Opinion

Southern Highway — Road Development Authority replies

The Road Development Authority would like make following clarifications in connection with the Feature Page article published in The Island on June 5, 2003, under the heading of "A highway that devastates wetlands" by Venuri De Silva.

In her observations in the article among other matters pertaining to environmental issues the writer says that "one of best examples of such devastation is the Colombo - Matara Expressway. The project which is funded by the Asian Development Bank and the Japan Bank of International Corporation was to have run along a trace designed by the internationally reputed firm of consultants, Wilbur Smith Associates. Nevertheless this trace has now been changed alarmingly in two places, namely in Gelanigama in Bandaragama and in Akmeemana in the South. The two deviations have been cited as been done in order to protect two wetlands, both imaginary, by the Road Development Authority and the Central Environment Authority.

It is quite incomprehensible as to how the writer came to the conclusion that the two wetlands were imaginary.

The Southern Expressway Project- SEP- was introduced by the Road Development Authority and the Ministry of Highways as far back as late 1980s. the University of Moratuwa undertook the Environment Impact Assessment — EIA study in 1996 and the report was submitted in early 1997. Proceedings in terms of Land Acquisition Act commenced for the purpose of construction of the Southern Expressway along the Original Trace from Matara end. However the SEP could not be successfully completed due to lack of funds on the part of the government of Sri Lanka - GOSL.

On an invitation extended by the GOSL, the Japan Bank of International Corporation - JBIC - and the Asian Development Bank - ADB - agreed to fund the SEP. The entire cost has been estimated at Rs. 25 billion and 80 percent or approximately Rs. 19.5 billion was to be funded by the ADB and JBIC and the rest by the GOSL.

Pursuant to the aforesaid prospect of funding by JBIC and ADB, the ADB engaged the services of Wilbur Smith Associates to conduct a feasibility study of the proposed project in 1998. The Combined Trace,the Original Trace and several other alternative traces were examined during the said feasibility study. Parallel to the aforesaid feasibility study, an Environment Impact Assessment- EIA- study was performed by the University of Moratuwa in 1998/99. Subsequently, a Technical Evaluation Committee - TEC - was appointed by the Central Environment Authority - CEA - to evaluate the EIA.

Though the TEC did not agree with some of the recommendations of the EIA, both strongly recommended the necessity to shift the Trace in order to avoid the Bolgoda wetlands. According to the conditions laid down by the CEA with the conditional approval for the project, the Final Trace was to avoid the Koggala wetland as well. It also required the Final Trace to be sited, so as to minimize traversing through other wetlands and to mitigate the adverse impact on surface water hydrology, ground water hydrology, flooding, drainage congestion and storm water drainage as identified in the EIA report.

It was recommended to shift the road trace to avoid ecosystems such as wetlands. This will minimize the environment impact on natural ecosystems.

These measures were to be incorporated in the final detailed design and the final trace to be selected in a manner so as to minimize the relocation of people whilst maximizing the potential development as well as contributing positively to anticipated future development programmes in the region.

The CEA further makes following recommendations in its report.

"The Urban Development Authority in its Colombo Metropolitan Regional Structure Plan has identified the Weras Ganga / Bolgoda Lake wetlands as a major recreational area. Conservation plans have already been prepared for wetlands such as Koggala and Madu Ganga. The proposed expressway should be sited in such a manner that it avoids as much as possible traversing through these wetlands. A comprehensive drainage plan will be designed in order to minimize impacts in all wetland areas.

Further the Final Trace had to be shifted from the Combined Trace east words towards the Original Trace in order to avoid close proximity to Galle Road and Koggala wetlands. In doing so the Design Consultants endeavoured to locate the Final Trace in a manner so as to avoid built up areas with the objective of minimizing resettlement. Furthermore, the Combined Trace also traversed through Gin Ganga flood plain situated in the Poddala region."

The Central Environment Authority further adds that the proposed expressway should be sited in such a manner as the UDA and relevant provincial and local authorities and divisional secretariats to resolve any conflict with existing development plans along the trace and also co- ordinate with the relevant authorities in the preparation of development plans for interchange and also to regulate land use adjacent to the expressway. The RDA would like to categorically state that it has not received complaints from any of the above mentioned local bodies or government institutions in connection with the construction of the Southern Expressway.

The ADB consultants endeavoured to shift the Combined Trace in an eastward direction at this location so as to avoid the Gin Ganga flood plain, but found that this resulted in the altered Combined Trace traversing through densely populated areas of Poddala. Consequently the Final Trace had to be shifted eastward from the Combined Trace towards the Original Trace between Boralukada and Kokmaduwa. However some sections of the Original Trace between the Poddala junction and Kokmaduwa were located on steep terrain and the construction of SEP along these sections of the Original Trace was technically extremely difficult. It would also escalate the cost of construction by a several hundred million rupees of public funds. Consequently the Final Trace had to be located away from the Original Trace at these locations. In particular, it was necessary to take cognizance of the fact that an access road from the Galle Port to the SEP was to be constructed. The said access road from Galle required an interchange at the point at which it connected to the Southern Expressway.

This point of connection along the Original Trace was situated on the Galle - Udugama road which was a steep rocky terrain. Consequently it was not technically feasible to design the Final Trace along the Original Trace at this location due to the inability to locate an interchange because of the steep terrain. Consequently the Final Trace had to be located Westward from the Original Trace at this location and the consultants designed the interchange of the Southern Expressway with Galle Port access road to be located at Pinnaduwa.

It is suffice to mention that in respect of the payment of compensation, and most of the people who were interviewed during the EIA were emphatic and positive about the SEP although it involved resettlement while a handful of people opposed. In order to mitigate the consequences of involuntary resettlement the GOSL has taken steps to pay substantial compensation to the affected persons. The total estimated cost of the land acquisition and resettlement is approximately Rs. 2.8 billion.

Some of the features of the said compensation package include the payment of compensation at market value for lands acquired. In this regard compensation ranging from Rs. 130,000.00 to Rs. 175,000.00 is paid for an acre of paddy land acquired from Bandaragama and Akmeemana. With regard to residential land compensation ranging from Rs. 5000.00 to 20,000.00 per perch has been paid for residential land acquired from the same area. Compensation would also be paid at replacement cost for buildings and other structures as opposed to the depreciated cost under the Land Acquisition Act.

The aforesaid compensation is paid before taking the possession of land that has been demarcated for the construction of the Southern Expressway. The compensation is increased by 25 percent if the occupier vacates the land on the due date on which possession is required for the construction of the Southern Expressway. In addition, a sum of Rs. 50,000.00 is paid as contribution for rent until the occupier finds a suitable alternative accommodations. Compensation offered to the affected parties of SEP are the highest and most reasonable ever in comparison to the payments made to private properties by the GOSL in respect of other development projects.

The RDA hopes you may realize from above mentioned facts that the Southern Expressway, one of the major transport development projects undertaken by the RDA is not being carried out in any haphazard manner but by following a well established criteria and compensation package.

It is sad that the writer has gone to the extreme to elaborate on a here say to the effect that in Bandaragama, the route of the CT has been changed to avoid the lands of the father-in -law of a well connected road engineer in Kahatuduwa and in Paragastota to stop it from going through the quarry mines of an influential business family. This is the first time the RDA came to know that Wilbur Smith Associates, an internationally reputed firm of consultants (as the writer herself admits) has gone out of their way to unnecessarily and unjustly help certain individuals for their personal gains mitigating the importance of this massive development project while at the same time harming and damaging the interests of hundreds of others.

No development project has ever been implemented anywhere in the world with the blessings of each and every person and Sri Lanka is no exception.

A lot of hue and cry has been made in respect of destruction of properties and a series of baseless and conflicting allegations have also been made about the amount of properties to be destroyed or acquired under the SEP.

The EIA team made a very rough estimate of the affected properties as 622. This was compared with the number of properties affected by the Original Trace that was estimated at 938. This was one of the considerations for the recommendation of the Combined Trace in contrast with the Original Trace. However the Social Impact and Resettlement Study referred to in the EIA report was subsequently conducted and it estimated the number of houses affected by the Combined Trace as 810 houses in 1998.

What is ironic is that the number of persons affected on the Combined Trace is likely to be much higher today in the year 2003 since the Combined Trace is closer to the Galle Road where there would be considerable urbanization.

Finally, all these allegations and grievances were filed in the Court of Appeal in four Writ Applications for relief by a few affected individuals under CA case No.s 1322/2002, 668/2002, 1447/2002 and 1330/2002. The petitioners had cited the RDA, CEA and a number of divisional and district secretariats and several other state institutions as respondents in their petitions.

After a lengthy inquiry and a report of an ad-hoc three member fact finding committee comprising of three retired Supreme Court Judges appointed by the Court of Appeal, all four petitions were dismissed without cost by a bench comprising Justice Shirani Tilakawardana and Justice P. Wijeratna on 30.05.2003.

Chairman
Road Development Authority
Sethsiripaya
Battaramulla

Editors’ Note:
Correspondent Venuri de Silva is on long leave. We reserve her right of reply.


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