The Megapolisation of Colombo:Is a compromise on Port City achievable?


by Rajan Philips

It is now official. What began incrementally is now a full scale launch of the Western Megapolis Masterplan project. When completed, fifteen years from now as is being planned and promised, Sri Lanka will have its own Singapore in the Western Province, with the old City of Colombo as the hub for a cluster of satellite cities: the Administrative City (in Kaduwela, Kadawtha, Kottawa); the Aero City (Katunayake-Minuwangoda); the Forest City (Kalutara); Tech City (Malabe-Homagama); Tourism Cities (Negombo-Maggona); and Industrial Cities (Horana and Mirigama). Out-shining all of them will be Lanka’s one and only off-shore marvel: the Port City. Put another way, the government is launching a city of cities with Port City triumphantly in tow. To shift metaphors, what was reviled as a Rajapaksa white elephant and promised to be jettisoned in January, 2015, is now back as the arrogant green elephant.

The Port City will be "streamlined and integrated" into a new Megapolis. That is now the planning mantra – to sanitize a political betrayal; and to license what was once deemed plain illegal, ultra vires our sovereignty, and a gross offence to our maritime environment. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe gave a clever clue while taking another flight of visioning at the Colombo Stock Exchange. Making the keynote address at the 30th anniversary celebration of the CSE, the Prime Minister casually let on that "there will be some landfills shortly" at the Port City site, before habitually envisioning that the Port City "could become the making of our special business and financial district which will be unique in South Asia." By now, everyone should know that Mr.Wickremesinghe is as stubborn as the northern star. His Will be done on the Port City as it was in the Central Bank.

The Central Bank scandal and the Port City reversal are on a list of ten betrayals that is being circulated by disillusioned yahapalanaya supporters who are now in a dilemma. They can neither stop the government that they worked hard to get elected from going back on its promises, nor can they campaign to throw out the government so soon after the two elections that came and went eight months apart. But between disarming the government and defeating it, the supporters of good governance have a range of options to force the government back on good governance track. To do so would be to keep democracy alive and working between elections. To the extent democracy is a compromise between competing interests and contending forces, a fair compromise on the Port City might be to neither totally abandon it nor to fully implement the way it was scoped under the Rajapaksa government. So what could be the in-between compromise?

Port City compromise: Small is safe

From an environmental standpoint, the ideal would be no Port City, or in EA (Environmental Assessment) parlance "Do Nothing." But there cannot be civilization without land development, and in our age of Climate Change the emphasis is on sustainable development with adequate mitigation of environmental effects. By any standard, however, the Port City development in its current form without any cost-benefit analysis and supported by a sham of an environmental assessment should never have been allowed to get underway. "To sink or swim with the Port City?" was the title question of Engineer Channa Fernando’s Sunday Times article on April 5, 2015. My short answer would be to sink it alone if it would be possible. But the government cannot sink the Port City without going down with it for the most part, thanks to the deal out of hell that Mahinda Rajapaksa signed with the Chinese. Not to mention the present government’s own IOUs to forces with vested interests in the Port City. On the other hand, if the government has no alternative but to swim with the Port City, why not the government downsize the project and make it floatable without being dragged down by its currently bloated size?

The credit, if any, for the original Port City idea belongs not to Mahinda Rajapaksa, but Ranil Wickremesinghe and the first (2004) version of the current Megapolis Plan. As also noted in Channa Fernando’s article, the 2004 Plan envisaged the creation of a Port City by (a) reclaiming and developing a small off-shore area already impacted by South Harbour breakwater construction; and (b) undertaking it in a more mature phase of the Megapolis Plan and following a comprehensive study, when property market prices would be high enough to afford the cost of reclamation and development. About 80 hectares (200 acres) were identified as impacted area due to harbour construction and reclaimable for urban development. According to Mr. Fernando’s article, senior technical professionals "in their individual capacities" had carried out "an initial Technical Pre-Feasibility Study" for the reclamation of the 80 ha parcel.

Thanks to the confluence of Mahinda’s magic (or madness) and Chinese money, the 80 ha Port City took a life of its own, was cut loose from the Megapolis Plan as an independent project, and was bloated in stages to 120 ha (300 acres), 233 ha (575 acres) and finally to the current footprint of 485 ha (1,200 acres). A whopping 15-fold expansion without any justification or supporting analyses and studies! It is quite possible that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not made aware of the original concept by whomever who lobbied to get the deal signed and the approvals granted. On the other hand, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is fully aware of the grotesque bloating of the Port City and the way it jumped the gun ahead of the Megapolis Plan. He even wrote a long Sunday Times article on the subject four years ago ("Colombo is Colombo", Sunday Times, September 25, 2011) during the Colombo municipal election. He was then Leader of the Opposition when the future was uncertain. Now entrenched in power and calling all the shots in development and economic matters, the least that Mr. Wickremesinghe could do for the sake of good governance and for the country would be to negotiate a new deal with the Chinese that would see Port City start small and expand in stages subject to continuous monitoring of impacts and the feasibility of mitigations.

"Long term planning and short term implementation" is one of Charles Lindblom’s (the man who coined the phrase "muddling through" to technically describe the working of government bureaucracy) memorable policy advices and one that is very appropriate to environmental mitigation of development projects. In large scale developments with long term consequences uncertain, not to mention unintended consequences, it would be prudent to start on a small scale in the short term. That would give time to monitor the impacts of the development and assess more properly the feasibility of expanding further. 80 hectares might seem insulting to the Chinese developer, who through no fault of his own has been promised 485 hectares. With more analyses the starting footprint could be increased, perhaps doubled at most as a fair starting compromise between the developer’s profit and the country’s concerns. Such an approach would also lend itself more favourably in judicial appeals, as in the court case for injunctions launched by the Centre for Environmental Justice.

To sweeten the downsizing and satisfy the developer, the Prime Minister could dangle other carrots. The unfolding of the Megapolis Plan and its implementation will create several more development and investment opportunities for Chinese and others. Where Sri Lanka needs foreign money and help more urgently than in land reclamation, is in developing a mass transportation system for Colombo and in upgrading its underground services now in terrible disrepair. Without these two anchors any fancy spatial planning will be no more than pretty pictures and portable models. And if the Chinese could be coaxed into taking on some of these landside challenges instead of dumping tons of scarce rock and precious river sand into the sea, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would make himself fully worth the weight of every stubborn bone in his body.


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