Sri Lanka on Monday opened a massive Chinese-backed partially built tower plagued by corruption allegations, one of the white elephants started during the former strongman president’s regime. Construction of the so-called “Lotus Tower,” believed to be South Asia’s tallest free-standing communications tower, started in 2012 under the then-president Mahinda Rajapakse.
But the project faced numerous delays amid funding issues and after one of the two Chinese companies which secured the contract to build the 350-meter structure vanished after receiving an advance of two billion rupees (US$18 million).
With the government still needing another three billion rupees to complete the building in the heart of the capital Colombo, President Maithripala Sirisena said he decided to open the tower to the public.
“We still have not completed this project, but we decided to go ahead and open sections of the tower that can be accessed by people,” Sirisena said in a nationally televised ceremony.
An observation deck 244 meters high will be open for visitors. A planned revolving restaurant is not yet ready and the facility is also not being used for radio or television transmissions. Sirisena’s government, which came to power after Rajapakse was defeated in January 2015 elections, has struggled to repay loans for white elephant projects taken on by his predecessor.
The president said Sri Lanka had to pay a Chinese bank 10 annual installments of 2.4 billion rupees to service the tower debt. In December 2017, Sri Lanka handed over a deep-sea port in the south to a Chinese company after saying it was unable to service a $1.4 billion debt from Beijing to build the loss-making harbor.
The $1.12 billion deal announced in July 2016 allowed a Chinese state company to take over Hambantota port, which straddles the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, on a 99-year lease. The port was one of a string of infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and Europe being funded under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which critics said is saddling nations with debt.
Sri Lanka is still looking for a partner to manage an international airport built in the same area during Rajapakse’s decade in power. The airport has so far not been able to retain a single international airline.