Colombo Telegraph

Air Pollution, Traffic Congestion & Opening Dalada Veediya

By Oliver A. Ileperuma

Prof. O.A. Ileperuma

Opening Dalada Veediya to reduce air pollution in Kandy and ease traffic congestion

Please permit me to use your valuable space to highlight a serious local problem affecting thousands of people in Kandy. Although this is not a national issue, people in Kandy are continuously harassed by this road closure without a valid reason.

The road in front of Dalada maligawa has been used for at least for over 100 years as a public highway to Mahiyangana serving a large number of densely populated areas such as Kundasale, Digana, Haragama and Teldeniya. In 1998, because of LTTE threats it was closed for traffic and vehicles had to go around the Kandy lake causing severe traffic jams particularly during school opening and closing times. People withstood this inconvenience out of consideration about the safety of the Dalada maligawa. In 2002, the road was briefly opened for light traffic by the then Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, after a few months the road was closed again until now causing immense hardships to the people who travel to the city along this major highway. In the mornings it takes at least one hour to cover this distance of about 2 km.

Continuous closure of this road inconveniences people who travel to the city from the Tennekmbura side and also school children travelling to various schools in Kandy since a number of city schools are situated along the lake round. Earlier a student travelling to Dharmaraja college in Kandy from the city only took about 10 minutes by bus and now it takes almost 1 hour during peak traffic times.

*Photo courtesy The Archives Facebook page –  Kandy – near the Maligawa – 1974

It is not surprising to see increasing numbers of children coming down with asthma and other respiratory illnesses. According to Dr. Anoma Siribaddana, Consultant Chest physician at the Kandy General hospital, the number of children with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is on the rise. This condition normally affects middle aged and older adults and habitual smokers. This is a serious health condition for which there is no cure apart from controlling the symptoms. Hospital statistics also show an increase in the number of asthma patients who spend time in the city. Presence of COPD in children is an alarming trend which should receive the attention of the authorities.

The city of Kandy situated in a valley between the Hantane and Hunnasgiriya mountains is expected to have high degree of air pollution. In fact, a comparison of the data collected from the Colombo Fort monitoring station and also from Kandy during the period 2001-2005 show that air pollution levels in Kandy are far higher than in Colombo. Colombo is situated on a flat terrain close to the sea and that helps disperse pollution over a larger area while air pollutants get concentrated in the Kandy valley surrounded by mountains. As a result, while only about 10% of the data from Colombo exceed the gazetted air quality standards, about 40% of the data recorded for Kandy exceed the national standards.

I have monitored air pollution in the Kandy city from 2001-2005 and hence can speak with some authority on this matter. When Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe opened this road to traffic in 2002, there was a drastic drop in the air pollution levels. The particle concentration dropped by nearly 70% and the sulphur dioxide levels, too, dropped by about 50% after the roads were reopened.

These two pollutants are the major causes of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Vehicles caught up in traffic jams spew a large amount of black smoke with these particles. In addition, unburnt petrol emitted from motor vehicles has polyaromatic compounds which are known to cause cancer. Air pollution also triggers heart attacks and other heart related diseases.

During the scientific study conducted from 2001-2005, the air pollution levels dropped sharply after the Maligawa road was opened but increased again after the road was closed. The average sulphur dioxide level before the road was opened was around 0.06 ppm which was twice the allowed level for this pollutant according to the gazetted Si Lanka air quality standard for sulphur dioxide which is 0.03 ppm. After the road was opened it dropped to 0.02 ppm which is a safe level and when the road was again closed the levels shot up to 0.08 ppm. Therefore, we can conclude that reopening this road will definitely reduce air pollution in Kandy.

Some studies carried out in developed countries suggest that if the particle concentration increases by about 10% then the additional deaths of elderly people with heart conditions also increases by about 10%. Sadly, such statistics are not available from Sri Lanka and there is an urgent need for the health authorities to be concerned about this since it is the government resources which have to be spent for treating a sick population.

There were some opposed to opening this road claiming that it affects the sanctity of the most venerated religious place in the country. However, it is important to stress that this is not a road which is meant for the Dalada maligawa. Now there is no terrorist problem which justifies keeping this road closed. There was some dialogue several years back for reopening this road and the most venerable Malwatte Mahanayake Thera too gave his blessings. Again, the former president was not in favour of this move since he did not understand the seriousness of this issue and considered only the pilgrims who visit the temple of tooth. Het is supposed to have said that “if I can walk up to Maligawa why cannot the pilgrims do so”. As I have repeatedly mentioned this is not a question about pilgrims visiting maligawa but the general public who are so inconvenienced by this road closure. If pilgrims can climb up the Adams peak to worship the Sri Pada then there is no reason why they cannot walk the small distance up to Maligawa. Kandy has only a few roads and alternate roads are unavailable for traffic. Also, one grandiose plan mooted during the previous regime was to build a tunnel below the Kandy Lake and this is not a practical solution because of the high cost and the long period to complete such a project.

Recently there were some unusual activities regarding the issue of reopening the Dalada Veeediya which to say the least quite disturbing. If the newspaper reports are true minister of public safety Mr. John Ameratunga has ordered the opening of this road and when the police consulted the Asgiriye Maha Nayaka thero, he vehemently objected and even got the nod from the President to keep the road closed.

There are several implications of this sequence of events. One is the question as to why a minister’s order was overturned by the President. The other question is why the Police has to obtain the approval of the Asgiriye maha thero to carry out the order of a minister taken in public interest. Already Venerable Malwatte Mahanayake thero has given his approval to open the road. He has pointed out the immense difficulties which ordinary people undergo daily and particularly ambulances transporting critically ill patients. This puts all of us in a dilemma as to whose word should be considered in taking important decisions. There are other groups with vested interests such as the Foundation for the protection of Kandy heritage and its leader has claimed that he with the help of Asgiriye mahanayake thero stopped the opening of this road. Such politically biased individuals controlling the destiny of thousands of people who regularly commute to the city is an unforgivable crime. They also breed religious disharmony because this organisation claimed that a non-Buddhist minister is trying to insult the sanctity of the Dalada maligawa. It is up to the government to determine whether creating such religious disharmony contravenes the laws of the country and if it is, to take appropriate legal action.

Minister Ameratunga should be congratulated for taking a bold and a courageous decision to reopen the roads in Colombo which have been closed for a long time. His attempt at opening the Dalada Veediya is also commendable but this has not materilised owing to the actions of a few. During the election campaign, at a meeting with the professionals of Kandy, President Maithreepala Sirisena too promised to reopen this road. As professionals we are waiting for our President to fulfill this promise.

There are two issues which are related to the closure of the road. Severe traffic jams and the increased time required to travel this short distance inconveniencing daily commuters is the most serious problem while the resultant air pollution is the other. During my study in 2002 there were 85,000 vehicles entering the Kandy city daily and this figure must be at least twice that number now and the air pollution is much more serious.

I would also like to comment on the sanctity and the protection of the Dalada maligawa from a supposed terrorist attack. We are supposed to have got rid terrorism and that is why many roads in the Colombo Fort area were reopened. Also, Dalada maligawa may not be the first place to be attacked and appropriate action should be taken to protect the maligawa. I would also like to remind people who claim that this road should not be opened that Dalada Maligawa was attacked when the road was already closed. They used the Raja veediya which was not well secured and there are still some unanswered questions as to why this side road was open for the terrorists to attack the maligawa. Also, the security fence which was built for the protection of the maligawa was built enclosing the main road adjacent to the Kandy lake. Why this fence was not constructed to enclose the Madduma Bandara park, leaving aside the main road is also questionable. The only reasonable conclusion is that such a construction would have prevented the construction of sheds for Perahera viewing where interested parties can earn massive amounts of money by selling these seats to foreigners.

Another often overlooked issue is the colossal waste of fuel and hence money when vehicles travel in traffic jams. No one has calculated this but calculations done in Colombo estimates that traffic congestion results in a loss of revenue amounting to Rs. 15 billion annually!

In conclusion, I wish to state that the bigger issue is traffic congestion around the Kandy lake road, loss of productivity due to time wastage, colossal waste of money due to extra fuel combustion and of course increased air pollution. Therefore, I wish to appeal to the new President and the Prime minister to open up the closed road in front of the Dalada maligawa to vehicular traffic and also take some meaningful steps to solve the traffic problem in Kandy.

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