Milking the Southern Expressway


by Prof. Chandima Gomes
Universiti Putra Malaysia

Few years ago Saturday was called the "Fish-day" at my wife’s parent’s home. Early in the morning my father-in-law and brother in-law drive from Dehiwala to St John’s market in Fort to buy fish for the week, not only for them, most often for us as well. Sometimes, when they are busy, we make the trip, in the opposite direction; from Katubedda to "fish lellama" at Modara, Panadura. The trip takes about one hour on the roads although the distance is not that large.

Now I ask them, why not make it the "Galle-day"? Twice the time on road, Rs 800 on toll, a nice family drive, fresh fish. Not worth? Then fill in your boot with fresh vegetables, juggry, honey and curd, dried and salty fish, down south sweets. Not enough? Then look for a new car or buy some furniture. Note that sometimes it takes over an hour to transport a sofa set from Moratumulla to Dehiwala.

Is it worth constructing a 70 billion Rupee highway from Colombo to Gall at this juncture? An issue that we can debate for the next. couple of years. In 2008, while I was having a friendly chat with a Chinese businessman in Kunming, I asked him the secret of China fast becoming a global economic giant.

"We, Chinese are barred from criticizing what government does. This saves us the time, the most precious, for concentrating 100% on our business rather than wasting it on finding what government does. We look for earning whatever we can, from anything that government does, be it brilliance,the mistake or blunder". He was not referring to underhand commissions or any misdeeds in his last sentence; he meant sheer business creativeness.

I have a great respect for China. It has converted a number of semi-scenic beauty in the country into money making machines, yet, the majority of nature’s treasures of China is not known to the external world; except for few top level naturists. As a nation, China knows the art of transferring an ordinary beauty into a pageant queen with the aid of lipstick, powder and paint. They can readily convert a stream on the base of a small hill and a Minus forest patch into an adventure park with the investment of few million dollars. Happy Valley; an arid unfertilized landscape in Beijing, few years ago, is now an amusement park that attracts thousands of visitors a day; a multibillion business. Malaysia is not lagging much behind. Theme, game, water, amusement, entertainment etc. parks, aqua-paradises, adventure, educational, leisure etc. tracks and even horror worlds and scary dungeons are coming up making the country a huge tourist attraction. None of the projects touch the long preserved rain forests, archeologically significant locations or regions that play vital and unique roles in biodiversity.

Thus, marketing the nature’s beauty to earn dollars need not include construction of five star hotels in Sinharaja Forest or playing Laser gimmicks in Sigiriya Fortress.

For me, Southern Highway is not merely a 95 km expressway for which the initial excitement among people will fade away within a couple of months. It may earn bread and butter for many families, with a little bit of thoughtfulness among those who have financial strength.

Why should one need to use this highway? Speed, new experience, comfortable passage! Let’s think a step ahead.

Imagine a huge super economic centre, built close to the Galle end of the highway. Fresh fish from Down South seas, fresh vegetables, fruits and milk products from farmlands in the region. A shopping megarnall, open shopping arcade, car sale, IMAX Cinema hall. Not enough? Then let’s construct Asia’s biggest theme park there. An all-purpose entertainment-marketing city, within short distance from the edge of the highway egress. Soon we may need an overhead highway from the airport to Kottawa.

We need vision and mission to make Southern Expressway a "life style" not only among the 2 million Colombo population, but millions of tourists that may come especially from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh Middle East etc. Let the marketing complex be an essential part of life of the middle class citizens and entertainment complex a reason for foreigners to visit the country; a must-visit place as we advertise here in Malaysia. Soon the benefits will flow into all layers of the society; even to the lowest level.

I was in Uppsala, Sweden for few years, a city which is well known for its overwhelming number of bicycles; numbering thrice over the population. The habit of cycling by her citizens makes Uppsala saving many millions of dollars a year on fuel cost. It also saves the environment while boosting the healthiness of people. Is that all? The habit of cycling earns many thousand families their daily food. Bicycle and spare part manufacturing, selling, servicing, repairing, modifying, delivering etc. Construction and maintenance of cycle paths and parking places provides indirect jobs. Even policemen earn their part by levying fines on those who ride without light in the dark.

A single foresight may lead to multiple rewards for many parties. A business project, whether state owned or private run, should expand beyond the conceptual boundaries, if it is to be a "success". The Southern Expressway will merely be a "completed project" if we let it be as-it is. Let’s maximize the investment on this highway stretch. Let it be a divine cow for the public.

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