By Rajan Philips –
Amidst the hullabaloo in parliament over casinos, the Colombo Mayor, municipal insiders and Asian Development Bank officials held a quiet retreat in a resort in distant Dambulla to discuss raising the water rates in Colombo to make its ratepayers pay a share for expanding the City’s sanitary treatment capacity. It did not take long for the news about the retreat to leak and for the proposal to be promptly dumped as ‘toilet tax.’ With no one other than those who were at the retreat supporting it, the Colombo Mayor appears to have backtracked after promising to make a May Day statement on the new tax proposal. Instead, the only May Day statement attributed to the Mayor that I saw was about his calling Ranil Wickremasinghe and Sajith Premadasa as two wheels of the cart that will take the UNP someday to a Presidential victory. His Worship must have been metaphorically confused, because Ranil and Sajith are not cartwheeling for their Party but are flushing it down the toilet. The government by the way is flushing the whole of Colombo down the toilet by turning what has been an integrated people city into a segregated wasteland of “integrated resorts” for local upstarts and flashy tourists.
Talking about the May Day, let me do first things first and write a few words of adulation to Bala Tampoe. Of all the May Day pictures splashed across the newspapers, the most captivating one that I saw was the photo in the Friday Island showing Bala Tampoe at 92 on a pillion ride, showing superb balance for his age, to the CMU May Day rally in their Kollupitiya premises. It was a riveting snapshot of a man who had dedicated his whole adult life to the cause of the labour movement in Sri Lanka. He would have been 33 or so when he wrested control of the CMU from the clutches of the then mighty A.E. Goonesinghe. He was a Member of the LSSP at that time and Leslie Goonewardena records Tampoe’s achievement in his “A Short History of the LSSP”. What may not be known widely, particularly to the younger generation, is that in plunging into the trade union movement at that time Bala Tampoe was making a huge commitment and sacrifice especially given his exceptional talents and academic potentials.
Bala Tampoe (Phillips) was a brilliant “Upper Second” (either top of the list or close second) in Botany Honours, a pioneer recruit to the then fledgling Department of Agriculture in Peradeniya, and a founder Member of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Association for the Advancement of Science. He then took to revolutionary politics and to the independence of law practice, and never looked back. True to his manner of being born with a melodramatic spoon in his mouth he went on become one of the leading criminal and jury lawyers this country has seen. But his most famous political trials did not involve juries: the Trial-at-Bar case after the first JVP insurrection and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) case involving Fr. Singarayar. Of the first, Jaydeva Uyangoda once told me that what impressed him most was the ‘fighter’ in Bala!. The Singarayar trial was a remarkable achievement for Mr. Tampoe because, if I am not mistaken, that was the only instance in all the PTA trials that a lawyer was able to get acquittal for his client. And Fr. Singarayar was finally vindicated of the wrongful charges against him.
Perhaps it was the fighter in Bala Tampoe that drove him to break ranks with the LSPP at the last minute in the historic 1964 Conference. It was a permanent parting of the ways politically speaking but there was always mutual admiration on both sides despite polemical broadsides. The LSSP, either Hector or Lloyd, once called Bala, “the lone ranger in the mass movement.” And he gave as much as he got. While sharing the platform with Colvin and Doric, Minister and Permanent Secretary respectively in the United Front government (this was in 1970, in Kandy and I was in a group of awestruck university students in the audience), Bala addressed them with poignant sarcasm, “We were comrades before, our positions are different now, but I hope your priorities remain the same!” Colvin responded in kind calling his one-time protégé and fifteen years his junior, “one of the best brains not only in the trade union circles but in the whole country.” Now in the evening of his life, the most edifying aspects of his life ought to be the kind of mental and physical disciplines that he must have exercised all through his life to make living at 92 a healthy, purposeful and enjoyable endeavor as ever. Nowadays when memorial lectures have become weekly affairs in Colombo, Leftists and progressives may well do to organize a public felicitation of Bala Tampoe. Now is the time. And let me move from the Tampoe sublime to the Rajapaksa ridiculous.
Casinos and Toilets: the flushing connection
Much of the controversy over casinos and the gazette chicanery that the government shamelessly put parliament through has focused on the government’s lack of transparency, its obvious duplicity and barefaced hypocrisy, and its prodigal gift of huge tax holidays to slippery wheeler dealers. I would like to draw attention to another aspect and therein also is the connection to the reviled toilet tax.
According to Mayor AJM Muzammil’s explanation following the Dambulla retreat, the Colombo Municipality is undertaking a project at Rs. 31 billion cost to upgrade the City’s sewerage treatment facilities. The project is to be funded through an ADB loan with the Government of Sri Lanka repaying 82% of the loan and the CMC being on the hook for the balance 18%, or about $6.5 billion paid over 25 years at 2% interest. The proposed toilet tax is for the repayment of the CMC share of the ADB loan, and it will be imposed on 80% of the water consumed in each household, and a corresponding rate is expected to be established for commercial uses. The new tax will be added to the water bill.
The information given by the Mayor appears to be inconsistent with the information on the CMC website regarding the Greater Colombo Wastewater Management Project. I will not parse too much into the figures presented by the Mayor, but ask a few simple questions assuming that the Mayor’s information is correct. How was the 82%/18% repayment split between the central government and the municipality arrived at? To the extent there is integration between the Colombo sewerage system and those of the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia and Kollonnawa municipalities, are these municipalities part of this project and the lone repayment as well?
And how is the Sri Lankan government going to pay its 82% share of the ADB loan plus interest? The sewerage system is only one component of the urban infrastructure that is needed to accommodate all the glittering proposals of the government to litter Colombo with hotels, condominiums, integrated resorts, and shopping plazas with no restriction on heights and no imposition of taxes. These are exorbitant land uses or developments that require land, water, sanitary, electricity, and transport infrastructure which will have to be provided by the different levels (central, provincial, municipal) of government at considerable cost. It would stand to reason and it is the practice in other countries and jurisdictions that new developments pay their share of the capital cost of municipal infrastructure (especially water, sanitary and local roads) in advance of development, and contribute to the operating costs through user rates when the development is in place. The two cost (capital and operating) payments are in addition to tax levies based on business, income or profit.
So in regard to paying its share of the ADB loan for upgrading and expanding Colombo’s sanitary infrastructure, is the government collecting the proportionate share from its developer friends? Or, are they getting infrastructure freebees in addition to getting land through sweetheart deals and receiving massive tax holidays. Even if there are no tax holidays, and even if the land parcels designated for glittering high-rises are sold at market prices, the developers must pay their share of infrastructure expansion first and the established user rates later during consumption. Not so with this government. If the developers and owners do not pay anything, who pays for these expansions? If the CMC has its way, the people of Colombo will pay directly 18% of the loan through water rate hikes, while the rest of the loan will presumably be added to the national debt to be borne by all Sri Lankans sooner or later.
It is true that most Colombians and visitors to Colombo are impressed by the facelift that Colombo is being given by the defence establishment in the Rajapaksa government. But the facelift is resting on crumbling infrastructure and the sanitary system is only a part of it. There is no integrated approach to upgrading the City’s infrastructure and assessing the infrastructure impacts of the new hotels, plazas, and integrated resorts. There is no jurisdictional coordination between municipal, provincial and central governments in the Greater Colombo Area. The Urban Development Authority is not providing any coordination but is implementing what it is dictated to carry out.
Is the facelift ultimately for the people of the City or the patrons of integrated resorts? There is already a social cost to this facelift and the mode of development that the government is literally bulldozing through. Wanathamulla exemplifies the government’s approach of forcibly throwing poor people to the gutter to create land for new developments where state land is not available. At least one commentator has compared the Wanathamulla experience to South Africa under the apartheid regime. Although invented as a form of racial segregation, apartheid continues to live as class segregation and who would have thought that it will appear in the Wattes of Colombo under a government led by a party whose founding mantra was the “common man.”