Look for the leap

Wednesday, 7 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CITIES are the engine of economic growth – and infrastructure development is the fuel for that engine. Connecting cities, especially when they are on opposite sides of the country, can be an expensive and time-consuming effort as Sri Lanka’s development of highways has shown. While connectivity can foster economic growth, there is also the need to ensure that it is done at maximum efficiency and with minimum impact on the environment. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has requested that the work on the Northern Expressway be expedited when he met with a delegation from the China Merchants Group (CMG) headed by the company President, Li Jianhong. The highway was originally targeted for completion in 2016 and will cost at least US$ 1.5 billion. While infrastructure development is proven to boost economic growth, it must be done at a sustainable level. Cabinet decided last month that the construction of the first 100 km of Northern Expressway will be awarded to two Chinese companies, China Merchant Holdings and China Merchant Huajin Investment Company. The consultancy contract was awarded in December 2012, to an Australian consultant to study the feasibility and prepare bid documents for the construction of Northern Expressway. The highway will be done under a Build-Own-Transfer (BOT) process but the exact details of the transition are yet to be comprehensively revealed to the public. However, experts, including a Daily FT columnist, have pointed out that the planning has several shortcomings with tracings for the highway not corresponding to the terrain. Areas with weak soil, for example, have not been clearly studied, while inaccurate maps have been used for others. There are also allegations that loopholes within the contract could result in the plan being changed to profit the construction company, similar to what happened with the Southern Expressway, which would be a loss to the taxpayer. There are also environmental and social concerns since large tracts of paddy fields will be taken over for the Northern Expressway. This means that massive amounts of stones and soil will have to be blasted or dug up and transported from long distances, which would affect the environment in addition to driving up costs. Paying of compensation to those who will lose property and other assets is also a cost driving issue. Last month villagers of Walpola and Batuwatta protested, interrupting the Colombo-Kandy railway line and the main road, burning tyres, shouting slogans, demanding the Northern Expressway not be planned to run through their villages, thereby disturbing the social links of the people and endangering the traditional environment. The protest dispersed only after Minister Felix Perera assured to protect the Walpola and Batuwatta villagers from the anticipated damages. This is a dangerous trend as other communities could also do the same. Analysts have pointed out that as much as 71% of the original tracing done for the Southern Expressway had to be changed. Finding a balance between development and people’s needs will be one of the toughest challenges to overcome. Parliament was told recently that since 2005 the Chinese Government has lent US$3.16 billion for 42 development projects. With costs escalating, paying back debts must also receive pragmatic attention. With much preparation left to do it would be premature to fast-track the Northern Expressway.