Expressways,corruption and flipside of development
Posted on October 8th, 2017

BY DR. PRASANNA COORAY Courtesy The Island

We, Sri Lankans, never learn from our past mistakes. After all, it is popularly said that Sri Lankans don’t remember “anything” for more than one week.

Not many moons ago the Southern Expressway wreaked havoc by worsening the flood situation in the South. It not only got inundated in several places, between Kaduwela and Matara, but also caused areas, on either side of it, to be submerged. The locations, the expressway, and its immediate environs, went under water last May, include the 32 km post area in Galenigama and the Nilwala entry point, in Godagama Matara. The Nilwala entrance went about seven feet under water. The Matara-Akuressa, Matara-Hakmana and Matara-Kamburupitiya highways remained submerged for days on end.


The environmental degradation, associated with expressway building, including the forest cover destruction, fragmentation of wetlands, and interference with the fragile flood plains, etc., contributes to this worsening flood situation and other disasters like landslides that go hand in hand with floods. Even the Cabinet spokesmen, in the immediate aftermath of the floods, claimed the bigger damage to life and property had resulted from landslides that came along with floods, rather than due to the floods per se.

Central Expressway – the Fury of Kurunegala

No sooner the deluge has receded in the South than the government has embarked on another expressway building project, this time around, in the North Western Province. The stages 2 (Meerigama to Kurunegala, with a link road joining from Ambepussa) and 3 (Pothuhera to Galagedara) of the Central Expressway Project (CEP), commenced taking precedence over the stages I (Kadawatha to Mirigama) and IV (Kurunegala to Dambulla) of the project. As for the information, foreign funding for stages I and IV has very much lulled for some issues associated with the project implementation, including the failure of payment of compensation and resettlement of the displaced.

During the last couple of weeks, the outskirts of Kurunegala town has been a hotbed of agitation against the CEP. Sanjeewa Kulathilake, president of Kurunegala Parisaraya Surekeeme Ekamuthuwa (Collective for Protection of Kurunegala Environment), a resident of Henamulla, in Kurunegala, spoke to “The Island” on the plight they undergo in the hands of authorities.

“The lands for the construction of the expressway were identified and surveyed in 2014 during the tenure of the last government. We had meetings with the authorities then and we were told that the expressway will be built on pillars. They then categorically said it won’t be built on ground fill. They said that for land lost we will be paid compensation for 20 years ahead, and for a coconut palm, depending on the pluck, for five years ahead. Likewise, compensation was determined for paddy lands and other plantations. They said many fairytales like that then. They were the very same officials as now. Now they deny that they ever said these”.

Kulathilake, commenting on the sudden change in the stance of the authorities, “On June 27 (this year) the RDA tells us the road will be built on a ground fill and not on pillars as we were told before. The height of the ground fill will be 20 feet, and 26 feet in some places.

“We sent a petition to the President, with copies to the Prime Minister, Minister of Highways, Central Environment Authority (CEA), Agrarian Services Commissioner and 10 other institutions. To this day we have not received any response from the President’s office. Only the Prime Minister and CEA wrote back. The PM’s office, by letter dated 17.07.2017, said the issue will be settled within 30 days.

“Then we had a meeting with a representative of the PM’s office. He told us the project is now planned to be built on ground fill. Any consequences, like floods, could be seen only after the completion of the project. And he tells us that’s development.

“We understand that there have been serious malpractices with regard to granting of compensation. The people had been intimidated by the authorities to sign documents relating to compensation. They have neither shown the document nor were given a copy of it”.

The media had already exposed a lot of misdeeds associated with the CEP construction, from the credibility and competency of the firms involved, to the colossal sums of money to be spent on the building of the said segment of the expressway. As it is, a conservative estimate of the CEP stands at a whopping Rs. 4.2 billion per km, four times that of the Southern Expressway, opened four years ago. (A comparative analysis of the cost of expressway construction in Sri Lanka will be done later in this article). Many uncertainties are known to remain with regard to the future of the other two stages of the project, as well. Two reasons that are known to have come strongly with regard of this multi-billion rupee mega project are the diversion from the originally planned “above the ground” mode to “earth embankment” mode, and the failure to pay compensation and implement a justifiable resettlement plan for the people who are to lose their houses and lands.

A time tested flawed mode of construction?

Is “embankment” a flawed method of highway construction in Sri Lanka? From its face value, that is what is to be deduced, following the Southern Expressway fiasco a few months back. (It is also said that the construction of the High Level Road from Colombo to Ratnapura, as an alternative to the frequently flood hit Low Level Road, further worsened the flooding situation in areas like Hanwella and Kaduwela).

But the once bitten Road Development Authority (RDA) doesn’t seem to be twice shy. Its Project Engineer, SLakmal Bandaranayake, rejects the possibility of road building on embankment as a reason for flooding with regard to the CEP.

“Lack of enough viaducts was one reason for the flooding experienced with the Southern Expressway. But in the CEP we have taken enough cognizance of that situation. There will be a number of viaducts in the flood plains to avoid flooding”, commented Bandaranayake.

RDA, Chairman Nihal Sooriyarachchi, comparing and contrasting the construction methodology adopted in Southern Expressway with the CEP said, “If you take the Southern Expressway, from Kottawa to Godagama, nothing is on columns except the bridges and culverts. The CEP is different. It will have many viaducts to avoid flooding”.

The RDA bigwigs seem to be very confident about the assurance given by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLR&DC), with regard to the non-possibility of flooding as a result of the construction of CEP.

“The SLLR & DC, another governmental institution and a third party, conducted the hydrological studies and we have undertaken enough and more precautionary measures to avoid flooding as per their recommendations”, said Sooriyarachchi.

But activist Kulathilake is not ready to buy the RDA’s argument. “That’s a falsehood. I have asked them to show where the viaducts will be erected. They have failed to do that. Even according to the EIA report, through the entire length of 39.7 km from Mirigama to Kurunegala, it will have only 1.6 km length of viaducts”, said Kulathilake, contradicting the RDA.

Soil for construction

It is common practice in Sri Lanka to build expressways on embankments built with soil brought from elsewhere. This filling up process requires 120,000 cubic meters of soil for a km. The gargantuan volumes of soil and boulders needed for the building of highways are supplied through razing of hillocks and excavating large pits in the interior of the country. Structurally, this model, while fragmenting the land along the course of the expressway, that includes the ecologically sensitive areas like the wetlands and forests, has also given rise to a number of environmental (and social) problems by directly contributing to the flood debacle that we have come to experience lately. Some of the areas affected are Idulgoda kanda, Kaduruk Kanda, Tampana, Konpola, Rokke Kanda.

Ven. Wekadawela Rahula Thera of Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies (CENS), who is also in the forefront of the campaign to protect the Kurunegala environment said, “This mountain range is situated three to four km from Henamulla. All these belong to the western boundary of the central hills of the country. Tampana, in particular, is a great water store. It is always soaked with water. All the water that falls down these mountains during the rains, then collect into the Venru wewa. In future, when Venru wewa reaches its spill level the water will again collect like in a tank, formed by the raised earth embankment of the expressway, worsening the floods situation in Kurunegala”.

Kurunegala is prone to deluge during heavy rains. Kulathilake reminded the devastation caused to the Kurunegala city in 2012, the worst inundation they experienced in the recent past.

Sooriyarachchi, commenting on the mitigatory actions against floods embedded in the project design said, “In catchment areas you have to calculate the maximum rainfall that occurred in 100 years, which is called 100 year flood. Due to climate change a larger margin is kept for the safety factor, which we have done”.

Two reasons for a highway to go on pillars Sooriyarachchi identified as “when you go through catchment areas like paddy fields” and “on encountering bad geological conditions”.

“Even when you go through paddy fields you can go on embankment leaving necessary space for water to flow through, without causing floods upstream. In areas of bad soil, you need to pile into the bedrock and erect pillars. We have done our calculations and have ascertained what distance need to go on earth embankment and on viaducts respectively. Despite that some people demanding the entire length to be traversed on pillars”.

Sooriyarachchi identifies economical reasons as the main cause for considering earth embankment over the other options in expressway construction in Sri Lanka.

However, the economic factors cannot be taken for granted and needs to be weighed against the other factors such as social and environment costs and above all, the safety of people considering the enormity of the project in question.

Production cost of expressways in Sri Lanka

To say the least, the cost of expressway building in Sri Lanka is not only enormous in absolute terms, but also disproportional in relative terms. In absolute terms – it spends much more money per km than many other countries around the world. In relative terms – it spends more money on expressway building than any other country of similar economic standing in the world. (Mind you, all these calculations done for Sri Lanka are for expressways built on earth embankments as opposed to pillars, the former according to the experts being the cheaper method. Yet, the Sri Lankan figures are soaring high, see Table 2).Prof. Amal Kumarage, senior professor, Department of Transport and Logistics Management of University of Moratuwa, who meticulously studied the economics of road building over the past couple of decades in Sri Lanka, stipulates that in the past, the cost of constructing roads had matched the global norms. However, over a period of 5 – 6 years, this has increased 2 – 3 times over and above the rate of inflation. Prof. Kumarage’s publication titled “The Real Cost of Highway Development – who has got the numbers right?” cites University of Oxford’s “benchmarks” for global road construction costs in developing countries. The University of Oxford has studied over 300 express/ highway constructions around the world in arriving its recommendations.

Table 1






Kumarage argues that even the “high” averages of the global expressway construction costs are significantly lower than the costs in Sri Lanka. Construction costs can sometimes become high as they are heavily influenced by the frequency and type of interchanges and other structures, especially tunneling. Even allowing for such variations, Kumarage points out the costs incurred for some of the expressways in Sri Lanka are simply unacceptable (see Table 2).

Table 2





The above Table, in no uncertain terms, depicts how the costs of expressways in Sri Lanka have varied, between the projects, as well as between different sections of the same project. All expressway constructions except the Kottawa – Godagama sections of the Southern Expressway, have been much higher than the Oxford University recommended maximum accepted cost per km. Further, the figures for Sri Lanka are far exceeding than the average for India (2.7 mn USD per km), 6 lane Islamabad-Peshawar (0.8, built in 2007) and 6 lane Hazra (5.4, built in 2017), the latter two in Pakistan, just for a comparison with other countries in the region.

The spectre of “corruption”

The Oxford University, as well as the World Bank (which had also done a separate study on the cost of expressway construction worldwide) categorically identifies “corruption” as a crucial factor responsible for the inflated cost of expressway construction in any country.

Although the RDA argues that building on earth embankments (even at the expense of all the social and environmental risks associated with it) is the method of choice for minimizing the cost of expressway construction in Sri Lanka, what had eluded from the perimeter of the discussion is the “corruption” factor.

The scientific studies have stipulated that corruption is the main reason for soaring costs associated with the expressway construction in any country. Unless this is put right, Sri Lanka should not proceed in its grandiose expressway projects, which have come to cause severe strain on the country’s economy and development. This has become an all important reason for country’s worsening inflation, cost of living, poverty, as well as under development. The hard earned foreign exchange is siphoned off for expressway construction. Once this is sorted out, the country can carry out these projects without harming people, all forms of life and the environment.

6 Responses to “Expressways,corruption and flipside of development”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Ever since I could remember from the times of late 1958 the politicians have been robbing the country and now it is critical where infrastructure projects are deliberately created to take commissions and rob the tax payers like me.There’s no public consultation whatsoever before starting any high spending or high costing projects but there are other prorates where the money could be spent to benefit the people immediately.
    Our local politician was never willing to meet us the people whom he represent waited 2 months to get an appointment which I never got though I am a big taxpayer and I have some genuine concerned and I am not alone.
    We are so desperate that we might get together and form our own party. So watch this space.
    With respect to the Highway to a place like Kandy is not required at this critical time when the finances are low but the government could ease the congested road by increasing the number of trains per day that is running between the two cities.These trains are under used where the train that takes off in the morning to Colombo to Kandy could turnaround travel back to Kandy immediately and the same train could take the evening passengers from Colombo.In short the same train could travel to Colombo twice in one day and the crew could work from 6.30 AM to 7.00PM for at least 4 or 5 days a week,giving them some over time as extra income that would increase their gross income.
    This way we could double or treble the train going passengers thus reducing the necessity to use the roads.
    Our Sinhalese Buru culture haven’t got the capacity to think.
    I was forced to use the car to travel to Colombo so many times as there were no seats available on the trains. Honest politicians will do the honest thing for the people’s benefit but not for the benefit of the politicians and their cronies.

  2. Nimal Says:

    Sorry about my grammatical errors as I am in a hurry as usual.

  3. Senerath Says:

    In any country (except small city states) embankment is the prefered method. Sufficient culverts need to be allowed for water to flow even in flood planes , depending on the volume of water. It all depends on the hydrological studies. Reading these articles, it seems RDA is not capable of doing proper hydraulics and hydrological calculations to estimate the water level rise and also the flood loads on the structures ( and embankments) and make provisions for it. They should not depend on contractors to do these. Why the govenrement is paying local engineers large sums of salary then ? RDA has to design the entire highway layout properly before calling design and build tenders. If they are unable to do it, it is better to get the design done by capable foreign firms.

  4. Dilrook Says:

    Another very good analysis by Prasanna.

    Generally the per 1 km cost increases when the distance reduces. A shorter road costs more per 1 km than a longer one.

    This trend can be seen above. However, the stretches Godagama-Beliatta, Kadawatha-Kerawalapitiya and Enderamulla-Ambepussa costed disproportionate higher than the trend.

    There is obvious corruption at a massive scale in these road constructions. $4.3 billion (Rs. 575 billion) was used for these road constructions only. This money was borrowed. There is interest to be paid on this loan as well. Ideally that cost must also be added to the cost. On average we spent $15.86 million per 1 km. It is a joke.

    A better approach would have been to expand existing roads and use existing railroads better. But there is little corruption opportunities there so politicians won’t do it. They want foreign currency so that they can invest them in foreign assets.

  5. Senerath Says:

    Kadawatha-Kerawalapitiya has a long viaduct , as I understood. It is supid to combine a viaduct ( long overhead bridge) with road cost and compare cost per km.
    Simply explained, something on gound(road) cannot collapse whereas a bridge cost depends on span(pier to pier length) and structural depth allowed ( becuase of headroom restrictions).
    It is also stupid to compare tunnel cost with a simple road cost per km. In addition to this , width of the road too shall be taken inot account.
    For example Marina Coastal Expresway (Singapore, mostly tunnel under sea) cost was $225 per km against Tampines Expressway (Singapore , mostly road + some bridges , like our Southern Expressway) cost was $4.3 per km.

    It is difficult for normal laymen to compare such projects without going into details. Obviously, if commercial loans are obtained, we should not be bound to any rules from the country (or bank) supplying the loan, we should be able to call “International Open Tender”. Problem is , to our politicians, these are Gold mines.

    A part of Southern E’way was done on ADB loan and they may have given some conditions but low interests. Price was reasonable, although high.

    As you said it is imperative to do cost/benifit analysis and make sure all projects bring real benifits to the country.

    By right, all projects shall be stopped until Law and Order has been restores, culprits ( including judges) severly punished.

  6. Nimal Says:

    Well put Sir!

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