By Zahara Zuhair
Sri Lanka Shippers’ Council (SLSC) immediate past Chairman Sean Van Dort called for the total liberalization of the maritime sector, when he said age old walls have to be brought down for the island nation to fully benefit from the seas surrounding it.
Van Dort said the authorities have been promising a single window for shippers to carry out their day-to-day work for the last 25 years and quipped the promise has gone through the backdoor.
“All the discussions have been just talk shops. I urge this government to expedite the process to make this a reality, as this will bring down our transaction cost, and give us competitive advantages and speed to promote our products” he said.
Van Dort was addressing the Post Business Session of the 47th Annual General Meeting of the Sri Lanka Shippers’ Council held last Friday, which was graced by National Policies and Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Dr.Harsha de Silva as chief guest.
He told the deputy minister that shippers were involved in establishing the Export Facilitation Centre with the Sri Lanka Customs, where they agreed to pay more charges to the government for the sake of speed and time.
However, he said that he is aware that until recently there was great pressure exerted on the Customs by the parties with vested interests to provide a negative report on the project to the authorities.
Meanwhile, Van Dort said he requested the full support of the government for Sri Lanka’s Customs’ e-documentation programme while highlighting the need to revisit draconian laws in the Customs Ordinance and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act for the development of the industry.
He said that there was a significant breakthrough in 2013 when the Sri Lankan government after much consideration, decided that service providers can only charge for a service rendered to contracting parties, preventing such charges being forced on non-contracting parties.
He said although the successive governments were gripped with fear that if they brought in such regulations ships would stop calling Colombo Port, and exports would suffer. The records show that the port had increased ship arrivals and turnover after the implementation of such regulations.
But, he said there is a strong lobby operating trying to influence the authorities to revert to the old ways where these service providers can milk the shippers from both ends.
Meanwhile in a rare case of self-criticism, Van Dort remarked that the country’s shipping and freight industry is ‘corrupt to its core.’
“Let me tell you that the shipping and freight market is all corrupt to its core; from managing directors to shipping executives—robbing from their own companies by ways of kickbacks.
It seems only a hand full of service providers really go out to canvas business on service and quality of their delivery. Trust me I have worked on each sides of the industry, and I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.
Industry should unite to prosper: Minister
Responding to the claims made by the immediate chairman, Deputy Minister Harsha De Silva, said that the government and the private sector should work hand-in-hand to take the industry forward.
He said pointing out government’s flaws only wouldn’t help. He said shipping and freight industry stakeholders should unite for the betterment of the industry before blaming the government.
“You talked about policy inconsistency; you talked about poor governance, all the government’s problems. You also said about liberalization of the shipping industry. We have to ask from the industry people whether they are for liberalization.
You criticized the government for not liberalizing. I’m for liberalizing. So I’m going to put that question back to you,” de Silva said.
Recalling history, he said that whenever Sri Lanka had prospered in the past, it had always leveraged on maritime opportunities, and it will be the same for the future as well.
He said that Sri Lanka has always been a major player in world trade given its unique geographical location.
Pointing out the declining trend in the country’s exports, de Silva said it is extremely important for Sri Lanka to have good diplomatic and trade relations with other countries
“We have to further strengthen trade ties with America. Trump will come and Trump will go, but discussions need to be started on access to these markets through trade agreements. We are trying to link Sri Lanka and to build bridges with rest of the world,” he stressed.