Mirissa and illegal construction

Monday, 14 May 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The recent removal of illegal constructions along Mirissa beach received much attention as the Government and industry gathered together to protect the tourism industry and support its service standards. However, the scourge of illegal construction continues to be a challenge across other segments of society. 

In 2017, after terrible floods, the Government came forward with plans to demolish thousands of illegal buildings around the country. The decision was also prompted by the collapse of several buildings with the most memorable being the multi-storey building in Wellawatte where it emerged that many of the permits had not been obtained. A year later many of those buildings earmarked for removal remain as they were and will likely be forgotten till the next disaster. 

The Mirissa situation demonstrated illegal construction is a serious problem for different reasons and it needs to be tackled comprehensively around the country to protect the environment, people’s personal spaces and provide better living standards. Yet weak implementation has made this all but impossible. With the exception of intervention in Mirissa, the authorities have been reluctant to tackle illegal construction in a comprehensive manner because of the serious issues that would result from such a move. 

It is no secret that construction approvals are often obtained through bribes, even when plans are completely above board and are in line with the law. Even honest homebuilders who have every intention of doing everything by the book are forced to pay bribes as otherwise they would face ridiculous delays. Few if any people have the patience to fight a system that has turned against honest people and the result is that public officials typically get away with serious illegal activities. 

Tackling this sort of corruption is understandably extremely difficult because it means that the Government would have to switch from focusing on specific incidents to changing the entire system. As the system has been around for a long time it has become more convoluted with each passing decade. Given the complexity of tackling governance at the grassroots level it would require colossal planning, resources and implementation to achieve. 

Sri Lanka has failed to show significant improvement in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2017, released by Transparency International, the global movement against corruption. Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), the local chapter of the global movement, is concerned by the fact that Sri Lanka’s current CPI score of 38 is the same score that prevailed in 2014. Sri Lanka has failed to show any significant progress in its CPI score year on year for the past five years – an increase or decrease of six points or more represents a significant change.

The report, released earlier this year, observed that despite Government efforts to strengthen anti-corruption institutions the anti-corruption drive has limited momentum. Citizens still face corruption when trying to avail themselves of essential public services, ranging from waste collection to school enrolment. 

Therefore, the limited change in the perception of public sector corruption (CPI) reflects the limited change experienced by people in their everyday encounters with the State. This is precisely why illegal construction will continue to remain an issue in Sri Lanka. Small changes at the bottom of the public system would do much to reinforce faith.