Sri Lanka ideal for maritime hub

Monday, 1 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The ‘Five Hubs’ concept of President Mahinda Rajapaksa includes establishing Sri Lanka as a maritime hub for the region. We spoke with Captain (Prof.) Nalaka Jayakody, a Master Mariner who has sailed the seven seas and visited over 80 countries in the world – a well-known and experienced mariner and an educationist, about the possibilities of achieving this. Given below excerpts of the interview: Q. Is it possible to establish Sri Lanka as a maritime hub for the region? A. Eminently possible. The location of the country in relation to other countries of the world and its close proximity to sea lanes makes this very feasible. Historically also, Sri Lanka has been a maritime hub for the region. In the olden times, there was a port in Godawaya in the deep south of Sri Lanka, very close to the site of the Hambantota port and archaeological excavations have found out that it operated as a maritime hub, an entrepot on the maritime silk route from at least the 2nd Century CE. Where cargo bound to China and the Far East and cargo bound to the West were transhipped. If Sri Lanka once served as a maritime hub for the maritime silk route, the most important trade route ever to have existed in the old world, I see no problems with the country again fulfilling the same role in the modern world. Q. What made you arrive at the conclusion that Sri Lanka is the ideal place for a maritime hub? A: For a long time in the past, world trade was dominated by England, other European countries and the United States of America. But, now it is shifting towards far eastern countries such as China, Japan and the Middle East. So, any western country that wants to do business with the east, and vice versa, has to go south of Sri Lanka to reach their destinations. Being privileged to visit many countries in relation to my profession, I have identified Sri Lanka to be having the best geographical location in the region to be established as a maritime hub.  The country is at peace and politically stable without any major security issues. However, this idea was there for some time but the ongoing civil war prevented it being worked upon.  We were just managing to run our maritime operations with many difficulties. But now, with the ending of the war, peace is prevailing in the country and is the ideal time to implement the idea. I would say the vision of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka being promoted to maritime hub status, is excellent and timely. However, we need to understand that we have to clear many hurdles to achieve our objectives to become a maritime hub. Q.  Can you explain the functions of a maritime hub?   A. Most people think achieving Maritime Hub status is just constructing harbours and related facilities. It is not that simple. At a minimum, a hub needs the following factors. The first being to be strategically located which fortunately we are with a minimum deviation from the main trade lanes. A maritime hub must have a large capacity where the ports are supply driven with government and entrepreneurial support. There should be a high productivity and fast turnaround time. The port equipment should be capable of catering to the next generation of vessels. Ship repair facilities and bunker supplies should be at a competitive price. Q. What could restrain Sri Lanka from attaining maritime hub status? A. In the maritime sector, every second you stand to either make, or lose money. A ship idling in port for just a day could lose a lot of money. The amount depends on the type and size of the ship. No one wants to send their ships to ports that are unsafe, inefficient and expensive. There are many stakeholders involved in this, such as Customs, maritime administrations, port facilities and services administrations, ship owners, ship managers, ship charterers and ship operators. And here, we cannot forget shipping agents, who are acting for ship owners and seafarers. Then there are maritime training institutes who produce seafarers. These are some of the key stakeholders. The list is endless. There must be efficient integration between these stakeholders. In this twenty first century, having very effective and fast communication systems, the integration between the stakeholders is extremely vital. I would say that having decision makers with subject knowledge will be of immense advantage to the country. At the same time, we should always take collective and transparent decisions with the consultation of subject experts from the private sector too, because the private sector has more connections with the foreign market than the Government. These connections are very important in bringing businesses to our country. Q. Are we sufficiently competitive in the maritime business? A. If we want to become a maritime hub for the region, the services we offer should be at the same price, or preferably lower, to the services offered by our neighbouring ports. For example, our bunkering prices are high because of various reasons. Singapore imports crude oil in large bulk from the Middle East, stores it, refines it and sells it at a cheaper price. We import crude oil in smaller vessels as we do not have sufficient storage facilities, refine it and when we sell it, it has to be at a higher cost. Therefore, we need to have larger crude oil storage facilities as early as possible. Q. Are we maintaining international standards? A. Yes we do .In shipping business, as in any other international businesses; there is a regulatory body, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) which is a United Nations organisation (UN) agency. Sri Lanka is a member country of the IMO. Therefore as a member state, the country has to comply with the important conventions imposed by the IMO, if the country is to become a maritime hub. The conventions of the IMO might sometimes benefit the country, sometimes not. Majority of these conventions imposed by the IMO which our country has ratified have been implemented. There still remain a few conventions such as ballast-water and Maritime Labour Conventions in the maritime sector to be ratified and implemented which are important because of their impact on the marine environment, commercial benefits and safety. Q. Do we have sufficient qualified professionals in SL? A. Yes we do have. But important thing to consider is that professionals, in any subject, are expensive to hire. The administrators and regulators have to be professionals in their respective spheres. But, the country cannot obtain the services of these professionals because of the government salary structure. In the government sector, every employee belongs to a salary scale. Therefore, I think the Government should consider this issue very seriously. The world has 1.2 million seafarers and about 25% of that is provided by the Philippines. That means that the entire world is mostly depending on Philippine seafarers. Currently we just exist on 15,000 seafarers. Being a maritime nation, you will be surprise to hear that only about 3,000 Sri Lankan seafarers are in active service on board ships. There are many trained seafarers waiting for ships. The private sector is finding employment for them on board ships but now the government should take interest in exploiting this golden opportunity to earn millions in foreign currency to the country. The country has enough training facilities and trainers, and the country is in the IMO White List so there shall not be any problems in finding employment for our seafarers. As this is very lucrative profession the Government has to involve itself in marketing these trained, professional seafarers. Q. Recently we read in the newspapers that the Government is considering building a ‘Sailing Campus.’ Is it really necessary at this juncture? A. Well, There are enough seafarer training institutions in Sri Lanka so the policy makers do not have to be concerned with setting up another seafarer training institute at this juncture. Even if we have a huge sailing campus to train seafarers, where are we going to send them to? On the other hand training of seafarers is very costly. There are training institutes in Sri Lanka and they are surviving with great difficulty mainly because of the costly training facilities and equipment. At the same time these facilities and the equipment are required to update time to time according to technological advancements, again this is very expensive. A government can afford this very easily and they can train seafarers for lower fees but without any commercial benefit for the sailing campus. Then what do you think will happen to the existing training institutes? What the Government should do is to have a hard, long look at what sort of setup the public- private partnership and develop it. Q. The Government has eased the port procedure considerably. What have you got to say about this? A. The Government is on the correct path. When I used to come to Colombo Port in the course of my career in the past, there was a lot of red tape. But now, with computerisation and mechanisation, the Government has eliminated a lot of red tape. I would say, now the Colombo Port is very efficient. But, still there are areas to be improved when compared with other developed ports around the world. But, I think we may come to that stage as time goes on. Q.  Are you prepared to offer your consultancy services to the Government in setting up a maritime hub? A. Most definitely I am. I think my experience and observations made all over the world will be of immense help in planning a maritime hub. I will gladly offer my services to the country, if she needs them. In conclusion, I wish to state that no one can accurately predict the changing nature of the sea-trade. As long as you have the fundamentals in place, isn’t the rest just about branding and marketing? (Captain (Prof.) Nalaka Lakmal Jayakody pursued his preliminary education at St. Paul’s College, Kandy, and at the age of 13 he joined Galahitiywa Central College, Ganemulla. He is the first and only Sri Lankan Master Mariner to obtain a Doctorate and become a Professor.