Natural endowments and the strategic value of Trincomalee port have been well-known for long. Yet, to date, nothing 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.

Trincomalee is a large natural harbour with water depths ranging from CD -20 m to CD -40 m, says an ADB report. It is also the only entirely sheltered harbour in the South Asian sub-continent. 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) had said that Trincomalee was “the most valuable colonial possession on the globe.” It gave Britain’s Indian Empire a kind of security that it had not enjoyed since the Empire’s establishment, he added. 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 said that India has to prevent external powers from dominating the Indian Ocean to ensure its own security.

As war clouds gathered in the 1930s, the British turned Trincomalee into an energy hub and built 101 giant oil tanks. They wanted to retain their security assets in the island even after Sri Lanka’s independence and entered into a Defense Pact in 1947. But in 1957, these assets were taken back by the nationalist government of SWRD Bandaranaike.

Successive Lankan governments concentrated on the development of the Western coast and the Colombo port for political as well as logistic reasons. As a result, Trincomalee port and its hinterland suffered neglect.

However, in the 1980s, Trincomalee again attracted the West’s attention. According to a high-level committee of the UN reported that Trincomalee port has “controllable space for the creation of a Free Port” and made recommendations. The Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute, 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 provision to berth passenger Cruise Liners.  In 1986, Sri Lanka’s National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) also recommended the development of the port.

But geopolitical factors had come into play in the  1980s. A reference in a 1981 Pentagon map to the possibility of a US naval base in Trincomalee raised the hackles in New Delhi, www.porttoport.inrecalled. India was not in the US camp at that time. When Sri Lanka called worldwide tenders for the development of the Trincomalee oil tanks in 1982, India sensed that the deal favoured bidders with links to the US Navy. The tender was cancelled.

In 1987, in the letters exchanged between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan President J.R.Jayewardene as part of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, 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, it was not until 2003 that the 99 surviving oil tanks were given to the Indian company Lanka IOC (LIOC) on a 35-year lease. Eventually, 15 tanks were refurbished and put to use by the LIOC.

The legality of the 2003 deal, the issue of land, and calls from nationalists to take over the tanks stymied the tanks’ development. Another deal was signed in 2022, 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. As to whether this arrangement will work, remains to be seen.

As for the Trincomalee port, the Ministry of Shipping and Ports 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 vessels 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.

However, facilities in the port itself remain poor. “Due to a lack of adequate lights, buoys, and lighthouses, vessels are only allowed to enter and exit the port during the 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 is not yet 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 a brightening of the scenario with South India and Bangladesh growing. Myanmar’s India-built Sitwe port and the China-built Kyaukphyu port, should boost prospects. But this has to wait until the security situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State improves, he adds.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe told a gathering in Trincomalee in 2022 that he intends to develop Trincomalee as a “strategic port” but cautioned that this will not happen for another 10 to 15 years given the low economic activity in the Bay of Bengal littoral. Be that as it may, Wickremesinghe’s immediate plan is to develop Trincomalee as an energy hub with Indian help. To being with, Sampur will have a 100 MW solar plant. To develop the hinterland, he has roped in the Singapore urban development organization Surbana Jurong. He plans to integrate Trincomalee with the North Central and Northern provinces, which have agricultural export potential.

Rohan Samarajiva has written about the prospect of Trincomalee developing as a “secondary port” of Sri Lanka along with Hambantota. He says that since 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) Trincomalee and Hambantota will have to be “secondary ports”. But for Trincomalee to be a secondary port, its connectivity with Colombo will have to be improved. Currently, connectivity is poor.

No action is evident on the modernization of the railway. Samarajiva suggests connectivity in the form of a “dry canal,” or a seamless container rail line. In 2018, the ADB had initiated a comprehensive development plan for the Colombo-Trincomalee Economic Corridor (CTEC), which has potential to generate 1.2 million new jobs by 2030.  Samarajiva had suggested the upgrading of the China Bay airport in Trincomalee.

Trincomalee is not located in an arid zone (defined as having less than 50 inches of annual rainfall), but Samarajiva says water will be an issue if Trincomalee is to be developed as a port and industrial zone. Noting the difficulties being experienced in Hambantota in this regard, there is merit in initiating early action on supplementing water supplies, he recommends.

A logistics hub and an industrial zone will require the presence of a significant number of managerial personnel, foreign and Sri Lankan, Samarajiva points out. Therefore, there will have to be adequate social infrastructure in terms of housing, educational and medical facilities, he adds.



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