Any government concerned with sustainable development needs to reach out to experts to formulate progressive policies that are best suited to the country and the people it intends to serve. On the surface, this would be the premise behind the Government planning to seek expertise from a range of economists including those trained by Harvard, as recently explained by Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva.
However, there is concern that the said expertise will not be consistently integrated into development plans and will not stem from people who are familiar with the Sri Lankan situation. Take for example the planned Megapolis project. True, it incorporates a few local professors but it has so far failed to integrate local government bodies and municipalities, which as democratically-elected bodies have a right to participate in a mass-scale project that will directly affect the quality of life.
Admittedly, local government, municipalities and Pradeshya Sabas are bureaucratic encumbrances that will provide significant challenges for the Megapolis project, but Sri Lanka has had bad experiences in the past where the previous government instigated beatification programs without participatory involvement from stakeholders including the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) and people living in the city have suffered due to these decisions. Therefore, in the current effort, a huge amount of capacity building has to be given to local government authorities to equip them to be participants in the effort to make the Western Province a more liveable region.
Expertise is clearly key in this endeavour and the Government already has a significant number of professionals and intellectuals with a deep understanding of urban planning and what needs to be done to immediately to improve the difficulties faced by the people. Yet the Government without giving them sufficient hearing are seeking expertise from other sources. Even the public participation programs that have been held on the Megapolis have been limited to Colombo and have not reached the thousands of people who are an integral part of the enterprise.
Another point is that, while expertise is important, it must be used with specific goals in view. Buzz words such as a “smart city” or “green city” means nothing unless they are articulated in specific goals. The Megapolis has to identify what it actually wants to achieve. Is it to reduce per capita consumption of water, have 60% of families living 30 minutes from schools or having a percentage of green cover for every dozen people? These goals have to be identified and they have to be principle based.
Principles should ideally be based on equitable development. According to Urban Development Authority (UDA) records, about 68,000 families living in Colombo are below the poverty line. This makes for nearly 50% of the estimated 750,000-800,000 residents in the city. Yet they only occupy about 10% of the land of the city and moving them out would not just be difficult, it would be a huge deprivation of their rights and would deprive Colombo a chance to truly showcase its commitment to being a city without poverty.
Experts are easy to get but using them in a way that provides practical value to the masses is something all governments of various hues has struggled with. The Megapolis has the opportunity to take time and ensure its proposals are sensible, well researched and solve the problems of everyone. If not, it runs the danger of becoming another expensive venture that only makes the rich richer.