By Emil van der Poorten –
Being a rural resident of Sri Lanka at a time of massive construction in the name of “megapolises” and goodness knows what else, gives one a slightly different perspective in the matter of “development,” the Holy Grail of people bereft of anything resembling a wider view of the fate of Sri Lankans than “economic opportunity” for them and their friends.
In our neighbourhoods there are about six operating granite quarries, one a truly huge one which, though out of sight, produces the most and the loudest explosions every afternoon.
While some of the smaller quarries have been shut down from time to time the humungous one over the crest of the Gommunnawa-Ambatale hill continues apace despite what we were told was a major protest by residents of the area. The reason they did not succeed in having blasting operations cease was the fact that the owner/operator is some politician with “clout.”
The sand mining in one of the two source- streams of the Deduru Oya continues apace. Local protests, while initially successful in “extra-judicially” preventing this obscenity, fizzled out when fissures developed on religious and caste divisions were promoted by those benefiting from this most despicable of practices.
And all of this for what?
For projects that run contrary to every tenet of sustainability and maintenance of a lasting healthy environment! The bottomless pit for all the sand and granite – both clearly finite natural resources the permanent decimation of which will have catastrophic consequences, is the “megapolis” project that will simply provide the Chinese with a way-station on the route connecting them with the oil-producers of the Middle East. This will be infinitely more than a re-fuelling point on the journey of their oil tankers. It will, more important, provide an essential part of the bulwark in their competition with India to establish hegemony over the rest of the Asian world. Not only do they have this Sri Lanka-government driven obscenity in Colombo, they now have control over our newest port, Hambanthota, thanks to our practitioners of “Good Governance.”
And the Indians? They will extract their own pound of flesh, that flesh being flavoured and spiced by Sri Lankan financial and other resources in the oil tanks of Trincomalee, the airport in Hambanthota and goodness knows what else.
What are the practical implications for those of us living out in the boondocks of Sri Lanka?
Accurately put, it is environmental degradation with immediate and future implications that are mind-boggling.
For instance, in our neighbourhood, the quarrying that is going on has already resulted in springs that were never known to run low, leave alone run dry, ceasing to supply water for people’s personal consumption and for their ablutions.
During the last dry spell, thanks to having spent an inordinate amount of money in husbanding the meagre spring water supply we had, we became the providers of water for our neighbouring “colonists” not only to have their evening bath but to take plastic bottles of water home to drink and make tea. Delving into the history of this area did not produce a situation even close to this. While I have no doubt that climate change contributed to this state of affairs, there is no gainsaying that the endless detonations we’ve experienced from the granite-extractors could be deemed to be the primary villains of the piece. I spent several decades in the “Land of the Blue-Eyed Sheikhs” where oil and gas and those controlling it ruled the roost. Even before fracking achieved front and centre status internationally as the most destructive of oil-patch related activities, I recall the devastating effect of fracking on the only spring in all of Canada that produced commercial quantities of bottled drinking water. One day it just dried up. At least the “developing countries” have learned from those bitter lessons and there is organized opposition to such practices. In Sri Lanka we appear to have adopted a completely fatalistic attitude to the obscenities being visited upon us.
Adding insult to injury, the end result of these “megapolis” and similar projects is that it is only going to worsen the currently unacceptable situation with regard to urban congestion and its attendant woes.
Want some icing on that particular cake? Look at the construction of “super highways” to bring more people more easily into the urban centres. Kandy is a classic example of this kind of folly. A superhighway (by Sri Lankan standards, at least) is being constructed at enormous cost to achieve this objective for the hill country capital which, for obvious reasons, cannot expand laterally. Allegedly, in order to deal with the problem of the unbelievable congestion in Kandy town, it is proposed – without anything resembling the requisite environmental studies – to build six tunnels under Kandy town and, without doubt, under the lake, to reduce the congestion in the hill capital. Among the simple means of ease the problem of traffic tie-ups in Kandy, in the short term at least, would be to open the road coming in by the Maligawa which was closed after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) tried to blow up the Temple of the Tooth. It is beyond belief that this bogeyman, the LTTE, is still being trotted out as one of the reasons for keeping that road closed. Among the other reasons that the Custodian of the Tooth Relic has advanced is that if that road was opened again, cattle destined for illicit slaughter and kasippu would be passing by the Maligawa. I will not even dignify that rubbish with comment! Why is the simple fact that it is not “through” traffic but traffic bound for Kandy town that is the cause of the congestion not addressed?
All kinds of other schemes, not only for tunneling under Kandy but for building highways through Udawattekelle, the hill capital’s forest reserve, have also been advanced.
All of these solutions of Kandy’s traffic problems have one thing in common: they have potential for significant corruption and large amounts of money changing hands in the form of what are usually referred to as “commissions.”
The original traffic plan for Kandy also envisaged long distance buses not coming into the town but for a shuttle service to take commuters out of the town to the location(s) in which they would be situated. In fact, I do recall an award-winning Police Traffic Inspector suggesting a reversion to this arrangement a while back. His reward was that the public never heard from him again, presumably banished to some isolated hamlet where bullock carts are the primary means of transportation!
Open the road past the Maligawa and if you want to stop Kasippu and stolen cattle passing by it, check vehicles coming in. After all, one product has a significantly strong odour and it isn’t really possible for some lorry driver to conceal a cow in his trouser pocket.
Since Kurunegala doesn’t have mountain ranges through which to burrow mega-tunnels and is fast approaching the Kandy level of traffic congestion, may I suggest to the people who will soon turn their attention to road transportation in the capital of the North Western Province that they begin planning for enormous flyovers, east to west and north to south, which could well promise as much baksheesh as the Kandyan tunnels?
To describe all of this as absurd would be to significantly understate the case. Rural folk in the Kandy area cannot harvest anything arboreal which is even vaguely edible because they have no means of protecting such produce from the giant squirrels or the monkeys who have got to it first; nothing growing on the ground is safe from the self-same simians who share that largesse with the wild pigs while the porcine horde is joined by porcupines in respect of anything growing below ground level. And just in case the wounds of rural Sri Lankans haven’t had enough chillie powder rubbed in them those of us living in the Kandy area have been blessed with yet another high powered Ministerial Committee to “co-ordinate initiatives in the Kandy region.”
The absurdity of “Ministers fiddling while the Hill Country and its inhabitants burn” would be funny beyond words if it wasn’t so tragic.
And, on that note, over (in Kurunegala), under (in Kandy) and out!