Big picture: putting the mega development ambitions of Sri Lanka in context

Law and Society Trust


This article is based on the position paper "Reconciling Rights, Responsibilites and Disjunctures: An Assessment of Sri Lanka’s Post-War Development Drive" published by the Law and Society Trust’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Program.

Since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka is assertively seeking to reshape its socio-economic topography in line with its ambitious Ten-Year Development Framework that demands the holistic re-casting of the island as a modern economic and industrial hub.

Sri Lanka announced its plan to launch ‘five hubs + tourism’ concept in 2010 to overhaul the current economic system to leverage its natural resources and geographical upper-hand. The five hubs consist of Maritime, Commercial, Knowledge, Aviation and Energy, in addition to tourism. While the program is promoted with euphoric fervor, specialists question whether the undertaking so much at once would be overwhelming for the government of Sri Lanka and in turn whether such undertaking would lead to unsustainable development ignoring both human and environmental aspects of development.

Referring to the ambitious five+tourism hub concept, "Six could be too much because even one would take immense planning, resources, focus and time", P.S. Tewari pointed out during his address at the forum entitled ‘Five hubs: Fiction or Reality’. Tewari is a Private Sector Development Specialist of the Competitive Industries Practice at the World Bank Group.

This vision for Sri Lanka as the ‘Emerging Wonder of Asia’ has seen to the design and implementation of expansive infrastructure-centred mega development projects. This article examines two such ventures: the extensive remodeling of Hambantota, and the proposed Sampur coal power plant and industrial park. These projects will be considered as examples of two key development strategies adopted by the government of Sri Lanka, namely the creation of specialized economic zones and luxury tourism enclaves. From an economic point of view the outcome of the results are on par with the analysis that Tewari provided.

The current development process carries many policies that are in place to safeguard the rights of the people affected such as the Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP 2001), the National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (NAPPPHR 2005) and the National Policy Framework for Social Integration (NPFSI 2012).

In order to assess the development drive that is projected to have key returns it is important to look at two flagship projects pertaining to the five hubs + tourism concept, i.e:

* The re-invention of Hambantota, as a mega commercial hub in the Southern Province;

* The proposed Sampur coal power plant and industrial park in the Eastern Province;

Hambantota – mega commercial and energy hub

Hambantota has seen accelerated development projects since 2005 described as the ‘nucleus of development in Sri Lanka.’ The region which revolved around the salt and fishing industry has new additions with the hope of revolutionizing its economic structure.

In relation to the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and the Hambantota International Harbour, returns from the enormous investments are yet to fully reveal themselves, with little international interest expressed, even in terms of establishing airline routes, let alone FDIs. Where these mega projects have been presented to the public with great promise, the slow return on investments coupled with the lack of interim measures to mitigate lags in operational and investment aspects, particularly in terms of returns to those who were affected at ground level, must be addressed.

For instance Hambanthota Port Project has displaced over hundred families. The compensation as the residents claim has been inadequate also distributed with irregularity. In addition to this the Port Project was built with the expectation of providing jobs for the locales which has not happened effectively as yet. This consequently results in residents having no livelihood and no access to the land which they used for their cultivations. While over 400 families has been relocated only 200 have resettled due to the remoteness of the land provided. While agricultural land has been provided the lack of deeds for these lands still remain a problem.

Sampur power plant:

An agreement between the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), India to build the coal power plant in Sampur was signed on the 7th of October 2013 and it is expected that the construction which is due to commence in 2014 will be completed by 2017.

Sampur’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) consists of 5,000 acres of land that required hundreds of families to move and relinquish their hereditary ownership. The residents in this case face graver conditions where many of them have lived over seven years in temporary and transit shelters. This state of permanent displacement has resulted in lack of access to drinking water, natural resources for livelihood purposes. As many residents were farmers and fishermen, lack of access in turn results in decrease of living conditions as well as poverty.

A four billion dollar industrial park spearheaded by a Singaporean firm has been confirmed and it is anticipated that this will create 10,000 jobs for local residents upon completion (The Sunday Island, 2013). However, the provision of short to medium term livelihood restoration initiatives for local residents is yet to be determined. Given the nature of the proposed heavy industry focused on iron ore, coking, and the transshipment of coke and thermal power, the inevitably serious implications for the environment, local biodiversity and the health of local residents’ remain ignored. The absence of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mechanism to consider the long-term impact of these investments prior to approving these ventures highlights a serious disjuncture within the existing apparatus.

While alternatives for relocation offered by the Government of Sri Lanka have been met with opposition by the residents of Sampur, the plans remains unchanged and following many years of displacement, they will be compelled to rebuild their lives anew.

Big picture

As Sri Lanka surges forward with development projects, it seems to be leaving behind its low-income citizens who are neither informed nor properly compensated as indicated in research work above. Since Singapore seems to be a model of sorts to Sri Lanka, we should perhaps take their example of evaluating each project at different levels with regard to performance and delivery. Thus, proper planning, transparent policies and honest evaluation seem key in both economic development and human centered approaches towards development. Cross-cutting initiatives that could provide vocational training, for these industries some of which could translate within many industries in the pipeline could also be a starting point for Sri Lanka. As the Sri Lankan public claim livelihood loss such approaches may soften the blow of having to migrate from one lifestyle to another. While many speculate of having to choose either the development or the people, this could not be further from the truth. As pointed out by experts such as Tewari, and executed by countries such as Singapore, Malaysia the disparity between theory and practicality has been bridged with high returns.

Hence, strategies delineated by Tewari on his post on Sri Lanka, could be a clear starting point to assess our existing and proposed development projects in the interest of both public that are affected and the monetary cost that is inflicted by these projects as follows:-:

* Smart design:.

* Coalition between the public and private sector:

* Clear rules and processes, along with transparent execution.

* Coordination at multiple levels

* Accountability and performance measurement

These approaches should help to maximize returns of investments while maintaining social, cultural and economic rights of the public, a win-win situation. It is also important that the development projects are met with such evaluation and scrutiny as we hope to utilize them as a spring-board for launching Sri Lanka into the larger global markets. Hence, we cannot afford to execute partially hatched plans nor can we afford to leave our peoples behind in our race to catch up with the rest of the world. Such haste would only mean regressive development, as opposed to progressive development we wish to see in this country.

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