Building political legacies in the guise of development

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Recently, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that the total losses incurred by the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) from 2017 to 2022 amounted to Rs. 42.81 billion. Furthermore, although one million passengers were expected at the MRIA annually, the NAO findings had observed that only 103,324 visitors travelled through the airport between 2017 and 2022. The report had also indicated that the airport’s operating costs for 2022 was Rs. 2.03 billion, which is 26 times higher than its income.

There was no commercial or economic rationale in building an international airport in one of the most remote districts of Sri Lanka. In 2016, the reputed international magazine – The Forbes – described MRIA as the world’s emptiest international airport. It is not the only dubious development project that was carried out in Hambantota by the Rajapaksa clan during their rule. The Magam Ruhunupura International Convention Centre (MRICC) and Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium further exemplify the wasteful spending by the Rajapaksa rule, disguised as development. 

MRIA was built at a cost of $ 209 million, with $ 190 million coming from a high-interest loan from EXIM Bank – China. No feasibility study about this controversial airport was ever made public despite requests. In fact, there had been instances where soldiers and police officers had to be deployed to chase away wild animals from the airport. Wasting a colossal amount of money to enrich their political legacy in the guise of development represented a key component of the Rajapaksa-style governance. All these white-elephant entities were built in Hambantota, as it is the political stronghold of the Rajapaksa clan. 

Using enormous amounts of public funds and foreign borrowings on non-viable physical infrastructure to boost the egos of political leaders is observed in many developing countries in Asia and Africa. That itself explains why they remain as developing countries forever. It is no secret that these mega development projects offer ample opportunities for politicians and their cronies to accumulate millions of fortune. However, such practices result in the country as a whole getting poorer, while a fortunate few becoming richer. 

When these white elephants are financed by expensive foreign loans, adverse implications to the economy are further aggravated. Ultimately, the people are forced to pay higher taxes to repay the loans that were borrowed to finance such senseless initiatives. 

The presence of ill-informed voters in countries like us is one of the main reasons why politicians have no qualms in undertaking these reckless schemes. People in such countries perceive development in the form of expressways, bridges, high-rise buildings, stadiums, and convention centres even though they may not offer tangible benefits to the society sometimes. On the other hand, spending on research and development, education, and science and technology are overlooked, as they do not provide the required attributes for fanfare and attractive political marketing. The absence of a strong and professional media which scrutinises and examines the decisions of policymakers is an added incentive for politicians to implement such grandiose programs.

Nevertheless, in the recent past, there has been a growing public interest in the country on how public funds are spent consequent to the Government raising direct tax rates applicable on individuals and corporates as part of the IMF Extended Fund Facility. Now that direct taxes have been hiked in Sri Lanka in order to repay the loans that were obtained in respect of bogus development projects, the time is right for the voters and the media to remain vigilant about the merits and demerits of costly capital expenditure programs. Such watchfulness and attention by the public would prevent politicians from undertaking development projects that enhance their political reputations instead of serving the best interest of the country.

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Disclaimer: Building political legacies in the guise of development - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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