanka's total foreign debt, they said in a co-authored article.
As for the 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa clarified on Thursday that he would not renegotiate the commercial agreement of the project that had already been signed.
According to data gathered by the HIPG, the port has seen a 60-percent growth in volumes from 2018 and a threefold increase from 2017.
For CEO of HIPG subsidiary Hambantota International Port Services Jayawickrema, the outlook is positive.
"We see the future to be very promising," he said.