City of universities; my lost dream in Sri Lanka


by Prof. Chandima Gomes
Head, Centre for Electromagnetic and Lightning Protection Research
Universiti Putra, Malaysia

Cycling from university home through the woods, on a breezy and colourful day in September 1995, in Uppsala Sweden, I was wondering when I could do the same in Sri Lanka; I mean, cycling through a City of University.

Since then I drew up a plan; a mega plan of developing a City of Universities in a beautiful landscape. At that time I did not have the least idea of leaving Sri Lanka for good. Thus, I built up my dream city in Sri Lanka. Just to start with, I thought of the forest patch north of Lunugamvehera reservoir. Then I designed everything for my dream city; from buildings to cycle paths. During the 15 year period from 1995-2010 I visited over 30 countries and on every visit I collected something fruitful from each region and added that into my dream city.

By 2010, I completed the conceptual plan of the City of Universities. However, before I could even self-enjoy my dream, I realized that Sri Lanka is not ready at all for this project. How can one propose a multi-university township in a country where even the phrase "private university" may trigger mass protests, general strikes and even threats of committing suicide?

In the present context, we have no time to waste wrestling over a concept that is well accepted in almost every country other than Sri Lanka. Thus, I had no option but to pack my dream and just witness even countries like Bangladesh racing towards success in the education industry while Sri Lanka is struggling to define words and phrases.

In 2011, in Kathmandu, I met a top brass officer from an African nation with whom I casually discussed this idea over a cup of tea. He was highly excited and asked me to provide him a one-page concept paper. To make a long story short; in February 2013 we will initiate this project in a picturesque landscape in Africa at the foot of snow-capped mountains, with the fullest patronage of the state.

Today, while revisiting my dream in a lazy nap, I thought of inking my plan, that I developed for Sri Lanka for 15 long years, so that one day, someone may be courageous enough to give it serious thought.

A good practice of late Ranasinghe Premada was to baptise any project that comes to his mind with a suitable name even before a line is drawn in that regard. I always used to follow this practice. Thus, first of all I gave my project the name "City of Universities".

Simply the idea was to invite five world class universities to establish their institutions; call it a branch or a campus; in a suitable area in Sri Lanka. The sixth university will be developed by the funding of local and foreign investors with government pumping sizable seed money. This will be a private-state ventured new university in Sri Lanka.

These universities will be built in a new township with all facilities available in any European city, thus, it will be a standalone country within a country. A mechanism is proposed to make it a duty free region, such as, Lankavi resort in Malaysia. The whole idea was to attract students and intellectuals from any part of the world who will enjoy the best luxuries available in Europe or USA at a cost much less than what they spend in those countries.

The universities will be provided with a centralized library, student and staff quarters and a teaching hospital which can be accessed by all universities. A school that offers both international and national curricula is also a need.

To attract scholars from all corners of the world the library could be built as one of the biggest in the world. I proposed a new library concept which I baptised as "Live lib". The idea is to collect several millions of plants, insects, minerals, metals etc,so that when someone is reading on the Brazilian Lily, for instance, he can go to the plant itself and get firsthand experience; may be riding a segway. Such collections may not be possible within couple of years; however, once it is initiated we may get many investors and scholars to use the facility.

To give a chance to local students who cannot afford, I proposed signing an agreement with five foreign universities to provide a 10% quota to local students with partial scholarships. The rest of the expenses of those students could be borne by the government. For the sixth university this quota could be increased to 30%-40%.

To make the city live and also for it to earn its income, I proposed a water theme park and adventure/ amusement park in the vicinity of the lake. Again, going beyond the themes of today’s such parks we can construct a glass hotel in the lake, thus, one can experience the deep lake life while having a coffee in the bedroom. For the project in Africa, I am proposing a caged hotel where animals can visit and watch human beings drinking coffee and staring at them with big wide eyes, just few feet away from them.

To cater the needs of the citizens, a gigantic megamall and a five star hotel are proposed at the city centre. Let’s make even the oddest item in a European mall available there. With cinema halls, opera halls, amphitheatres, art galleries etc. are available there; even locals will flock in masses in the city.

A landscape of about 10,000 hectares; a flat land, possibly bound by a lake from a side was needed to be selected. I just thought of the forest area to the north of Lunugamvehera reservoir with Rathmal Weva in the middle as shown in the diagram. This is a thinly populated forest patch at the moment.

To minimize the environmental effects and cut down fuel cost, a comprehensive cycle path and walkway systems were planned. With heavy parking fees for cars and free parking space for bicycles, one could easily induce the bicycle-culture in the COU. Discounts could also be given for students when they buy bicycles. Year long summers and less rain (than in wet zone) in this area is another blessing for promoting the cycle culture.

A nearby airport and a sea port were important needs for the project. By the time I developed the concept, those were just dreams. But today there is an airport within easy reach to the proposed COU (Mattala airport) and within few tens of kilometres one can reach Hambanthota port. Highways could be implemented from the COU to both ports as well as to other major cities.

In Africa, we are planning a free trade industrial zone back to back with COU. Apart from developing industries, the main focus of this industrial zone is to establish university-industry links.

There were many more features in my dream. Even proper usage (not disposal) of garbage, energy generation for the city by sewage, distributed generation of electricity by various alternative sources, generation and multiplication of jobs for the citizens etc. were in the plan. COU is a country within a country which benefits the entire country.

I am happy that my dream will be coming true somewhere in the world, but I could have been happier if….

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