Will the Western Megapolis be a threat to our national unity?

by Professor Priyan Dias

The day after the LTTE forces capitulated to the Sri Lankan Army in May 2009, the former President addressed the nation and said that the country had averted the threat of separatist terrorism. Sri Lanka had experienced what we call ‘terrorism’ before, but the particular nature of the LTTE’s brand of terrorism was branded as one that sought to divide the country. We have come some way since then, inclusive of electing a new President who appears to be very keen to work towards a new constitution that among other things, will promote greater devolution to the regions. Those opposed to or fearful of this move see once again the bogey of separatism or at least a threat to our unitary status.

What are the biggest threats to national unity? In my opinion the single biggest threat to unity is regional inequality. The JVP insurrections in both 1972 and 1987, although not aimed at separating a part of the country, did in fact find its greatest support from the rather under-developed southern parts of the country. In some ways, the insurrection was aimed at Colombo – and this is captured by the plaintive cry of a Sinhala youth to the Commission on Youth (in 1990) that Colombo enjoyed the good life at the expense of the hinterland, using the pithy Sinhala phrase "Colombata kiri; apata kekiri ."

The northern insurrection was not merely a geographically based one; it certainly arose out of ethnic grievances too. But it is Tamil youth in the north and east of the country – geographically the furthest from the west coast capital of Sri Lanka – that led and sustained the 30 year conflict. There was little if any infrastructure especially in the north for employment generating economic life.

We now have an infrastructure project for a megapolis that will cover the entire western province. The Western Megapolis master plan overview states that this province has only 6% of the land mass, but with 29%of the country’s population and generating 40%of the GD P. The plan seeks to increase the latter two percentages as a strategy for economic growth. The question I want to raise in this article is whether this concentration of growth in a single small province is the best way for us to invest in the future. There are three aspects that I want to highlight.

First we have the regional inequality issue. Even though there may be more citizens living in the western province as a result of this plan, there will still be over half our people in the other provinces. And all our plans to develop Sri Lanka as an ‘attractive destination’ for people and capital from overseas will come to naught if we have another region-based insurrection in the not too distant future, as we had in the past. Do we continue to learn nothing from history? In the recent past, our infrastructure has featured an expressway (to the south) and railway (to the north).

Expensive as these are, in my opinion they contribute to reducing regional inequality, since the two most aggrieved regions are now at least connected to the centre. The megapolis plan I understand is focused on expressways within the Colombo District; no doubt to reduce travel times, but are there not cheaper ways of doing this? Of course there are plans to build more inter-city expressways, as before, and this will improve the connectivity mentioned above.

The other feature of regional inequality even at present is that (greater) Colombo is a primate city. A primate city is one where the population of a single large city dominates that of all other cities. Although this is apparently a feature of post-colonial countries, in my opinion the primacy of Colombo has increased many-fold since independence from the British. Now, for both survival and growth, Sri Lanka will continue to give priority for example to agriculture and tourism, which take place essentially outside the western province; and such activities cannot be orchestrated from a single primate city. There will need to be other major highly ‘livable’ cities that are closer to the agriculture and tourism that are envisaged. If we take a look at some of our neighbours in the region, albeit somewhat larger than us, they too have at least one other fairly large city in addition to the capital – e.g. Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh; Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia; and Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in Vietnam. If we were to choose another city to become comparable to Colombo, what would it be? The previous regime seemed to opt for Hambantota, but you can’t put a large city in an arid zone. Trincomalee has been suggested before. Maybe we should even target two or three cleverly distributed cities to be significantly developed. Whatever it is, before ‘putting all our eggs’ in Colombo and the western province, the government needs to heed town planners – and I am not of that breed.

I am however an engineer, and one of the key issues in engineering is that of resilience, which has been defined by the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks (2013) report as "the capability to (1) adapt to changing contexts, (2) withstand sudden shocks, and (3) recover to a desired equilibrium, either the previous one or a new one, while preserving the continuity of its operations." Robustness and (especially) redundancy are some of the key factors for increasing resilience. Having a single primate city will certainly not deliver redundancy. A sudden shock that we experienced a decade ago was the 2004 tsunami, which wiped out most of the infrastructure in the economically important south west coastline; now that we have an expressway in the hinterland, there is some redundancy built in. It may be that the devolved development that is planned within the entire western province will create some redundancy by reducing the primacy of Colombo within that province – but that is still just 6%of the country’s landmass, and located very close to India, where we have no control of what will happen in the future – ranging from fishing in the Palk Strait to the performance of the nuclear plant at Kudankulam (at her southern tip). And what if the western province is affected by a fairly large earthquake, as thought to have occurred in 1615; or even just threatened by gradual sea level rise? It would be wise to develop another strategically placed city geographically separated and different from Colombo.

The final issue is that of incremental progress. We need to be careful that we do not unnecessarily commit resources to projects that cannot be reversed. Will the six lane highways in Hambantota ever be used? Would they have been, even without regime change? There is a principle in heritage conservation that advises restorers to do nothing that cannot be reversed. Clearly this cannot apply fully when building new infrastructure, but the principle can be approximated wherever possible. For example, it will not be easy to reverse elevated expressways built to ease traffic congestion; whereas a bus lane in a bus rapid transport scheme (advocated by some) can. (This is just one example for incremental development that also respects the conservation principle above). What is planned for the megapolis is many times more than the Hambantota project. And the consultative process, especially with relevant Sri Lankan professionals, has been scant. The speed at which the plans seem to be unfolding is also worrying.

I have no wish to de-rail infrastructure development. This is the time in our country’s history when we need it. We must however do so carefully and strategically, with wide consultation; because if we get it wrong, what we do today will adversely influence generations to come – whether in the form of underutilized infrastructure facilities or even just crippling debt repayment. (Although the author takes full responsibility for the views expressed herein, he wishes to acknowledge comments from various colleagues, including Dr Locana Gunaratna, about different parts of this article.)

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