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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
Tussle for titanium
18 August 1996
Titanium is a very expensive and much sought after metal in the modern world. Klaproth, the German scientist who discovered the metal named it after the Titans of Greek mythology the incarnation of natural strength. The aerospace industry finds it indispensable. Titanium alloys are essential for making planes, satellites, space craft etc., and titanium dioxide is the basis of the paint industry.
The beach sands of the coast between Mullaithivu and Trincomalee contain the richest titanuim ore in the world. The concentration is almost 54 percent .This is quite higher than the concentration found in deposits elsewhere in the world. The titanium ore is ilmenite. It is a by-product of the crude monazite sands on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast. The titanium ore is washed ashore by tidal and wave action mainly on beaches of Pulmoddai .
Annually about fifty thousand tons of ilmenite are produced in Pulmoddai. The Japanese are the main buyers. They ship it directly from the northeast coast. The ilmenite bought by them goes chiefly to the production of titanium dioxide. An SLFP politician made an allegation in 1989 that a ton of the ore which at that time was fetching 120 US dollars in the world market was being sold at a mere 50 US dollars and that no tender procedure had been followed in the sales. Somebody, in between, was making a cool 2.5 million US dollars every year.
It has been felt over the years that the country could make very substantial profits by setting up a titanium dioxide plant at Pulmoddai. A detailed proposal to this effect was submitted to the government in 1990. (The technology for processing ilmenite into titanium dioxide remains almost exclusively with two Multi-national corporations Dupont and Kermaggees.)
A titanium dioxide plant would require a large supply of fresh water. The Yan Oya river which flows between Pumoddai and Thiriyai was considered an ideal source of supply.
The LTTE which realised the importance of Pulmoddai in the mid eighties has systematically scuttled efforts by the government to secure the area. In fact some Tamil militants, particularly the EROS, were inclined at that time to see a sinister link between the establishment of the military cum settlement zone in Weli Oya and the titanium sands’ of Pulmoddai. Although they gave some credence to the theory that the government’s main aim at that time was to drive a wedge between the northern and eastern provinces to break the territorial contiguity of the Tamil separaists’ Eelam project, there was speculation among some of them at that time that something ulterior, business interests to be precise, was at stake.
The government’s attempt to isolate the hinterland of Pulmoddai with several strategically placed settlements and the progress of the Yan Oya irrigation scheme were seen as further confirmation of this belief.
The control of that part of the northeast coast between Kokkuthoduvai at the southern extreme of the Mullaithivu and Kuchchaveli in Trincomalee helped the government ship the ilmenite out of Pulmoddai safely.
The army’s presence in Kokkuthoduvai, Kokkilai, Pulmoddai, Thiriyai, Kallarawa and Pudavaikaddu, wittingly or unwittingly, insulated the titanium rich sands from the designs of the armed Tamil groups. The Navy also had a unit at Kuchchaveli.
In 1988, however, the LTTE blasted a pumping station on the Yan Oya river scheme. It also developed links with the Muslim population in Pulmoddai. In recent years the Tigers have stepped up attacks in and around Pulmoddai.
The army tried to neutralise the LTTE’s influence in the town during Eelam War II by imposing a ban on several goods. But the Tigers have systematically expanded their strength in Pulmoddai’s hinterland.
In fact, a suggestion that the plant should be built in the south and the ilmenite be shipped there was made in 1990 when the proposal to build the titanium dioxide plant was first placed before the UNP leadership. The security situation in Pumoddai and its hinterland was considered precarious even at that time despite the presence of the IPKF to the south and the army to the north and northwest. However, it was assumed at that time that the ilmenite could be safely shipped to the south mainly because the coast between Kokkilai and Kuchchaveli was dominated by the Army and Navy.
Since the beginning of Eelam War III, the LTTE has persistently attacked the army on the Anuradhapura-Pulmoddai trunk road. The security of Pulmoddai to some extent depends on the ability of the army to keep this road under its firm control. The dust road between the direlict Thennamaravaadi to Pulmoddai offers access to the army from Weli Oya but lies in dangerous terrain.
Although the LTTE has been building up pressure in the hinterland it did not try to take on the Pulmoddai factory itself. The attack on the Philippine ship which was loading ilmenite destined to Japan is the LTTE’s first major attempt to show what it is after on that part of the northeastern coast.
The aim is double knocking a key economic target out and further strain the government’s hold on the eastern maritime zone.
The LTTE has often claimed (as in the latest Viduthalai Pulihal) that its aim is to effectively cut off the government’s supply lines to the peninsula through the eastern maritime zone. Sea Tigers continue to engage the navy frequently in the eastern sea. The fall of Mullaitivu has deprived the navy of shore based Radar suveillance. If the Mineral Sands Company is to honour its committments to foreign buyers of the titanium ore the government has to divert some of its naval resources to the security of the sea off Pulmoddai.
The titanium rich sands are too valuable for the government to abandon tactically’ in the face of LTTE attacks. The LTTE seems to hope that if this is the case then it can compel the government in due course to disperse and hence dilute its naval strength in the eastern maritime zone.