Colombo is in the throes of change. As the capital of Sri Lanka, it, perhaps more than any other part of the country, will reflect the seismic changes taking place in governance, at least on the development front. The Government’s decision to halt land acquisition for beautification projects in Colombo will also bring mixed results as residents used to a higher standard of upkeep look askance at this move that could well change the pace of development.
Over the last few years Colombo has changed, mostly for the good, residents would agree. But it has come at a cost, particularly for thousands of poor families scattered across underserved settlements, as slums are termed with political correctness. They have seen the land they have lived on, sometimes for generations, taken away. Felt powerlessness as the State, sometimes with soldiers in tow, broke their homes or removed their livelihoods. Many had to accept repayment terms on apartments they could ill afford. Many were the rights sacrificed for the sake of beauty, wrongs the new Government is attempting to put right.
Initiating perhaps the largest policy accountability framework, the Cabinet approved a committee to investigate 68,000 families that had been earmarked to be relocated under the Colombo City Development project carried out under the purview of former Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The committee was appointed by Urban Development Minister Rauff Hakeem and is to make recommendations on addressing oversights as well as expedite payments of compensation.
Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, State Minister Rosy Senanayake and Highways and Investment Promotion Deputy Minister Eran Wickramaratne will form a separate committee which will oversee the committee listening to the grievances of the 68,000 families. Undoubtedly one of the feathers in the cap of the previous Government was the impressive beatification program carried out in Colombo and later expanded to other urban areas. Now with a new administration in power, there are significant questions to grapple with regarding these projects. No doubt the residents of Colombo would like to see more areas of their capital spruced up. But the actions of the previous Defence Ministry, under which the Urban Development Authority (UDA) functioned, have tossed new challenges to their sustainability. Perhaps the main spanner in the works is corruption.
The usefulness, cost estimates and stipulated prices of some UDA and Land Reclamation Board projects bear investigation, the new Government believes, insisting that investigations are needed into these aspects. The budget allocation for Defence and Urban Development was nearly Rs. 290 billion for 2015, an increase from Rs. 253 billion the previous year. However, it is still unclear how much of the 2015 chunk will still be doled out under the new Budget and once a more permanent Cabinet is installed later in the year.
Plans made behind closed doors was a key characteristic of the previous Government, which also brought with it huge challenges on corruption. Now Colombo and its people have a chance to move forward with a more transparent system. Understandably resolving problems of an estimated 68,000 families could well slow down beautification as was previously experienced by the more affluent public. But development of Colombo should ultimately be for all people and as such the poor cannot be left behind.