22 May, 2024


On “Reaching For The Stars” & Some Troubling Issues 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

There is frequent reference to the “Changing Skyline of Colombo”. Though not explicitly so stated, one can sense a sneaking sense of approval and none of censure or warning. Even a casual observer would see that the changes at ground level, although not as spectacular, are yet profound. It seems that every square foot, (if not inch) of urban ground, is built upon. In addition to the resulting aesthetic discord, public health issues from crowding, are also seriously impacted. The current explosive increase of deadly Dengue cases and the Covid-19 epidemic, may well be just two of several public health hazards. . 

More visibly, flooding of roads and of house-holds have become more intense, more frequent and slower to abate.  Clearly, the unsightly structures tarnish the image of a “Green City” and is giving way to one of “Jerry- built chaos”, urban squalor and shabbiness. It seems as though, having exhausted all chances of horizontal expansion, we are now reaching for the skies. When the hoped for business hub of the Port City comes on line, the situation may well become even worse.

Civilization and progress involve massive re-distributions of materials. Buildings involve movements of cement, steel, sand and rock. The Colombo Port City rests on a foundation of extracted sea sand and quarried rock. One wonders whether there are structural and stability issues in supporting the plans and models of high-rise buildings that we have seen. 

Regarding the stability of building on reclaimed land, there are many examples and from several countries, where reclaimed lands have been built upon, posing no problems arising from subsidence. No doubt our structural engineers are well aware of the technological aspects, and the need is for stringent adherence to necessary constructional norms. A single collapsed building may be sufficient grounds to seriously deter investors, in an already highly competitive environment. All too often we see instances where defects in control systems or human error, have led to catastrophic collapses.

Frequent pictures on TV of buildings that have been destroyed by environmental perturbations showing as earthquakes, forest fires and floods, over which we can have no control, are shattering. The tsunami of 2004 inflicted the greatest damage upon us, in particular to seaside hotels frequented by tourist visitors. 

 Recent views of Wars in Ukraine and Gaza, showing piles of shattered rubble, as all that remains of what were once houses and public buildings. The scenes are overwhelmingly distressing. Closer to home, were the devastating terrorist attacks on the Central Bank and surrounds in 1995.  One cannot forget the chilling scenes of terror that followed the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, (which is perhaps one of the best guarded cities in the World). It has symbolic merit in showing that it requires only a handful of determined and indoctrinated iconoclasts, to inflict horrendous damage. We must also remember how the horrors of “Easter Sunday” 2020, (now seen as an “intelligence failure”), are damaging precedents that we have to resolutely prevent. 

There is little doubt that virtually all Sri Lankan loyalists fervently wish that the Colombo Port City endeavour should succeed. This positive should not lead us to believe that all is “Hunky Dory” and all limitations eliminated. This would be exceedingly naïve. The “Hambantota Fiasco” is still fresh in our minds, leaving no room for complacency.

Adding to this, we are told that the heavy debt owed to China in building the Hambantota harbor had to be bartered, permitting our creditor (China) to exclusively (?) operate the harbor (and Mattala?), and some 15,000 hectares of neighborhood land for “industrial Development”. To add to this, is the cynical joke that the relevant leases are for 99 years and renewable for another like period. Since It is not likely that any of those responsible for this criminally cynical joke, will not live for 198 years, (themselves expiring before the relevant lease des so). Is this not a classic case of the sins of the Grandfathers (or great-grandfathers), being visited on the heads of their distant descendants? A massive hue and cry was raised, on the outright grant of some 18 hectares of Port City land to China, in exchange for bearing the cost of our adventure of filling part of the Indian Ocean. 

Similar issues arose in respect pf the exchange of army lands at Galle Face, for a new relocated army camp at Pelawatta. There is the gentle whisper that China would consider “re-scheduling” our loan repayments, only in exchange for an additional extent of Port City land. Gloomy fears for what the future may hold. We are told that a powerful, independent “Port City Authority“, (yet to be appointed), will ensure that Sri Lanka’s interests will be safeguarded as paramount. Bitter experiences of the past, do not justify much confidence. 

Prospective investors (not here solely for our good) and will seek basic guaranties to attract investment. As a minimum, they would reasonably expect:

1. Reliable Law and Order systems to protect their investments, and speedy and effective instruments to rectify any systemic or operational defects. Needless to say that judicial process needs to be speedy and fair.      

2. Uninterrupted supply of power, communications, roads, housing, personal security and policing systems.

3. A competent work force and technology inputs.

4. Assured supply of basic household needs. The attractive opportunity for profitably utilizing idle or abandoned lands in the vicinity of Colombo, for protected (greenhouse) cultivation of quality market garden crops (specially fresh vegetables and fruits), for a demanding and discerning, but lucrative market.

5. Security of offices, residences, equipment, telephone services and other facilities needed for effective global business. A more rapid attention to business needs such as legally required practices, regulations and speedy resolution of disputes.

6. Infrastructure to provide for vehicular access, uninterrupted power, telephones, water supply, garbage disposal, fire protection and a pleasing environment. It is said that the power, water supply, sewerage and garbage disposals were planned for a city of one million. This has been spectacularly exceeded. It is said that excessive high-rise residences, are already showing signs of an overloaded sewerage system.

7. Provision of uninterrupted electricity, sufficient to meet the increased demand for high buildings operating lifts, offices requiring air-conditioning and increased lighting will need to be factored in. Recent interruptions in supplies creates valid concerns. As a personal reflection, I look back on an experience of more than a decade of residence abroad (including four years in Iraq, then at war with Iran), during which there was not a single power interruption. Our recent experience is dismal in comparison.      

8. An over-riding healthy and salutary “Work Ethic”. This is tricky and worthy of a paragraph for itself.

Absence of a “Work Ethic” 

A “work ethic” is hard to define simply and accurately. What it should not be, is manifest in our present work environment. It surfaces in diverse ways, and is variously described as a “dependency syndrome” or mendacity, reflected as indiscipline, lethargy and other qualities inimical to balance and orderly functioning. There is a certain subtle, but pervasive and inbuilt sense of conflict between employee and employer. Consequently, this results in a negative attitude by Management towards Trade Unions, seeing them as troublesome wreckers, perhaps forgetting that both are bent on a common goal of harmony and progress of their employers/ business. The fact that Trade Unions are often linked to political parties is not helpful.

 A “work ethic” implies a host of qualities, seemingly tenuous, but blending seamlessly to define the ideal. These attributes include honesty, incorruptibility, courtesy, punctuality, tidiness, commitment, loyalty, faithfulness, responsibility and pride in one’s employment role. The nearest equivalent is perhaps “personality”. We may be far from such a model identity, but the fact that so many of our citizens working abroad, have reached stellar heights in a range of fields, shows that our deficits are not in our genes, but are largely self- created and thus hard and slow to correct. 

The early colonials are said to have chosen locations in a search for cheap labour. In current terms, the search is for talented and technically well-equipped persons. “Silicon Valley” in the U.S and Bangalore are shining examples of effective adoption of cutting edge technologies. Our youth are no less talented or receptive, given the opportunity. It is not too early for Sri Lanka to program developing such competence. Not cheap labour, but competent technologists should be the magnet. Ample evidence shows that our youth are astonishingly skilled and receptive. Technological excellence and linguistic adequacy of well- rounded persons, are key. Much is spoken of a “Knowledge based” economy. We need to cater to such by designing correct training is imparted, not a job just today, but yesterday. Failing this will mean missing the bus, yet again.   

Consistency in maintaining a balanced and systematic set of rules, devoid of sudden and precipitate change, is a must. A recent trend  of governance via Google and Twitter, Gazette and Circular warrants curbing. It is obvious that such impulsive and rapid changes are disincentives to pioneer investors. 

The infamous “Nelun Kulunna” (Lotus Tower), is a standing as an iconic example of colossal extravagance (or as an ego-building exercise), at taxpayers’ cost. There have been feeble attempts at justifying this horrendous judgmental error. The latest being as a  facility for “Bungee jumping” enthusiasts. The high platform may also double as a launching platform for trainee parachutists to help them overcome any fear of heights.  

In our schooldays, we were taught to “Reach for the stars and you may at least clear the treetops”. This is what inspired me to choose the title for this piece.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    A sumptuous meal; Not just some food for thought!

    • 3

      Dear Nathan,
      I now appreciate what a decent man Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda is. We have directly told each other a few things, via email, about what we cherish.
      I wonder if you remember this article by him?
      By that time, Gota had got away with creating the background against which it was possible for a few Jihadi fanatics to get away with the Easter Fireworks display, but we were doing all that we could to prevent the Rajapaksas from sweeping the Parliamentary Elections. Even when discussing subjects like Coronoa, perfect peace prevailed between me and “the man from Central Europe”.
      Then Janaps said what he sincerely felt about University Admissions. Neither LM nor I agreed with him, but do you remember how differently we expressed our displeasure? Ask for links, if you’ve forgotten them!
      Even after the SLPP triumph in the Parliamentary Elections, LM was not antagonising either Kumar David or me:
      Not even with hanchopancha ranting.
      Let me pause now for your observations about how dangerous it is to be driven by pure hatreds.
      Panini Edirisinhe, preparing for train journey.

  • 1

    “Absence of a ‘Work Ethic”, probably stems from cultural dispositions that prevails in the society to a great extent as evidenced by bus conductors that purposely fail to give you, your balance, to doctors that don’t turn up on time for their appointments. We could wait hoping these ethics would change organically with gradual economic progress and resulting social progress that may take a while or decide to purposely social engineer them through conscious efforts.

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