MEGACITIES: Lessons and Challenges for Sri Lanka


Dr. Loci Gunaratna delivering address

Dr Locana Gunaratna, Architect/Urban Planner and former president of the National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka, also of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects among other positions held, presented a lecture of immediacy and importance at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute on October 15. He titled his address: URBANIZATION AND MEGACITIES IN SOUTH ASIA: Lessons and Challenges for Sri Lanka. The lecture was organized by the National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Economic Association and the Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka. The hall was full with many academics, scientists, planners, architects, students, and members of the general public. The chief guest was Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, Minister for Megapolis and Western Region Development, who stayed attentively throughout the lecture but unfortunately had to leave before the discussion session was concluded.

The lecture was most interesting, even to those who attended having only a layman’s knowledge of the subject. The relevance of the topic needs no emphasizing. Dr Gunaratna mentioned that unlike in many other cities of South Asia, Colombo fortunately has not had a large and prolonged influx of rural migrations from villages. For this he paid tribute to the political leaders of the 1930s for the impetus they gave to irrigation and re-settlement of the dry zone, domestic food production and rural development through free education and preventive health care. The early dry zone colonization scheme in Kottukachchiya near Anamaduwa (1940s) and the Senanayake Samudra in Gal Oya (1950s) came to mind.

I quote an excerpt from Dr Gunaratna’s address which I requested and received:

"The last quarter of the Twentieth Century brought into prominence three important global realities. The first was about the severity and worsening state of the earth’s bio-physical environment. The second concerned a process which is now generally referred to as ‘globalization’. The third reality had to do with the rapidity of urbanization currently taking place with particular intensity in the Third World Countries (TWCs). Thus it has come about that current and future development work in these countries should take cognizance of these realities. Most of the TWCs have little control over the first two realities.

"The scale and pace of current urbanization is recognized as being unprecedented in human history. Urbanization and its consequences are most prominently manifest today in the TWCs. The Global Network of Science Academies recently placed population growth coupled with unplanned urbanization among the ten most serious global concerns. That important apex body of worldwide scientific institutions identified the necessity to develop and implement urban planning policies that internalize consumption needs and demographic trends to reap the benefits of sustainable urban living."

Dr Gunaratna stated that in 2011 there were 23 very large cities worldwide, each with more than 10 million people. Asia had 12 with South Asia alone having five of these ‘megacities’. Three of them were in India, one in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh. The South Asian total, he said, is predicted to increase from five to eight megacities by 2025 (UN, 2012). He presented a table which clearly showed that the rate of urbanization was much less in Sri Lanka than in the rest of the South Asian countries. He emphasized that:

"… all megacities in the Third World have very high rural-urban migrations. They are consequently infested with massive, unhygienic slums and shanties giving rise to unmanageable social and environmental problems.

"Inter-urban configurations especially in many of the smaller TWCs were formed in response to the needs of their respective colonial economies. They are seen today as being peculiar in two ways: the predominance of a single ‘Primate City’ over all other urban places; and, the highly skewed pattern of their respective inter-urban configurations. In these respects, Sri Lanka is typical of such TWCs. Post-colonial development efforts, even if effective in generating high economic growth, but are made within the framework of such colonially derived spatial structures, will benefit mainly the urban elites based in the respective Primate Cities. They will surely accentuate income inequalities across the respective countries.

"Readjusting a distorted inter-urban spatial structure towards current development, needs mainly the creation of small and mid-sized towns in carefully selected locations relevant to post-colonial development strategies. If the old inter-urban spatial structures are not re-adjusted to respond to the new development thrusts and those efforts are focused only on the respective Primate Cities, rural-urban migration will be exacerbated. Thus, already prevalent income disparities across these countries will be accentuated and the formation and consolidation of slums and shanties will inevitably result. They will become an increasing part of the built environment of Primate Cities. Such happenings are clearly evident in most TWCs. Continued growth in this manner with mounting adverse environmental consequences can then give rise to diseconomies of scale resulting even in the flight of investments needed to drive further growth."

Better city planning

We have read in the past about plans for easing the congestion in the cities of Colombo and Kandy, though the latter, surrounded by hills as it is, is constricted. We remember the plan for ‘decentralizing’ Colombo and the action taken to move government buildings and offices to the Kotte area. These efforts included building the new Parliament in the Diyawanna Oya, the construction of ‘Sethsiripaya’ Stages 1 and 2 to house many government offices, the relocation of the Education Ministry, the Central Environmental Authority and others all now established in and around Battaramulla, although some government offices are still in their old sites in Colombo.

Dr Gunaratna said that during the past seven decades i.e. since the late 1940s, three comprehensive plans were prepared for the Colombo region. The Gal Oya multipurpose project took precedence over the first. The acceleration of the Mahaweli Project commenced in 1978 which telescoped a 35 year project to six, took precedence over the second. Then general elections and a change of government intervened and the third plan for the Colombo region was also not implemented. Thus all three of those planning efforts were each superseded, one by one, with the passage of time. He said therefore that: "A new plan for the Colombo Region especially with political will behind it, as appears to be the case today, is most welcome."

He mentioned in his presentation that: "An important conclusion to be drawn is that the impact upon TWCs of the on-going globalization and popularization of scientific developments and technological innovations particularly in ICT needs to be recognized. These are surely altering the prevalent spatial landscapes of industrialization in the West. Thus, it must be expected that the spatial landscapes of most TWCs and certainly those of the South Asian countries will need to be very different from those that emerged with 19th Century industrialization and urbanization in the West".

Importance of ICT

Dr Gunaratna has stressed before in lectures and through his writings that information and communication technology (ICT) should be harnessed in a major way to ease first of all the congestion of the city by office workers commuting daily even from great distances. In outsourcing work and decentralizing some offices lies a possible answer in the case of government and business establishments. Schools with much better facilities should be urgently set up in mid-sized towns so most children do not strive to enter the so-called "National Schools" in Colombo and with those that are successful having thereafter to travel in and out of Colombo daily. It would seem to us as laymen that it is not impossible to greatly relieve the resulting congestion since many schools further afield could be developed to be AI Grade schools. If you remember, in the 1940s and 1950s Central Schools were instituted in many Districts such as Nugawela Central, Kekirawa Central and Tholangamuwa Central in which students shone both academically and in sports. What has become of these schools?

Dr Gunaratna’s address also touched on theories of urban development among which some he says have been found to be faulty and some others which he highlighted as being far more relevant for Sri Lanka to adopt and utilize to place the country firmly in the path to development. He stated further that despite the initial advantage enjoyed by Colombo of there being much less rural migration directed to it than elsewhere in South Asia, slum and shanty dwellers already constituted over 50% of the population of Colombo. The city could ultimately suffer the woes of other megacities like Mumbai, Kolkata or Dhaka unless precautions are taken. Three special precautions he recommended were: that planning and implementation work should be backed by scientific knowledge rather than being based upon utopian visions; that this work should carefully avoid irrelevant concepts and theories found to be faulty; and, that the entire exercise should be executed within the ambit of an environmentally predicated national spatial policy. The latter he says is something that most TWCs do not have.

He ended his talk on an optimistic note on the proposed planning for developing the Colombo region but cautioned that: "Finally for ultimate success, it is necessary that we ourselves should deliberate, define and decide upon the national policy framework that should govern all aspects of this very special development effort."

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