Government capitulates on Port City; rain gods make Colombo mega-flood-polis!
Posted on December 13th, 2015

by Rajan Philips Courtesy Island


It looks more like capitulation than compromise. Rather than downsizing Port City as a compromise, let alone scrapping it as it vowed it would in the now-forgotten 100-Day Program, the government has all but approved the restarting of the suspended project at its bloated 450+/- hectares off-shore footprint. News of the approval appeared almost simultaneously in Beijing and in Colombo. The Chinese authorities are pleased, and the Sri Lankan government has spelt out the ‘next steps’ in the approval process. Before long contractors will resume dredging, blasting and digging operations in the Gampaha District that would ultimately remove nearly 70 million cubic meters of sand and rock (equivalent to: one mile by one mile by 85 feet deep hole) and dump it off-shore across from the Galle Face Green. What Prime Minister Wickremesinghe deadpanned as “few landfills” is a massive dig and fill operation undertaken in one fell swoop, but for the interruption following the January 8 election.

This is rape of nature, and nature will unleash its fury in one form or another. For now, the monsoons are having fun in Colombo while devastating Chennai and Tamil Nadu. A few showers are enough to inundate Colombo’s streets and make it look like Venice in a flash. While Singapore planners are labouring to create the outlines for a future megapolis in Colombo, the rain gods are turning it into a mega-flood-polis, as Lucien Rajakarunanayake inimitably lampooned in yesterday’s Island. The impacts to marine life, the shoreline, and the dredged and excavated areas in the Gampaha District should be of huge concern. Those who highlighted these issues during the presidential election have now gone quiet under cover of their new ministerial portfolios.

Things could be done differently, a whole lot differently. Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot difference between how things were done under the Rajapaksas and how they are being done now. Port City is prime example, but not the only example. The ratification process for Port City, as reported in the media, is no more than political window-dressing: a 1000-page Environmental Impact Assessment tome has been placed for 30-day public review ending on January 13, 2016; the public can make comments (what will come of them no one knows); the so called Technical Committee (is this the same cover-our-backsides bureaucratic contraption started in the 1980s to give collective kumbaya approval to Prime Minister Premadasa’s urban development schemes bypassing the ARs & FRs of old?) will ‘evaluate the proposal’ (so what has the EIA done?) and make recommendation to the Committee of Secretaries; from there, for the final lap of the ratification relay, Minister Champika Ranawaka will take the Final Agreement to the cabinet for approval.

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“Where does the Final Agreement come from?” you ask. Oh, the Attorney General’s Department is already drafting the final lease agreement to be sent to the cabinet (no room for reservations here for the AGD, unlike in the Avant-Garde case where it needed multi-layered in-house and out-house consultations to make the ultimate non-decision). The lease agreement is reportedly expected to provide for a 99-year lease over 446 hectares of Port City. The apparently redeeming omission from the Rajapaksa deal is that the Chinese developer will not get the 20 ha freehold land he was given earlier. Politically this is quite a somersault, a wholesale betrayal of the grand promise made in the 100-day Programme one year ago. Now that the Prime Minister, sounding like Lee Kuan Yew, has started to threateningly identify sections of the population who in his view did not “contribute to the January 8 revolution”, those who know they did contribute should ask the PM as to who will take care of those who betray the promises of the January 8 revolution.

The more serious question is how will the people, the City and even the country deal with the fallouts from the Port City development and the unfolding of the future megapolis? Last week, I alluded to transportation and underground services as two major challenges that the megapolis project will have to deal with. Drainage and flooding will have to be added as a third challenge. Colombo’s flooding after rains has now become a recurrent reality of city living. What are now passing inconveniences could become major disasters if concerted preventive measures are not taken. Chennai’s recent flood disaster has been attributed to both human (reservoir management) failure to balance storage and water release and structural drawbacks (overbuilding in floodplains and destroying drainage systems). Structural drawbacks are already aplenty in Colombo and onshore and offshore developments will only multiply them.

Inspiration and Lessons from Singapore

Inasmuch as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s megapolis vision draws its inspiration and its planners from Singapore, there are also practical lessons that could be drawn from Singapore’s experience. Singapore learnt by trial and error in dealing with land reclamation and inland flooding. Extensive land reclamation (25% increase in total area from 581 square kilometres in 1960 to the current size of 723 square kilometres) and shoreline building led to chronic flooding in the city that became particularly significant given the island’s equatorial location and propensity for heavy convectional rainfall throughout the year. Singapore had the resources to hire experts, including expatriate Sri Lankan engineers, to identify and implement flood control solutions. Sri Lanka is in a precarious situation having abandoned the time honoured urban drainage practices that had begun during Dutch and British rules, and now aggravating it by overbuilding with no consideration for drainage management. Port City construction and other development projects will only worsen Colombo’s drainage problems. Without a drainage master plan, megapolis development will eventuate into frequent mega-flood-polis disasters.

Singapore was the role model when Sri Lanka opened its economy to free market and global trade. But in the critical area of urban transportation the Jayewardene government, instead of following Singapore’s example of public transportation, embarked on a disastrous journey of privatisation egged on by World Bank experts, who wanted to showcase Sri Lanka as a success story in privatising transport. In 1977, Sri Lanka had a reasonably good public transport system. What it needed was ‘unbundling’ and decentralization to make it more efficient and locally responsive, and not its dismantling by an uncontrolled and un-coordinated system of private buses. In 1976, one year before privatisation began in Sri Lanka, Singapore began the world’s first Area Licensing Scheme (ALS) for road pricing, charging single occupancy vehicles entering or leaving a six square kilometre area of the Central Business District. The scheme was operated by traffic watchers taking position in 34 overhead gantries. Now electronic tolling has become common practice in many countries. Within 10 years of introducing the ALS, Singapore completed the first phase of its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. Today, Singapore has one of the most state-of-the-art, efficient, reliable and convenient public transportation systems in the world. A key component of Singapore’s transport policy is the discouragement of private car travel especially from home to work and back. The imposition of high car registration fees and other disincentives are not a budgetary exercise but components of a transport policy regime.

It is one thing to develop a Megapolis Plan using Singaporean planners, but it is quite a different and more difficult matter to introduce and implement a public transportation system in the Western Megapolis. Implementing individual Megapolis development projects, without first launching a public transportation system will only lead to traffic congestion and gridlock. A first step would be to identify the agency who will be responsible for transportation in the Western Megapolis. Who will it be? The new Ministry of Western Megapolis? The Ministry of Transportation? The UDA? The Western Provincial Government? The Colombo Municipality or other municipal and local bodies in the Western Province? Singapore is an island City State, 100 times smaller than Sri Lanka, where national governance and municipal governance are virtually congruent. Not so in Sri Lanka, and not even in the Western Province. According to Provincial Chief Ministers, the government’s new budget did not make any allocations for the Provinces. Will the new Megapolis Ministry smother over the existing provincial and local government institutions in the Western Province? What will be their role, if any, in the unfolding of the new Megapolis?

Another key area where the Jayewardene and later Premadasa governments failed to learn from Singapore, while emulating its open economy, was in the area of housing. Publicly provided, privately owned housing is another key component of Singapore’s economic success story. As an entrepôt economy from British times, housing has been a constant problem in Singapore. From its inception in 1959, the People’s Action Party government set out to address this problem in a creative way. The Housing and Development Board (no private developer) took over the business of planning and building public housing, not for renting but ownership. Homeownership was not merely facilitated but enforced by directing employees to draw from the Central Provident Fund to pay their down payment. What began as low cost, low income housing development later evolved into upscale condominiums, but all under the auspices of the HDB. Of course, there is a private housing market in Singapore, but the PAP government knew that market by itself could not solve Singapore’s housing problem. Is there an opportunity to channel EPF/ETF funding and overseas employee remittances into homeownership development in Sri Lanka? It might be 40 years late, but still worth exploring.

Funnily enough, even today the labour strikes of the 1950s are blamed as the main reason why Sri Lanka did not become a success story the way Singapore did. But the real failure at least in the areas of urban transportation and housing began after 1977, when Sri Lankan governments, while imitating its open economy, failed to emulate the exemplary experience of Singapore in public housing and public transportation. Sri Lanka blundered in creating state corporations for industrial production, but Singapore played smart in leaving industrial production to the market while keeping housing and transportation in the public sector. What will happen in the Megapolis?

7 Responses to “Government capitulates on Port City; rain gods make Colombo mega-flood-polis!”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    We need the Port City Project to counter balance India and her ever unfriendly stance towards Sri Lanka. China is our main ‘all weather friend’ in Asia.

    Megapolis is only a word that the Jara Palana administration is using got hoodwink the masses. It is a dead rope given to Pacha Ranawaka to commit hara kiri. This is the beginning of the end to Pacha Ranawaka.

  2. Nanda Says:

    A good and true comparison with Singapore. Sometimes I feel home there than anywhere in the world.

    The writer made tow very good points.

    1. Public transport – In 1973 SBS(Singapore Bus Service was created using 3 large private operators). It went from strength to strength. Similar to CTB, busses had two men operators. Around 1990 all became one man operated (OMO) and also introduced Air Cond busses and got rid of all “Lorry Type” busses.
    By now all Busses are Air Cond, comfortable and run at a profit and on schedule.

    CTB on the other hand started in 1958. By 1965 we probably had the best bus service in the world. There was a bus going to every corner at a scheduled time. It was profitably run initially. By 1970 it became a company which employs 20 people per bus, all recruited from chits of politicians , no qualifications required. By this time it became a liability to the government. Rather than killing the reason of corruption and political interference, in 1977, government allowed unregulated , unscrupulous operators to run busses as the wished. Today most busses are Indian Lorries, people have to travel like animals, controlled by thugs. Politicians own busses and this problem cannot be solved unless the whole parliament, Pallath Sabhas, Pradeshiya Sabhas , Gam Sabhas are bombed flat.

    Second issue we have is 3 wheelers. they have clogged all our roads to death. But it had become the only “small business of the poor”. This problem too cannot be solved, except by bombing the parliament.

    2. Housing-
    1966, 300,000 people lived in squatter settlements in the suburbs and 250,000 lived in squalid shophouses in the City Areas . Housing and Development Board (HDB) of Singapore , a government institution started building flats and people were allowed to buy using their future CPF ( provident fund) payments. Of course CPF amounts to 30%- 40%(in 1990) , 1/2 by employee and 1/2 by employer. It is thus run as a profit making institution even though it is a government service. From small flats those days to now very comfortable modern apartments it has solved the housing problem very successfully.

    In Sri Lanka, in cities, we need such a scheme urgently. We can’t allow people to own land anymore letting generations to live on the same plot of land accusing all sorts of issues.

    But , again, with all the thieves, liars in the parliament ( including all sorts of oppositions) what we need is nothing but powerful bombs.

  3. Nanda Says:

    Correction – I didn’t mean to type “accusing” – it should be “causing” instead.

  4. Nanda Says:

    Rajan Philips wrote,

    “Homeownership was not merely facilitated but enforced by directing employees to draw from the Central Provident Fund to pay their down payment.”

    Not entirely correct. Never enforced but encouraged.
    Currently only 80% can be loaned ( can pay back from future CPF monthly). The rest 20% need be cash payment or from existing CPF funds provided satisfying certain criteria.
    Please note that to buy the first HDB flat can receive quite a big amount of grant if one satisfy certain criteria.

  5. dingiri bandara Says:

    I am curious.
    What are impacts of the creation of Hula Male island in Maldives and reclaimed lands in Singapore and Dubai(Palm Island)

  6. Lorenzo Says:

    Singapore is a DICTATORSHIP with only SHAM elections.

    ALL top positions are held by LKW’s family members. His son is the CEO and his daughter in law holds the most powerful economic entity that runs Singapore.

    ALL media are OWED and operated by the govt.

    EVERYONE when turning 18 MUST serve in the army for 1 year.

    But it worked!

    Lets copy Singapore.

  7. Nanda Says:

    Lorenzo,
    Please stop being spreading violence and blatant lies.
    Elections are not SHAM – people will simply not vote opposition because they have no major problems with the government.

    All you have said is not true. If true, then these politicians need 500 soldiers to protect them. 4 years ago I accidently drove very close to LKY house, not question asked even though I broke road rules.
    15 years ago I almost collided with now PM ( then deputy) in a park. Only 1 body guard was there.

    Not everyone serve army. National service is only for boys, Malays are exempted ( if the wish).

    They always check racial balance in every electorate never allow too many Indians or Malays to settle concentrated around one electorate.

    There are a lot of things to safeguard the country. But no widespread corruption, nepotism and criminal activity by politicians like in Sri Lanka.
    It is one of the safest place on earth.

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