The future of Jafna’s disused Kankesanturai cement works in the beleaguered north east province of Sri Lanka, a region under partial control of the breakaway Tamil separatists for the past 25 years, is once again in the news following soundings by the Sri Lankan authorities that this strategically sited plant, complete with some 150Mt of limestone could serve as a vital economic regeneration project, should the plant be rehabilitated and put back into full service.
Earlier, Maninal Fernando, leader of Holcim’s Sri Lanka unit at Puttalam, said that any future revival of Jaffna’s Kankesanturai cement works depends on peace, but would offer huge economic benefits to the country, with the plant ideally sited to ship cement overseas, especially into the neighbouring province of Tamil Nadu from the nearby port of Jaffna. Shipping distances across the narrow peninsula separating Sri Lanka from India are minimal and just 150 miles to the major markets of Chennai (Madras).
For Holcim, the Kankesanturai project seems to ring all the right bells at a time when it also plans to set up a new clinker terminal and grinding station in the eastern port of Trincomalee, supplementing recent investments at its 1.3Mta Puttalam works on the west coast and on-going optimisation its grinding plant in the southern port of Galle, all of which now give the group a strong position throughout Sri Lanka’s cement markets.
Fernando is reported as saying that the limestone in the Jaffna peninsula is high quality with a lifespan of some 50 years, although precautions would have to be taken while mining to avoid damage to local water supplies most of which is filtered through the limestone beds.
The plant is however in a bad state of repair with one kiln obsolete and the other, while still usable is considered as too small to be viable in todays markets. “We would need to build a modern state-of-the-art plant in Jaffna declared Fernando – a million tonner – while the harbour at Kankesanturai would enable convenient shipments, once it is modernised. The railway would also have to be relaid to bring in raw materials and a reliable power supply provided. From Jaffna we can even ship cement to Bangladesh which has no cement manufacturing capacity, only grinding plants” Fernando explained to local press.
However such pronouncements have riled the local and overseas Tamil communities, many of which have provided support to the breakaway Tamil Tigers, a local armed group engaged in a protracted civil war with the elected government of Sri Lanka.
Political spokesmen for the Tamils suggest that only the Tamils can decide the future of the Kankesanturai plant. It would not be gifted away as has been the case within the local wheat and cement sectors. In their view the plant should be developed to meet the needs of the north east province initially as well as serving the adjoining districts such as Anuradhapura and Polonnoruwa. Coastal ships could also provide cement to all the local ports as far south as Galle and if necessary into Colombo. Later on exports could be considered, the Maldives for example, which pays very high prices for its imported cement.
However, says J Gnanakone, a Tamil representative, “the north east province’s first obligation is to ensure that the people of the province are provided with cement at reasonable prices, without the current price-gouging that is going on because the Singala government does not care what the Tamils and the Muslims pay for cement.
The bottom line – says Gnanakone – is that the Tamils are fully capable of operating a cement plant at Kankesanturai, distributing it islandwide and they do not need the help of foreigners via the various Singhalese government bodies which they associate as rather unsupportive of Tamil ambitions over the past 25 years.
A continuing stalemate perhaps?