The former Governor of the central Bank (2006-2015) has made proposals with the objective of “A new impetus to revive the Economy from 2020-2025” (Island, 25 Sept-2019). These include (1) a new elliptical expressway parallel to the coast at a distance of about 40-50 km from it around Sri Lanka, (2) a new expressway to provide easy access to both coastal belt and hinterland. (3) A single expressway from Medawachchiya to Kilinochchi. (4) Fast-tracked construction in five years.
The present writer proposed the construction of a dyke-type highway along the perimeter of the Island, not only to provide transport, but also to defend against rising sea levels, tsunamis and sea erosion. It should be an ecological highway taking account of socio-economic and environmental imperatives. Hence a 10th province, covering a maritime strip running around the island was an integral part of the proposal, impacting on the constitution, integrating the country politically and environmentally (see Colombo Telegraph, Oct. 4th, 2017)
The need for farmers and industrialists to bring their goods to markets and ports, and for imports to reach the interior are recognized by all planners. Even the US Millennium Corporation proposals emphasized the need for such transport infrastructure, featuring a highway connecting strategic Trinco (the ancient port of Gokanna) to Colombo, the modern engine of development driving the Western province.
Roadways, irrigation schemes and human settlements can be planned to solve development issues and ease social conflicts. Such schemes can resolve political problems associated with national security, control of floods, effect of tsunamis etc., and move goods and people while strengthening the ecological integrity of the landmass. Such holistic planning is rarely supported by politicians who have little knowledge, want quick results, and are dazzled by foolish visions of the tallest towers or fastest highways seen in their travels.
Knee-jerk projects, be it roadways, waterways or human settlements, can have unintended disastrous consequences. The best we can do is to formulate an overall model treating as many factors as possible. Improvement in transport can be a win-win situation instead of “improving” one sector while causing irreparable damage to others.
(1) Highways can connect as well as divide communities – a Gokanna-Colombo highway will divide the north and south of the nation along separatist lines. Instead, a fast “bullet train” moving at 300 kmh connecting Colombo and Jaffna could be the basis of national integration. Jaffna would become a suburb of Colombo! The Romans and the British built roadways to hold together their empires. US and Canada and Russia built railroads to ensure the integrity of their confederations. The trans-Siberian connected Moscow to Vladivostok. Pointedly, the Tigers destroyed the Yal-Devi rail link to enhance the separatist agenda while the ordinary Northerner – Tamil, Moor or Sinhala benefintted immensely from Yal Devi .
Mr. Wigneswaran rejected Mahaweli coming to the North to ensure “self-determination” in spite of porjected future water shortages. The behaviour of Mr. Wigneswaran is no different from the leaders of the Tamil community during the days prior to 1948 when they opposed the building of causeways connecting villages in the Jaffna Peninsula (see Dr. Jane Russell’s book, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore commission, 1931-1948). They, absentee land owners of the North living in Colombo 7 feared that providing good road access to so-called “low-caste” villages will make them “uppity” and that they will loose control. They also opposed the upgrading of Jaffna to a municipality as they did not wish to pay municipal taxes! It was SWRD Bandaranaike, the Minister of local government in DS Senanayake’s first cabinet, who forced the building of causeways and also gave Municipal status to Jaffna.
Clearly, the leaders of the North and East, bogged down in Casteist or Eelamist ideology, have often failed to work for the betterment of the people of the North and East. Today these leaders – haughty lawyers driven by ideology – are oblivious to the urgent threat to large parts of the North and East from rising sea levels due to global warming. While they could control or drive out the Moors, they see the threat of Sinhal-Buddhist nationalism as being most urgent in the context of a militant Hinduthva ideology and Tamil Nationalism that aims to preserve its traditional ethnic voter base as its source of power. There are technological solutions to such conflicts as well, when examined from a social-planning point of view, but we will not address them in this essay. The Tamil community is blessed with technically highly qualified practical-minded men and women who should take the lead in politics, instead of leaving it entirely to the lawyers.
(2) Highways and river-valley developments cutting through diverse regions become permanently disconnected ecological pockets causing irreparable harm to ecosystems important for sustaining agriculture and human health. Conflicts between humans and large animals like elephants become frequent and animals get destroyed first, and the slow decline of human health follows. Galoya, Udawalawe and Mahaweli were planned at a time when environmental concerns were low priority.
(3) New highways and new river-valley developments spawn new settlements (“colonization schemes” in old, incorrect parlance) with little regard to consequences, especially when we have “accelerated” projects. The accelerated Mahaweli program settled people in higher grounds further from irrigation rivers, canals and tanks due to lack of space, spawning the use of tube wells and shallow dugout wells in locations naturally containing fluorides and other salts in the soil, triggering an epidemic of kidney disease in the dry zone areas of the accelerated Mahaweli project. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on providing clean water to the affected areas, the government took the cheap, politically expedient step of banning the use of the herbicide glyphosate – an act similar to changing cushions to cure dysentery.
Highway development was the “Mantra” of the post War developments in the West. We knew little about the enormous dangers of such expansion that are evident today in the clogged multi-lane highways and the urban sprawl of Western cities and their neighbourhoods, e.g., around Los Angeles, greater London or Cairo. These metropolitan regions constitute huge networks of asphalt-concrete gridlocks of traffic, creating carmageddons of pollution and highly inefficient use of resources. People stuck in traffic jams develop stress, high adrenaline, and chronically high blood sugar even without eating sweets, with obvious health consequences! Tiny little Kandy, or big brother Colombo, even without Los Angeles traffic is a pocket of pollution spawning allergies, asthma and lung disease.
Just after the Eelam wars in 2009, this writer appealed strongly for a network of high-speed electric trains as the first step in infra-structure development, coupled with installing floating solar-panel arrays placed on existing hydro-electric reservoirs, which daytime excess power stored as water saved in the reservoirs to provide firm electric power for the night (for more details, see here )
Increased encroachment of the natural habitat by humans, and the increased use of fossil fuels since the 1960s have lead to a catastrophic loss of flora and fauna, acid rain, bleached coral reefs etc., threatening the very planet blanketed and overheated with CO2 emissions. A strident and completely misguided call against agrochemicals orchestrated by a frightened public serves to ignore far more dangerous pollution from petrol and diesel vehicles, tractors, lorries, buses, and the effects of high levels of sub-micron particulate dust. Instead, everyone wants a car, while VIPs demand a fleet of them , “duty-free” and “bullet proof”.
We depends on bees, insects and butterflies for the pollination of flowers that give rise to crops that we eat. We depend on trees for re-oxygenation. The loss of habitat has caused a catastrophic decline in pollinating insects and birds. Today many countries like England pay for their folly in having to import bumble bees from “less developed” Eastern Europe to sustain its agriculture! The day when Sri Lanka has to import bees and butterflies from “less developed” nations may not be far away. We are told of an “energy mafia” in the Ceylon Electricity board, working hand in hand with commission-seeking politicians. Is that why we build coal-burning power plants and stunt the land, flora and fauna when we have less polluting means of generating adequate amounts of firm power cheaply from solar and biomass, and within short time scales (see Clean, practical solutions to Sri Lanka’s energy crisis, Colombo Telegraph 6-May 2019)
The present writer supports the suggestion of Ajith Cabraal, the ex-Governor, but modified to a ring road encircling the Island, integrated with mangrove replanting, carbon capture etc., located along the coastal periphery in the form of a dyke-highway, envisaging the rise in sea levels, tsunamis, high sea erosion and high waves that we anticipate from global warming.
Public transport in electric trans should be prioritized over Individual vehicle transport. Fast electric train lines instead of roadways should be the first objective, inside and along the periphery. Such train lines or highways must have raised sections and large underpasses at every 10 km interval so that continuous ecosystems are maintained so that animals, insects and even root systems can safely pass across. Equivalent amounts of conserved wilderness to compensate the landmass used for building roads etc., should be legislated by reclaiming urban sprawl.
Sprawling human settlements, in the form of “villages” designed with the traditional concept of “Gama-Weva-Temple or Kovil” are disastrous to the environment in an age of high populations. Instead, urban sprawl in the from of settlements fed by highways should be strictly constrained. High-density high-rise habitations should be encouraged by higher taxation on individual homes. The “GamUdawa” must be replaced by models where habitat encroachment and garbage production are minimized, and wilderness areas are preserved. This also implies high-yield no-till agriculture using minimum land and minimum water per kilogram of harvest, as is possible with modern scientific agriculture. These go well beyond the green-revolution model and recycles the water and agrochemicals used, without significantly releasing them to the environment ( See Colombo Telegraph, 26-February).
Consequently we have to reject our nostalgic models of traditional agriculture as it yields low harvests, high methane outputs and CO2 production in composting, land tilling, weeding, slash-and-burn etc. It poses the danger of bio-accumulation of naturally occurring metal toxins in plants due to re-use of plant material in composting.
Ex-Giovernor Ajit Cabrals plans for highway development to revive the economy have to integrate with all these considerations of ecology, food, health and high productivity needed for a densely populate island with a painfully finite land area inhabited by warring communities fighting for that land.