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Port City Confusion and Uma Oya Cockup: Challenges to good governance

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Port City Confusion and Uma Oya Cockup: Challenges to good governance
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The latest news on the Port City and Uma Oya projects is that the government has "automatically stopped" the former, but only after some dithering, and "suspended" the latter until further review. While Port City has been all over the news, the Uma Oya project is another screw-up from the Old Regime that deserves no less scrutiny. The new government is still finding its way in clearing the old Rajapaksa decks and setting up its own stage for good governance. Or, is it? Ministers running around like headless chickens, and cackling at cross-purposes, is not an encouraging sign of good governance. The corruption of the Old Regime must be exposed and dealt with, but the new government must also demonstrate competence not only in dealing with the misdeeds of the Old Regime, but also in replacing them with good deeds of its own. People’s patience can end abruptly and their frustrations can flare up alarmingly, now that they have tasted the power to bring down what, until two months ago, was considered to be an irremovable government. Talking about regime screw-ups, I need to digress to insert here a sentence, and no more than a (long) sentence is needed, to dismiss Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s recent claim to his ‘irreplaceability’. GR was not a "government servant", as he now seems to describe his role in his brother’s regime, but a political appointee who exercised government power over and above any and all ‘government servants’, and he should be judged not by his claim to what he thinks to be his unmatchable attributes, namely, "hard work, commitment and vision", but by his qualification and competence to undertake the responsibilities that he so highhandedly assumed and he so powerfully discharged after 2009, by the degree of conformance his actions had with established norms and practices of government that real ‘government servants’ could deviate from only at the peril of losing their jobs, and by the evaluation of the intended and unintended consequences of his actions in terms of public costs including lost opportunity costs, benefits, and (mis)allocation of resources. Be that as it may.

Is the Port City in, or, out? It depends! Not on the merits or demerits of the project, but on which Minister happens to be the government talker for the day. That’s the way it has been for days and weeks, until last Thursday when the "acting Cabinet Spokesman", Lakshman Kiriella, declared the project "automatically stopped" until further revisiting and renegotiation of the project to the "mutual consent of both China and Sri Lanka." If the stoppage could be automatic now, where was the need for so much dithering and conflicting statements by half a dozen ministers? In opposition, the UNP was more opposed to Port City than it was opposed to the impeachment of Chief Justice Shiranee Bandaranayake. During the December election campaign the Port City development was held up by the opposition as an example of the sweetheart deals over land and property development in Colombo that the Rajapaksa regime was getting into with state sponsored Chinese companies and Indian developers. The project is in clear contravention of the last five commitments (#96 to #100) of the Maithri Manifesto. Why then the confusion? Why the hesitation?

It may be that the UNP is not intrinsically opposed to any of the Colombo urban development projects initiated by the Rajapksas, including the Port City project, but only to the bull-in-a-China shop (no offence to the Asian superpower) way that the Rajapaksas were going about them? Put another way, these development projects might be acceptable to the UNP so long as they are undertaken without the terrible Rajapaksa flaws of single-source contracting, corruption, cost-overruns, and less-than-satisfactory or total lack of environmental assessments. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is quite proud of the "Western Region’s Megapolis Plan" that he created in 2003 with assistance from Singaporean professionals, and might be favourable to development projects so long as they are consistent with his Megapolis Plan. The PM’s new appointee to the Central Bank, Arjuna Mahendran, spoke of this plan and the Prime Minister’s passion for it in a newspaper interview following his appointment as Governor. Mr. Mahendran went on to speak of China’s great expertise in building new cities, whatever it means. What this means for Sri Lanka, I do not know. What I do know is that good governance should not merely mean that Gotabhaya idiosyncrasies have given way to Ranil Wickremasinghe idiosyncrasies, no matter how superior the latter might be to the former.

In the case of projects such as the Port City involving land reclamation, detailed engineering studies on drainage and coastal erosion impacts must precede any environmental assessment or decision making. Sri Lankan coastline is erosion-prone and coastal tinkering should not be allowed without proper investigation. After the tsunami, the fishermen were not allowed to build anything anywhere on the beaches, but there is no stopping of tourist encroachments on the coastline, not to mention a whole Chinese Port City. When senior government leaders and central bank governors speak preferentially about development models, they prematurely set the terms of reference for other technical studies. That is to say after a President or Prime Minister has spoken glowingly about potential development or infrastructure projects sponsored by local or foreign vested interests, it would be almost impossible for planners and engineers to objectively identify and evaluate the pros and cons of projects for informed decision making. Instead, technical professionals will be constrained to lend support to whatever has been politically decided. Even the terms of reference for the environmental assessment will be skewed to fall in line with the political direction. The main motivation would be to ‘make it work’, rather than ask searching questions about the project. The challenge in public sector undertakings is not about making things work, but about avoiding second best and third rate solutions. Will the new government handle the Port City project different from its predecessor? That is the question.

In general terms, urban development in Sri Lanka cannot be modelled on Singapore because Sri Lanka is a great deal more and varied than the Singaporean city state. On the other hand, on the scale of China the whole island can be a single megapolis! Sri Lanka’s urban development should be creatively guided by its own geographical, cultural and demographic specificities, and implemented not by President’s or Prime Minister’s offices but by the provincial governments and municipal authorities. The country should not embark on projects that are unaffordable, and while Colombo should get its due share of resources as the country’s biggest city, it should not suck development oxygen out of other provincial cities. In my view, none of the mega development projects so far identified in Colombo will pass the tests of need, affordability and infrastructure capacity. Priority should be another consideration because any government must ask itself whether it is acceptable to allocate public resources to support luxury private developments in Colombo when the vast majority of the people have no access to running water and decent sanitary facilities. And the State, at the national, provincial and local levels, must not get itself off the hook by leaving the task of providing water supply entirely to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

The Uma Oya project is a classic instance of political considerations and bilateral (Iranian-Sri Lankan) funding convenience dictating engineering decision making. In a rare public commentary on the project at the time of its ceremonial inauguration, in April 2008, by then Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, GT Dharmasena, a former Director General of Irrigation, extensively outlined a number of technical issues that had emerged during feasibility studies undertaken over several years in regard to the trans-basin diversion of Uma Oya through a 24km long tunnel to serve the diverse needs of Monergala District in the Uva Province and Hambantota District in the South. To a large extent these issues had not been addressed when the project was given the green light to go ahead, apparently to meet the urgent water needs of Hambantota’s own mega projects. Now the project has run into red light with a leak in the tunnel excavation drawing down groundwater levels in the surrounding areas and leading to public protests. Already, there is public perception that the tunnel excavation may have also contributed to the recent Koslanda landslide tragedy. The government has now suspended the project until further investigation. The tunnel excavation has proceeded to two-fifths of its full length and about half of the total $530 million has been spent so far. Even though the new administration is not to be blamed for this costly misadventure, for the people in the area good governance will not mean anything unless the new government satisfactorily addresses the Uma Oya problem and restores public confidence in government undertakings.

~ ~ by Rajan Philips


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