Mahinda Rajapaksa has done a lot as President, but not necessarily for a lot of people. That’s his problem.
A lot of the infrastructure he’s built benefits A) the Chinese, who do the work and collect the loans B) a few politicians, mainly in his family and C) wealthier voters like me. That’s not a lot of voters.
While the infrastructure, however bloated, is good for the country, those benefits will take years to reach average voters who, right now, don’t generally own cars. No voter has any use for the Port or Airport in Hambantota. That said, Mahinda has really improved rural roads and similar infrastructure, but what he’s campaigning on are big ticket items above. It may actually backfire.
For context, Sri Lankan Kings were largely judged (in hindsight mostly) for the infrastructure they built. Back in the day a Sri Lankan King could reasonably be judged on a few things. Did he build or repair tanks? Did he build stupas?
Tanks helped the farmers and stupas were good for the general spiritual welfare of the country. That was some pretty epic stuff you couldn’t do without centralized power and made the whole enterprise seem worthwhile.
Today, we have the luxury of judging our king in real-time. In modern times, Mahinda has interpreted king shit as building highways, airports, ports and, to a lesser degree, public recreation. Unlike the ancient kings, however, Mahinda has built stuff that doesn’t actually help average people, or built he’s built it in the wrong place. Tanks helped average people make a living and stupas helped them in the next life. Highways and the like, however, haven’t actually created jobs nor do they bring us any closer to nibbana.
So, broadly, who benefits from the the new Expressways? Generally, people with cars. As you can see from the picture above, you must have a car to get on the expressway. You can take a bus, but those are expensive and most people still take the regular intercity.
So, who has cars? According to the DMT, there are about 500,000 cars on the road and 300,000 dual purpose vehicles (trucks and the like). That’s good, but there are about 2.6 million motorcycles and 800,000 trishaws.
Not that the highways aren’t great and, honestly, necessary in the long term, but they don’t directly turn into votes. The amount of people who A) have cars and B) drive to/from Katunayake and Galle is not high.
At the same time, the highways, most of which have been given as no-bid contracts to Chinese companies, cost a mind-boggling amount. You should read the Sunday Times article on the subject, or at least look at their infographic, but the amount we pay on highways is absurd.
These are the costs in millions of dollars per kilometer. Sri Lankan projects are at the bottom and international ones are at the top. Terrain and stuff vary, but I think we might be paying too much. One kilometer of the Karawalapitiya outer circular highway costs $72 million. As a comparison, the average monthly household income is about $350. And they definitely don’t ride on this road. They just hear about it.
I don’t even need graphs for this part because Mahinda has simply built this stuff in the wrong place. Everything he’s built may be useful in 20 years or if the Cholas invade, but it’s not useful now.
The Mattala Rajapaksa Airport cost over $200 million USD and it’s in the absolute middle of nowhere. I think it’s earning something like $125 a month. The Hambantota Port cost over $361 million (so far) and, while less of a dumb idea than the Airport, it’s still of little to no benefit today.
These projects haven’t really benefited anyone besides whoever did the deals. They didn’t employ a significant amount of people (most of the labor was Chinese), they don’t employ many Sri Lankans now, and basically zero voters use them. Mahinda is holding them up as big impressive wins for campaign literature but he would have honestly been better off building a $500 million dollar stupa.
The Modern Dilemma
That’s his problem. The Kings of yore (the good ones) built stuff that fed the people either materially or spiritually. Mahinda’s infrastructure projects have fed the Chinese and maybe a few hundred Sri Lankans in on the deal, but they haven’t really benefited the average voter. Things like the Mattala Airport are just dumb, but even actually useful projects like the highways aren’t useful to that many people.
That’s Mahinda’s infrastructure problem. He has built a lot of stuff, but it’s not stuff that’s actually helped average people. In fact, the construction of this infrastructure has been so obviously corrupt that it’s almost a liability.