By Javid Yusuf –
The Port City Project has been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the media in the past several weeks. The discussion has primarily centred round the issues of whether the proper procedures and approvals have been followed as well as the impact on the environment which is likely to result from this massive project.
Absent from the discussion has been the more fundamental issue of whether this Port City is something that the country needs. This is a 575.7 acre project out of which 420 acres are to be used for commercial purposes while the rest will be utilized for infrastructure. Out of the 420 acres, 266 acres (that is more than half the extent set apart for commercial purposes) will be given to the Chinese of which 50 acres will be given outright and the balance 216 acres on a 99 year lease.
According to media reports, retail businesses, residential, business and entertainment locations and public recreational areas will be built on the reclaimed land which will become the Port City. Casinos, Formula One racing tracks, a World Class performance Hall and shopping malls are some of the other “attractions” to be included in the development of the reclaimed land.
In other words the Port City will be a different world to the one in which ordinary Sri Lankans live. The facilities and rest of the infrastructure will have no meaning or direct benefit to the vast mass of the people of the country.
In coming to a conclusion with regard to the question whether Sri Lanka needs the Port City to be built on reclaimed land what we need to first ask ourselves is whether all the above facilities are absolutely essential for the wellbeing of our country and our people. If the answer is in the affirmative then the logical question that ensues thereafter is whether these very same facilities cannot be built in the land mass that surrounds Colombo City at much less cost and with far less adverse environmental impact.
If a rigorous evaluation is done and the conclusion is arrived at that the Port City as currently envisaged is absolutely essential for the country’s development , then a thorough examination of all the environmental concerns in relation to the project will have to be made. It has to be remembered that the project will require a reversal of nature and a consequential impact on the environment some of which can be predicted while other consequences may not be possible to anticipate. In fact several environmentalists have drawn attention to the possible destruction of marine life and other environmental hazards.
Anyone interested in acquainting oneself with the possible environmental hazards caused by the creation of artificial islands need only google for the consequences of the Palm Island project in the UAE to understand a few of the risks inherent in the implementation of the Colombo Port City Project.
The irreversible nature of this process may result in a great deal of irreparable damage to the environment and disastrous consequences to the citizens who live along the coastal areas of the Western Province in particular and the country in general. If and when such damages occur it will be well nigh impossible to mitigate the damage.
Questions have also been raised as to the quality of the Environmental Impact Assessment carried out by the University of Moratuwa. According to reports, amazingly the EIA has stated that the Project has no impact on the environment. According to these reports no marine biologist was in the team to assess the impact on marine life which is a necessity for a project in the sea.
Further the EIA does not touch on where the Project will obtain the 16 million cubes of granite required and the impact of such excavation of granite.
Another aspect that needs to be looked at is the social impact of such a project. Deputy Minister of Highways, Higher Education and Investment Promotion Eran Wickramaratne has pointed out that within 10 to 15 years there would be about 300,000 people using the land that would constitute the Port City. This would amount to about half the current population of Colombo and major issues relating to transport, water supply and sewerage would arise according to the Deputy Minister.
Highways, Higher Education and Investment Promotion Minister Kabir Hashim has also pointed out that the project implementation lacks transparency and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority has no mandate to implement the project. In fact sufficient and necessary information with regard to the project has not been placed in the public domain. Unfortunately there was no Right to Information Law in the statute books during the time the Project was conceived and formulated for those interested to obtain the necessary information on the Project.
Concerns have been raised by some that a review and reversal of the Colombo Port City Project will result in loss of confidence among foreign investors. This is unlikely to be so if the Government is able to explain to the world the reasons for such a step to be taken. However, in any event, it must be remembered that at all times the National Interest must prevail over the interest of Investors.
Another view that has been expressed is that any decision taken to cancel the project will adversely affect our relations with China. While China will definitely be concerned if the Project is stopped, this cannot deter us from doing what is best for the country. As a long standing and consistent friend of Sri Lanka China will have to show understanding of our concerns and that this is part of an overall review of the mega projects started by the previous administration and not a singling out of Chinese projects.
China has been one of Sri Lanka’s strongest allies in the international arena ever since the rubber rice pact days. In more recent times China has assisted the country in its efforts to defeat the LTTE. Sri Lanka has relied heavily on China to keep other sections of the international community at bay with regard to the allegations of human rights abuses in the last days of the military campaign against the LTTE.
Being such a strong friend of Sri Lanka, there is every likelihood that China can be persuaded to see the whole issue from Sri Lanka’s perspective and every effort must be made to ensure that China displays the necessary understanding if the Port City project has to be stopped.
The Company which has undertaken the Port City Project would have known the risks in undertaking the project without all the approvals being in place as well as the political context in which the project was being undertaken. Even if Sri Lanka ends up having to pay some compensation to the said Company for scrapping the project it would be a price worth paying to prevent the unquantifiable harm that could result to Sri Lanka and its people if the Project goes ahead without the exercise of the necessary due diligence which has been absent from the inception of the Project.