By S. Sivathasan –
From Independence to now, the greatest proposal that is coming about after Mahaweli Development is the Megapolis Project. Half a century intervening between the two is a tragic commentary on the nation’s political order. Still worse has been the unwholesome management of the economy. Reversing the past and setting foot anew on fresh territory is what the proposal is about. In the geographical space it will spread across, about the time it takes to approach a stage of completion and in scale of investment to spark valuable spin off, it is envisaged as a gigantic project.
The concept of a chain of urban areas, interlinked into “City Region” was outlined as a ‘Megalopolis’ in 1915 by Patrick Geddes a Scottish geographer. The scheme envisioned by Hon. Ranil Wickremasinghe in 2002 in his term as Prime Minister, may approximate the concept of a megalopolis in due course. The prominent feature that stood out was the interlinking of cities in the Western Province. This factor may distinguish it from a metropolis.
Speed of Growth
A look around the world may be instructive, even invigorating too. London, the second mega city to develop in the last two millennia grew over a time span of several centuries. Two empires produced Rome and London with an interval of 1800 years. Human ingenuity produced the remaining mega cities in a mere 200 years.
What accounts for this phenomenon of concentration as against spatial dispersal? Rather difficult to explain the contrasting ways, forces acted on a body of people. Centripetally to make them move towards the city or centrifugally to make them move away from. May I state rather blithely that if de-concentration was more viable financially and logistically, humanity would have already made that ideal a reality. There are several disciplines to study this issue comprehensively, but let us survey growth in the past.
Rural – Urban Transition
The world had developed 2 cities by 1800, having a population of more than 1 million. In the 207 years that followed, 468 such cities had grown. UN forecasts that by 2030, cities will be home to 5 billion or 60% of the world’s population. From village to town; rural to urban; town to city; city to megacity and thence to megalopolis is the inexorable transition. There is no letting up. The trend is irreversible.
Bliss of solitude in rural isolation will be a privilege only for the wealthy. Possessing one’s own holiday home will grow as a symbol of affluence. The less fortunate city dweller will have the comfort of gadgets and the pleasure of travel. These make adequate recompense for the loss of village rusticity and the happiness foregone in the the town.
As of 2015, there are 35 megacities globally. Tokyo is on top with the highest population touching 38 million. It is also world’s largest metropolitan area. Jakarta takes second place. Shanghai is the largest city proper. In the range of 20 and 38 million are 14 megacities. In the next range of 10 and 20 million are 21. Chennai is the 35th megacity. Besides the standard measure of population are other criteria. Multiple lane highways radiating from the core city, super highways, flyovers; trains extending to the countryside, high speed rails to distant cities, metros for swift and comfortable transit, mono rail principally as feeders; medium and high rises are among the prominent features. Western Region will have them all in ten years.
In the interludes of peace emerged thoughts of worth. The year 1998 brought to the fore in the mind of Chandrika Kumarathunga the idea of a modern metropolis. With the Peace Accord of 2002, Ranil Wickremasinghe Prime Minister at that time developed the thought further. Teams from Sri Lanka and Singapore gave the idea a fillip by proposing a ‘Western Region Megapolis’ (WRM) stretching from Negombo to Beruwala. A major megapolis in three decades, home to 8.5 million was envisaged. An increase of 3 million was to be the outcome. In the Economic Policy outlined by the PM in November 2015, five magnets judiciously positioned are proposed that will exert a countervailing pressure on the drift to a single centre. Such development will insulate the Western Region against demographic invasion from North, South, East and Centre. More importantly by conferring a spatial spread and an ethnic balance, even growth of the country can be targeted. This will be a precursor to reconciliation.
Nearly half the plan period is now past, but concepts remain. Allowance has to be made to figures and timelines originally given. Colombo treated as the core city of WRM will have a population of 2 million. It is proposed to generate high intensity activity, heavier investment and high density infrastructure. The Plan envisages a Live – Work concept providing for a garden city where the quality of life will be high. A downtown core will embrace Business and Financial Districts. Slave Island and Galle Road are devoted to shopping. Land around Beira lake is demarcated for Arts, Recreation and Entertainment.
The core spreads out in ever widening semi circles. The inner necklace from Ja Ela to Moratuwa will have medium rise self-contained townships. Next in intensity is the outer necklace from Negombo to Homagama and Kalutara. Roads leading out in three directions already and linking the whole country are an asset to the core city. For smoother flow 4 laning and 6 laning will become mandatory adding to the importance of the Western Region.
The brief remarks above give but a faint glimpse of WRM, destined to be a Flagship Project extending to no less than 30 years. In an article captioned ‘Colombo is Colombo’ in Sunday Times of September 25, 2011, Hon. Ranil Wickremasinghe has given a vivid account. The detailed parameters emerge from the 3- volume WRM Plan completed in April 2004 when he was Prime Minister. Why reinvent the wheel is his challenging question. So God Speed can be looked forward to.
Port City and Slave Island Projects
While Ranil proposed, Rajapakses disposed. They took the Western Region Megapolis – WRM – Plan for implementation at their will. Skipping the sequence are two projects noted above which were under construction when the regime changed in January 2015. The Port City suspended for some time with billions already spent is likely to take off shortly. With decks cleared of negative sentiments, this flagship project will proceed seamlessly showing the direction of the nation’s drive.
Resuming from where he left the Prime Minister has five more plans for Jaffna, Trincomalee, Kandy, Kurunegala and Galle, which may see planning in the next two years. WRM is likely to serve as a template for them. Creation of a Ministry exclusively for Megapolis and Urban Development supported by handsome budgetary provision are signs of earnest intent. The Provincial metropolis taking the cue from WRM, may take 10 years to show a difference and 20 to display the impact. May we look forward to the centre and the periphery moving in tandem.