The white-elephant airport with real elephants

Yesterday I wrote about Sri Lanka’s Norochcholai power plant—the coal-fired power plant that you can’t actually get coal to for half the year—as a classic example of state-led infrastructure projects. But many other such projects in Sri Lanka were far worse.

The contenders for the crown of 'worst possible waste' range from the Weerawila cricket stadium, an engineering marvel in the middle of nowhere, to a television and radio broadcast tower that when completed is expected to be the tallest structure in South Asia—one might ask why.

But surely the prize should go to the international airport outside the former President’s home town. Boasting a runway longer than Changi Airport in Singapore, it faces the wrong direction; instead of aircraft landing into a headwind, they approach in a crosswind—a dangerous condition for landing.

The white-elephant airport (which serves no airlines) has, however, succeeded in attracting real elephants (which are large and potentially dangerous and destructive animals), since it sits by a wildlife sanctuary. Herds of buffaloes and deer also invade the premises. So firecrackers, soldiers, policemen and wildlife wardens have been employed to drive them out. Desperate officials have reportedly even turned to the local cattle rustlers to deal with them.

In addition, the airport lies right in the path of migrating birds—another hazard to aircraft. The authorities proposed a mass shooting of peacocks, but the plan was hurriedly shelved-because of religious sentiments (the birds are regarded as sacred). 

SriLankan Airlines, the country’s national carrier, was about the only airline to fly there—mostly carrying Sri Lankans who flew to the airport to take advantage of the generous duty-free allowances designed to attract tourists. After cutbacks in its operations even SriLankan stopped flights and the authorities turned some of the air cargo terminals into rice storage to accommodate the bumper harvest in the region. A rather expensive way of storing grain!

Ravi Ratnasabapathy is a Fellow of the Advocata Institute, a free-market think tank in Colombo.