How Indian, Chinese, and US Corporations Vie for Control of Sri Lankan Ports – Asoka Bandarage 2/2

Due to its prime geographical location in maintaining global value chains and shipping routes, the U.S., via the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), as well as India’s Adani Group and China, are all investing in Sri Lanka’s ports. In part 2, sociologist Asoka Bandarage discusses how many countries and multi-national corporations treat Sri Lanka as testing and dumping grounds, exemplified by reports that the Dali ship, which crashed into the Baltimore Bridge, was carrying hazardous waste to Sri Lanka.

IMF & Private Creditors Subject Sri Lanka to Neo-Colonial Debt Bondage – Asoka Bandarage part 1/2

Debt and Climate Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World – Asoka Bandarage

Talia Baroncelli

Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re watching This is part two of my conversation with Dr. Asoka Bandarage. We really can’t make this content without you, so if you’re in a position to donate, feel free to go to our website, Hit the donate button at the top right corner of the screen, and make sure you get onto our mailing list; that way, you’re always notified every time there’s a new episode. You can like and subscribe to this show on podcast streaming services such as Apple, Spotify, or YouTube. See you in a bit with Dr. Asoka Bandarage.

Joining me now is Dr. Asoka Bandarage. She is an adjunct professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies. She is taught at Brandeis University as well as Mount Holyoke, where she received tenure. She’s the author of a great book called Crisis in Sri Lanka the World: Colonial and Neoliberal Origins: Ecological and Collective Alternatives. I actually had Dr. Bandarage on this show in August, so feel free to go back to that interview and listen to it as we go into more depth about the different themes that she discusses in her book.

Thanks for joining me today, Dr. Bandarage.

Asoka Bandarage

Thank you for having me. It’s nice to be back on your show. Thank you.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, what do you make of the ports in Sri Lanka? I know there was a lot of controversy around some of the billionaires who own one or two of the ports. I know the Adani Group, run by a billionaire, Gautam Adani, has been under investigation recently for potential bribery. How much is he influencing perhaps the direction of the country in terms of neoliberal policies and also controlling the ports?

Asoka Bandarage

Well, very much so. India helped Sri Lanka during the crisis in terms of loans and provision of essentials, which was very gratefully acknowledged by the Sri Lankan government and the people. India has also leveraged that to its advantage politically, economically, and culturally, extending its control over the country using that leverage. Many of the new privatized industries are being handed over to India. India is having more and more control over the ports, the airports, the power grid, energy production, etc.

For example, in Mannar on the western coast, an island off the coast of Sri Lanka, Adani has gotten the right to develop a wind power project. Now, this was done without even environmental assessments being done. It’s a very sensitive ecosystem, and environmental staff are alarmed about the implications of the emissions of electricity generated there on the wildlife; it is a bird’s paradise. A lot of migrating birds pass through there. The environmental issues and also the survival and livelihoods of local people like fishermen, that’s on one side. Then also the control of the airports on the part of the Adani Group raises a lot of issues about Sri Lanka’s political sovereignty as well.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, when we talk about sovereignty, I think a lot of countries are also using Sri Lanka as dumping grounds for its own toxic waste. Just to bring something up recently, which you pointed out to me, was that the Dali cargo ship, is owned by a Singaporean company but chartered by a Danish company, Maersk. The cargo ship hit the main pillar of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, resulting in its collapse. This particular ship was actually carrying 56 containers containing waste, hazardous waste, potentially explosives, and Class IX hazardous material. Class IX is a classification that the U.S. uses when it classifies hazardous material.

It does beg the question, what are these ships doing? Essentially, they’re transporting waste in a very transparent, perhaps illegal way. I remember seeing that there were some ships that were turned back even in 2017 and 2019 because they found body parts and other biohazardous material from the U.K. How big of an issue is this in terms of other countries literally shipping their waste off to Sri Lanka?

Asoka Bandarage

Yeah, I think that this is a global issue. It is part of the exploitation of the Global South by the Global North, which is part of the new colonial paradigm. This has been going on for decades, this export of hazardous waste to the so-called third world. It’s a business. There may be local companies, politicians, and others benefiting from that, but certainly not the local people or the environment for that matter.

Again, with the Dali ship, this came to light only because of that accident. We don’t even know how many containers are carrying hazardous materials and what these hazardous materials are. Oftentimes, there’s a violation of maritime shipping guidelines. This has created controversy in Sri Lanka with different politicians claiming that Sri Lanka is a trans-shipment hub. Many of these containers were going to be shipped elsewhere, but no one really knows the truth. I think that this brings to light this continued exploitation of its colonies and the nature of neo-colonialism and that this is not just an economic issue, but it’s a health issue, it’s an environmental issue, and obviously an ethical issue.

Talia Baroncelli

What do you make of President [Ranil] Wickremesinghe’s climate commitments? I know at the recent COP-28 last year, at the end of last year, or slightly before then, he put forward a plan saying that in order to reach net zero by 2040, Sri Lanka would need $100 billion USD, and this would require cancelation of debt, debt for nature swaps. 

Given the way the country is going right now and the policies that are currently in place, how do you think Sri Lanka will meet those targets? What else do you think is necessary for it to actually improve the climate crisis that it’s undergoing? Sri Lanka is in a very vulnerable position in terms of its geographical location. It has huge long beaches, and it’s unfortunately ravaged by flooding and other sorts of natural… well, I don’t want to call them natural disasters. These climate disasters are created by capitalism, essentially, and by the extractivism and destruction of nature that we’re enacting on the environment. How do you assess his climate goals and whether Sri Lanka will reach those goals?

Asoka Bandarage

I think that we have to remember that the greenhouse gas emissions by a country like Sri Lanka is really minuscule compared to the emissions of countries like China, United States, or even India. I think Sri Lanka is like 0.05% of the total, which is not to say that it’s not important, but in the large scheme of things, the countries that are the biggest emitters have a greater responsibility to take the policy actions needed more urgently.

To put the onus of climate mitigation on poorer countries and poorer populations raises some fundamental questions. If you use debt for nature swaps or carbon credits and so on, and expect the poorer countries to protect their resources, the forests, for example, in exchange for debt cancelation, you are switching the onus of environmental protection or climate protection onto those countries which are not the biggest emitters, and particularly people who are dependent on forest resources, so on and so forth. I think that there are environmental groups who are questioning this as, again, a strategy that puts the burden on the Global South rather than taking the principle of the polluter pays, the polluting companies, and the polluting countries bearing the greater responsibility.

In terms of Sri Lanka, I think, as you mentioned, the urgent issues are coastal erosion, sea-level rise, floods, droughts, and so on, which have become routine, but which are not being addressed. In the middle of this economic crisis where people, average people, are concerned about their survival in terms of getting their daily meals because a lot of people have to cut back on not only having three meals a day, but they can hardly have one meal a day. With the IMF cutbacks in social services, the IMF policy-inspired cutbacks in health care and education. The famed healthcare and educational systems in Sri Lanka are being undermined. In the middle of all that, there is not that much attention being paid to environmental issues. I think the environmental issues have to be seen in the broader context, not just in terms of climate mitigation alone.

Talia Baroncelli

That’s a really good point that it’s not Sri Lanka that is one of the largest emitters when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. I would argue that probably a large share of its emissions is actually a result of certain multinational corporations that are there employing people at minuscule wages, not even a living wage, to make products that are then exported to Western countries or to the Global North. A lot of the environmental damage that’s wrought by these multinational corporations is in some ways tied to the Global North, whether it’s exporting these goods or whether it’s companies from abroad that are investing in these multinational corporations. That’s perhaps another angle.

Asoka Bandarage

Absolutely. Going back to the plantation economy, the monocultural plantation economy, first coffee and then tea in the highlands led to massive deforestation, and that led to landslides, which have contributed to the flooding and a lot of the environmental hazards that are experienced today. So yeah, it does go back to the nature of economic policies, which not only was destructive of the environment, but also undermined local food sovereignty. Export production of tea, rubber, coconut, etc, was promoted over local agriculture, that’s why the economic crisis was a product of that, the dependence on imports for survival, which was the colonial model that was set in place, or the export of raw materials, and then the import of essentials and the dependent economic model that was set in place has continued. It’s still being pushed by the IMF, World Bank, and global institutions because it’s still pushing countries like Sri Lanka towards export production rather than local agricultural production and economic self-sufficiency. That’s the model of globalization.

Talia Baroncelli

Right. There’s probably more of that to come because after this IMF bailout is finalized, after all the tranches are given to Sri Lanka, I believe there’s a plan for the World Bank to also give seven billion worth of loans for other agricultural restructuring or projects, which I suspect it would involve these sorts of agricultural policies and a focus on export rather than sustaining what Sri Lanka can produce on a local level.

Asoka Bandarage

Yeah, and there’s another controversial program to develop agribusinesses through transnational corporations by taking away some of the land from local producers. Over 80% of the land is still held by the state. There is a lot of pressure on the government to commoditize these lands because these are held on lease by these smallholders. But if they are given freehold rights, then what’s going to happen is these people are going to sell this land, and then it would fall into private hands, including external interests, to develop export production. So local agricultural production will be further weakened, and the country will become even more dependent on imported food. Food sovereignty is really a critical issue for people’s survival, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world and in other countries that are experiencing these debt crises.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, Dr. Asoka Bandarage, it’s been great speaking to you again. I think everyone should revisit your work. You’ve written several books, the most recent of which is Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World, which is really great. It really gets into these issues of neoliberalism and various crises and how they’re all intertwined and how Sri Lanka is really emblematic of these issues of globalization and economic inequalities and, unfortunately, is bearing the brunt of a lot of really unsustainable policies. So, thank you very much for taking the time to join me today.

Asoka Bandarage

Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks.

Talia Baroncelli

Thank you for watching If you’d like to support us, feel free to go to our website,, and get on to our mailing list. See you next time.

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Asoka Bandarage has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown, American, and other universities and colleges in the U.S. and abroad. Her research interests include social philosophy and consciousness, environmental sustainability, human well-being and health, global political economy, ethnicity, gender, population, social movements, and South Asia. theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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