Policing Megapolis

Friday, 6 May 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This week, the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce warned the Government against making the same mistakes made by other South Asian cities, when it goes ahead with its planned Megapolis project. He pointed out that Sri Lanka has the opportunity to do things sustainably with the right planning.

His was the latest in an ever-increasing list of foreboding voices when it comes to the ambitious development plan for the Western Province; copious amounts of newspaper real estate has been spent in urging the Government to undertake due diligence with regard to the project. Yet, the notion persists that this Government, like the last, is failing in this regard. But, why?

Leaving aside the country’s still vulnerable political state, there is also the issue of its poor record when it comes to completed projects, as well as question marks surrounding the financing of the project. Sri Lanka is currently in a subpar state economically and a project expected to take 15 years to complete and cost in the region of $ 40 billion, needs a clear-cut plan with regard to funding.

That plan as it stands seems to be increasing value-added tax and reintroducing a capital gains tax, while there is also a potential $ 1.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in the offing. However, if the Government is to mire the country further in debt for the sake of development, it needs to ensure that the development projects offer value for money to all stakeholders.

Even with the expectations of attracting a mammoth investment, the project is still significantly short on specific principles, goals and data to understand just what will be accomplished by it.

Officials have also 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. There are also disturbing reports of the Government considering mass-relocation of vulnerable communities that harkens back to steps taken by the Rajapaksa regime.

Admittedly, local government, municipalities and Pradeshiya Sabhas 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 beautification programs without participatory involvement from stakeholders including the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) and people living in the city have suffered due to these decisions.

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.

Completing and following through with projects that provide practical value to the masses is something all governments of various hues have 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.