Recently, a joint venture between an Indian and a Russian firm has been awarded the management of Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Hambantota. 

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  • Sri Lanka’s Cabinet awarded a contract to manage the MRIA for 30 years to a joint venture between Indian and Russian firms.
  • Indian firm: Shaurya Aeronautics (Pvt) Ltd 
  • Russian firm: Airports of Regions Management Company 
  • Out of the Five companies that had expressed interest in managing the airport, the Cabinet-appointed Consultative Committee recommended the contract to the Indo-Russian joint venture. 
  • Since 2016, the Sri Lankan government has been looking for commercial partners to manage the airport as it was making heavy losses.
  • This will be the second India-Russia joint project in India’s neighbourhood, after the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. 
  • While Russia is constructing the power plant, India is assisting with the training of locals and certain logistics. 


  • Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is located near Hambantota Port, which is being operated by China on a lease. It commenced operations in 2013.
  • The airport, named after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was one of the major infrastructure projects of Rajapaksa’s nearly decade-long rule and was funded primarily through high-interest Chinese commercial loans. 
  • It was built at a cost of USD 209 million, with USD 190 million coming from a high-interest loan from the Exim Bank of China. 
  • Despite substantial investment, the airport faced immediate challenges, including a lack of flights and minimal passenger traffic.
  • The airport earned the dubious distinction of being labelled the “world’s emptiest airport” due to its underutilization and limited commercial viability. 


Environmental Concerns:

  • Located near a wildlife sanctuary, MRIA faces challenges from wildlife interference.
  • The airport is in the middle of a migratory route for birds and several aircraft were forced to ground after striking with birds. 
  • Also, Sri Lanka’s military was once forced to deploy hundreds of troops to clear deer, wild buffalo and elephants off the airport’s runway so it could continue operations. 

Airlines Withdrawal:

  • Air Arabia, the first foreign airline to operate from MRIA, withdrew services after only six weeks due to poor passenger traffic.
  • Flydubai ceased operations in June 2018, citing similar reasons.
  • Sri Lankan Airlines discontinued flights to MRIA in 2015, citing cost savings of $18 million annually.

Financial Losses:

  • Since its inception, MRIA has been a financial burden on the Sri Lankan government, contributing to dwindling state coffers.
  • Seeking commercial partners for airport management since 2016 reflects attempts to mitigate ongoing losses by offloading state-owned enterprises. 

China’s Role

Heavy Debt Dependency:

  • Sri Lanka’s reliance on Chinese loans for infrastructure projects, including MRIA, exacerbated its debt crisis.
  • Chinese loans were a contributing factor to Sri Lanka defaulting on its $46 billion foreign debt in 2023.

Port Takeover:

  • In 2017, Sri Lanka ceded control of nearby Hambantota Port to China Merchants Port Holdings due to an inability to repay a substantial Chinese loan.
  • The 99-year lease agreement raised concerns about China’s “debt trap” diplomacy and its influence in Sri Lanka.

Significance of the Contract for India 

  • The airport is strategically located close to the Hambantota port (which has been leased to China for 99 years), thus India can counter and checkmate a heavy Chinese presence in the region.
  • A key element in any overseas naval base, and even a logistics facility, is easy access by air for people and supplies. Thus, control over the airport will help block China from developing a naval base at Hambantota. 
  • The financial support to Sri Lanka to mitigate its financial crisis will further establish India as a trusted partner in its neighbourhood. 

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