Colombo’s challenge

Monday, 3 December 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Colombo is changing so fast, there is almost a daily difference. Yet residents remain largely unaware of the massive plans underfoot that will continue to change the once-familiar city for at least another five years, according to the plans set out by the Government. Despite the obvious enthusiasm, the lack of transparency, engagement, and accountability for the rapid changes continue to raise issues among residents.

It was reported over the weekend that a number of infrastructure development plans are expected to be executed in the metropolitan areas of the city under the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP) that has been recently approved for funding by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development of the World Bank.

The MCUDP will concentrate on three main areas — flood prevention and drainage management, urban development, infrastructure rehabilitation, and capacity building for Colombo local authorities. Work on several projects has been initiated. The project cost will be around US$ 223 million (approximately Rs. 29 billion) and the work expected to be completed by June 2017. The mega project, the report noted, is being implemented with an aim of reducing the physical and socio-economic impacts of flooding and improving the local infrastructure.

Reducing flooding in Colombo, assisting underserved settlements amounting to 68,500, upgrading poor solid-waste management, stopping encroachments, ending unplanned urban regeneration, improving effectiveness of local authorities, and providing public spaces are some areas that the Urban Development Authority is hoping to tackle through this massive project.

Moreover, under the MCUDP around 16 major sub-projects have been planned to address the macro-drainage and flood management issues in Colombo. Road development and other facilities will also be extended to linked urban areas such as Dehiwala and Mt. Lavinia under the project.

When the loan was publicised by the World Bank late last year, it was pointed out that this is the first loan of its kind given by the monetary institution. For the first time in human history, more people are living in towns than villages, setting the stage for a massive development drive to end urban poverty.

As laudable as these plans are, there are still challenges on transparency. One aspect that has received attention is the arbitrary cutting down of ancient trees within the capital, ostensibly to widen roads and prevent drainage clogging, but have irked residents that have strong emotional connections to these shady groves. In fact a residents’ protest was seen last week as Municipal authorities continued to cut down trees with no concern for their aesthetic value.

Large chunks of the city have also been earmarked to be handed over to foreign companies for ‘development projects,’ raising fears that these beloved landmarks will disappear forever. Moreover, there is also concern that these prime properties will be given for a ‘song,’ bringing no benefit to public coffers.

In addition, there is also fear that thousands of poor families will be moved from their homes. This is necessary to clear commercially valuable land, but they should also be safeguarded from being given substandard homes, deprived of their rights, or otherwise politically victimised.

Funding, costs, tender procedures, prioritisation of projects, payment of damages, and mechanism for land acquirement are all a few issues that also need transparency and accountability. If all this is for the benefit of the citizens, then is it not fair that they should have a say?