WP development, Colombo Port and Sethu Samudram Project

by Professor Willie Mendis
Senior Professor in Town and Country Planning,
University of Moratuwa

The Eighth Schedule in the Constitution of Sri Lanka has specified the nine provinces of the country. The Western Province has the nation’s economic power houses, and the country’s administrative and commercial capitals. Its city of Colombo has dominated the economic and social landscape for over a century. Consequently, at various times in the post-independence period, the government has supported the Colombo Municipality which oversees the administration of this city, in the preparation of a Statutory Development Plan for its physical development. The latter was however always conceived in its wider regional context comprising its immediate hinterland. In the 1960s it comprised a perimeter up to Ja-ela in the north, Ratmalana in the south, and Homagama in the west, when the Colombo Regional Development Plan was sanctioned by Gazette Notification No: 12668 of 22 September 1961. It led to the preparation of the City of Colombo Development Plan which was amended on several occasions to comply with the rapidity of change that enveloped its spatial bounds. The currently operational plan comprises the city of Colombo Development Plan sanctioned in Gazette Notification No: 1090/13 of 29 July 1999.

At the epicentre of Colombo’s growth was its international seaport, which profited by its geographical location midway between the world’s east and west. It expanded quantum-fold during the last twenty five years. It is now a leading contender to claim hub-port status in the transshipment of containers in South Asia. Its prominence has been accentuated by it being fed by a large share of its container traffic from the feeder ports in the Indian sub-continent.

The ‘fuelling effect’ on development by the success of the port of Colombo has resulted in key spatial configurations, being proposed in the emergent exercises to formulate a Regional Physical Plan for the Western Province. The latter included a proposal to virtually delimit the bounds of Colombo City to a new ‘Colombo Core Area’ enveloping the adjacent municipalities of Kotte and Dehiwela-Mt. Lavinia. Its corresponding hinterland was firmed to comprise the entire Western Province as a cohesive unit for development planning.

The Western Province was statutorily declared a ‘Regional Development Area’ by Order of the Minister in Gazette Notification No. 1182/26 of 2001.05.04. Its ‘Draft Regional Physical Structure Plan’ was Provisionally Approved by the Minister in June 2002 (vide Map 1). The spatial layout of the proposed development was heavily reliant on the Colombo Port becoming an international shipping centre. The plan based its development strategy on the growth of the port to handle 6.7 million teus by 2015. Consequently, it claimed that "it is necessary to facilitate the Port activities by changing the land use pattern of the City of Colombo and its surrounding areas to accommodate the increasing traffic volumes and by modernising the port facilities and by expansion of the handling capacity of the Port of Colombo".

In the above context, the port of Colombo has clearly become woven into the web of the economy of the Western Province. In turn the latter has made the entire national economy dependent on it by contributing nearly half the Gross Domestic Product. The sensitivity of this nexus acts as the barometer of the nation’s well-being. It is probably for this reason that G. N. Nair wrote in the local press in 1999, ‘the Sethu project will have a devastating impact on Sri Lanka’s economy. The Colombo harbour will lose its importance significantly in terms of revenue". He even prophesised nine months previously, "the judgement day is nearing. It is imperative that the brief be prepared. Any delay in realising the danger may cost the country dearly and heavily and perhaps the global importance of Colombo harbour may be damaged to the extent that it may not be able to be repaired. If so, we will be in darkness at noon forever."

The Sethu project has since evolved into greater focus in the public mind. Its concerns surrounding the Colombo Port have been diluted by some, while others have considered the project as a challenge to be met as in the normal course of competition in a business venture. Thus, Rohan Abeywickrema, a leading personality in Sri Lanka’s shipping industry, and a former President of the Chartered Institute of Transport, has stated that "Sri Lanka seems to have concluded that the Sethu project will have a major impact on the hub-status of the port of Colombo". Accordingly, he has argued that in fact the project has no maritime (commercial) advantage to India.

He has concluded that India’s primary interest in the canal is its geo-strategic importance. On the other hand, the Chairman of the Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents, Capt. A. V. Rajendra, has stated that the Sethu project "is going to be a serious issue and if Colombo does not match the operations it is very likely that Colombo would be relegated to a feeder port". Therefore he has argued that Colombo must fast-track the development of its south port to counter the Sethu project. He has noted that "the Indian dredging project has been targeted for 2008, at which time the Colombo South Harbour project should also be ready, if work commenced by 2006".

A much greater thrust on shipping vocabulary has been expressed by David Soysa, a former Director of Merchant Shipping. "The SS canal will impact Sri Lanka’s transhipment business is not in doubt. Whether it will be a positive or negative impact and to what extent will depend on India’s plans and above all on developments in international shipping services," he said. He has nevertheless concluded that the SS canal impact on Sri Lanka will be profound and above all eternal. "Once built, like the Suez and Panama Canals, it will change forever the face of Sri Lanka shipping like the course of water, international shipping and along with it our destinies in shipping". These words seem to be echoed in the full-page advertisement on the Sethu Canal which appeared in The Hindu Newspaper of 01 November 2004.

It’s authors, (Tuticorin Port Trust and the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India), has described one of the major gains of the Project to be that, "Transshipment of Indian Cargo on foreign shores will gradually decrease and after some time stop altogether".

In these circumstances, a key issue for Sri Lanka’s Urban Planners in the Urban Development Authority, and of the National Physical Planning Department, is to review their options of proposals in the Draft Regional Physical Structure Plan for the Western Province. It is as critical a matter for these Planners, as much as it is for the Port Planners. The two of them will need to work in tandem in the review process. Their assumptions will also need to be reformulated to ensure that long-term gestation of public (or private) investments therein are not being jeopardized. It may even lead to a review of National Physical Planning Policy, because it’s Draft document in its section on "International Perspectives" has stated that, "the outward orientation of the economy had made policy makers alive both to the defensive measures that needed to be adopted in view of the still vulnerable nature of many local economic activities as well as to the potential arising from certain advantages Sri Lanka possessed, especially her favourable geographical location in respect of South & South-East Asia. The former has resulted in Sri Lanka entering into free trade agreements, especially involving countries in the South Asian region. The latter has driven it to exploit its port & air transport potential On the other hand, the Sethu Project may now require the reformulation of the latter.

The complexities of the Sethu Samudra Ship Canal Project thus extends well beyond the Palk Straits/Palk Bay & the Gulf of Mannar. It’s ripple effect could roll much further southwards to the Western Province, & to its Port of Colombo in particular. In the latter, various proposals for development (and therefore for investment), have been made in its Physical Structure Plan on assumptions that were considered irrefutable. The inextricable forward & backward linkages between the Colombo Port & its landward spatial entities makes the dilemma of the Sethu Project more than what meets the eye. It’s domain is inter-disciplinary & cannot hence be properly assessed without the involvement of Physical (or Spatial) Planners whose core area of training is in the art & science of integrated planning of the economic, physical, social & environmental aspects of land. Consequently, they become central to the analysis of the spatial impacts arising from an activity. The Sethu Project is a classic example of same, wherein the strategic element (i.e the Colombo Port), which is fuelling,.’ Development in the spatial area of the Western Province in particular & in the entire country in general, has been called to the test. It is therefore timely & opportune to harness the Spatial Planning Community in both countries to jointly contribute to its currently evolving status. It is timely & opportune to tap their reservoir of specialisation at this historic moment of the two countries. Shipping between Sri Lankan & Indian Ports may then emerge as complementary. It may even be facilitated by factoring the Land Bridge between them.


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