Sri Lanka and India have announced a deal wherein the latter will take control of the world’s emptiest airport in Hambantota. The airport, which is valued at $210 million (Rs. 447 crore) according to Scroll.in, saw its only international route cancelled in May due to heavy losses. According to Sri Lanka’s Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sri Lanka “need[s] to revive this dying airport which caused a massive loss of LKR 20 billion [Rs 866 crore].”
The airport was built through funds received form China. In a classic case of Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy methods, this money was leased to Sri Lanka to build an unnecessary and unprofitable airport via a series of high-interest commercial loans. The airport was officially opened and began operations in 2013.
Down the road a bit is another piece of Chinese machinery that Sri Lanka has loaned out to a foreign power. The Hambantota port was built using Chinese money and has been leased to the Chinese government for a period of 99 years.
This series of foreign collaborations to run strategic venues such as sea ports and airports has led to intense criticism from opposition parties in Sri Lanka. Opposition legislator Kanaka Herath’s claim that these deals were meant to appease Colombo’s nuclear-powered neighbours have been met with indignation at the centre. Silva said that all these deals were based on offers sent out to international investors in 2016, of which only India responded.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was also forced to push back against a New York Times report that claimed that Hambantota port was only leased to China because Sri Lanka could not afford the payments and maintenance.
Wickremesinghe has also come saying that he hopes that Hambantota airport can turn a corner soon with new management. “It will also become a profit-making venture in the future,” he predicted. According to Silva, the finer details of the deal have not been finalised yet.