Colombo Telegraph

Sir, This Is Colombo, Larger Than Ceylon

By S.Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

Urbanization and Urban Renewal in Colombo

It took geological ages for humanity to found the first city of a million citizens in Rome in the first century AD. The second in London had developed into such a city in 1800 AD. At that time 3% of the world’s population was urban. It rose to 13% in1900 and 49% in2005. By 2030, the % will be 60 and the urban population will total 4.9 billion is the UN forecast. It is striking that the pace of urbanization is as astounding as its scale. What is highlighted by the above data is the relentlessness of the change and the inexorability of the phenomenon.

Cities and Mega Cities

Cities with a population of one million plus were 83 in 1950. They had increased to 468 by 2007. Mega cities of over 10 million were two in 1970 – Tokyo and New York. Mega cities in 2011 were 23 and are forecast to increase to 37 by 2025. At that time 1 in 8 of the urban population will be living in mega cities. UN forecasts that by 2050 while world population increases by 2.3 billion, the total would reach 9.3 billion and the urban component would touch 67%. By then Asia, Africa and Latin America will add 2.5 billion to their urban citizenry.

“Sir this is Colombo, larger than Ceylon”; This thinking was dominant in the twentieth century among the higher echelons.

How we are drawn into the urban vortex is besides the point. The trend can neither be stopped nor stalled. Neither can it be reversed. These imperatives have to be factored in our thought process. Once rural existence ceases, the boats are burned and prospects of a relapse are closed. So forgetting the antecedents to change, it may be realized that the polity profits by evolving strategies to reduce the dissonant and to enhance the vibrant.


Even in urbanization China’s progress is phenomenal. Visuals are astounding. Statistics are incredible. In 1950 China had an urban population of 11.8% which grew to 49.2% in 2010. By 2025 as much as 65.4% will be urban. To meet the situation, the investment on urban infrastructure is an estimated $ 6.5 trillion till 2020. By 2025 there will be 221 cities having a million plus citizens. Mega cities too will proliferate. Nearly a billion people in a single nation will live in an environment adequately built up with modern amenities by 2030. The miracle of the world already visible will assume gigantic proportions.


The development of the capital, its renewal and redevelopment constitute an onerous task for any country. The impossibility of rehashing Old Delhi forced the British to build New Delhi upon a clean slate in the nineteen thirties. The old one yet remains a conglomerate of chaos even after eighty years. Chandigarh in Punjab is voted often as the best in India and the most livable. It was built anew to signify independent India’s emerging modernity. Planning and execution were not constricted by an existing situation. Mumbai and Kolkata demonstrate an aversion for the surgeon’s knife. The old and the new grow apace. Made up beauty and abscess co-exist. Bangalore exhibits urban sprawl and congestion in a beautiful city adored just a few decades earlier. Unabated centripetal factors will take the population to 13.2 million in 2025. Chennai pulsates with the old being renewed together with significant dispersal to a greater metropolis. By 2025, India will have 5 mega cities including Chennai.

South East Asia

In this region Singapore is a model. She was blessed with the vision of Lee Kwan Yew. His unrelenting pursuit of perfection together with rigorous political leadership transformed a country of modest development into a vigorous city state. Kuala Lumpur is another example of an iron hand delivering to its citizens a world class capital. City development in Vietnam has shown a burst of energy manifesting in Hanoi and Saigon. Both the drag of past dilapidation as well as weight of the communist baggage have been thrown aside remorselessly.

Sri Lanka

In a land where time has stood still for half a century and more a beginning is being made at urban renewal. The process of urbanization itself has been stagnant since independence. The urban population % for 4 countries in 1950 and 2010 were: China 11.8 and 49.2, India 17.0 and 30.9, Malaysia 20.4 and 72.0 and Sri Lanka 15.3 and 15.0. Those who challenge the statistics can seek clarification from Population Division of the UN. Having lost out, one may be inclined to expatiate on the mystique of rural existence. To Karl Marx it is “Idiocy of rural life”.

In the capital city, is urban renewal the need of the hour? No. It is overdue by more than sixty years. It is unfortunate that when the nation had financial resources and exchange aplenty from independence to 1960, profligacy overtook thrift and prudent investment. When land availability lent itself to flexibility and spatial expansion, the advantage was not seized. The thinking of officialdom did not get grafted to political priorities. Conversely the powers that be never pushed the officials towards city modernization. In the last half a century pecuniary embarrassment contracepted any thought on urban renewal in the capital city or in provincial and district capitals.


The result particularly in the principal city was galloping degeneration. The nation’s population more than trebled since independence and with urban migration the city experienced explosive pressure. Yet the response to accommodating the changes was only a little more than paralytic. The pace was pedestrian and slums became iconic in a city reputed to be a ‘garden city’ six decades earlier. Whatever the current situation, redeveloping a city of 7 lakhs should not be difficult when Chennai is managing a city of 8.8 million projected to reach 12.8 million by 2025.

With urban sprawl and encroachments without penal action, large areas were swallowed up leaving no space for lateral expansion or vertical growth. In this situation the city was faced with two options. The choices were to live with slums till eternity or to maximize land utilization creatively and realistically. The latter became compulsive and the response was appropriate to demand.

Why select Slave Island for primary honour? What is Slave Island? A microcosm of Colombo’s slum world, displaying all the unsavoury features of unhealthy living. Above it, is its rotten ripeness for demolition. Centrality to the metropolis that is envisaged and proximity to better areas of residence perhaps influenced the selection. Once it gets on to the highroad to development it is sure to become a precursor for other areas of sterilized land. Panchikawatte, Mutwal, Grandpass, Kotahena and a few more places of extreme congestion will be in line. This short list will need half a century and billions in dollars to see planned development. The clean slate model for Slave Island provides the flexibility ideal for comprehensive planning and execution not to mention foreign investment.

Dweller Relocation

Any worthwhile development of commendable proportions in any city at any time would mandate relocation of residents. A major surgical operation is inevitably painful and painkillers will be needed. Humanitarian considerations demand it. So it is with Slave Island. The cost of relocation is reportedly high. Decades of default by the administration both central and municipal brought this about. The price to be paid may be deemed as for new housing. At a price the untouchable has been touched. A kinetic dimension is added to the immovable. A harbinger of change is in place.

Provincial and District Capitals

In decades past the rickshaw puller was an essential part in a foreigner’s city tour. When a round is over he will tell the tourist “Sir this is Colombo, larger than Ceylon”. This thinking was dominant in the twentieth century among the higher echelons. In this Colombo centric obsession may be seen the unbalanced growth of Colombo vis a vis District capitals. Veering from such thinking, resources need to be spread across the country evenly. Having said that, it needs to be mentioned that there is a compulsion to treat the capital differently.

Attractive Capital

The state of the capital plays its part in the development of a nation. Lee Kwan Yew says that a visitor’s impression from the airport to the city is important. Well manicured golf courses and tree lined roads will present a picture of discipline. Colombo as a garden city will do good to the country in many ways. But it is wise to recognize that no amount of beautification will change perceptions if fundamentals are flawed or non-existent. This is particularly so with regard to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the crucial importance of which needs little emphasis.


UNCTAD having researched the factors promoting FDI, spells out 11 core principles quite succinctly. Three of them of crucial relevance to Sri Lanka’s investment climate are as below:

Policy Coherence:

“Investment policies should be grounded in a country’s overall development strategy. All policies that impact on investment should be coherent and synergetic at both the national and international levels”.

Public Governance and Institutions:

“Investment policies should be developed involving all stakeholders, and embedded in an    institutional framework based on the rule of law that adheres to high standards of public governance and ensures predictable, efficient and transparent procedures for investors”.

Openness to Investment:

“In line with each country’s development strategy, investment policy should establish open,   stable and predictable entry conditions for investment”.

Sri Lanka can either follow them or forget about FDI. Global FDI which stood at a modest $ 13.34 billion in 1970, grew to a cumulative $ 20.66 trillion by end 2011. A total of $ 40 trillion is expected by 2020. If these be the magnitudes can SL afford not to partake of it?


The indispensables of city infrastructure are clearly known. The astronomical figure needed annually to meet the cost is known to those conversant with the subject. It may also be realised that neither the state nor the private sector command even a fraction of the resources needed for transformational projects of high investment magnitudes. Foreign loans are mobilized and FDI is attracted or the nation stagnates and the city withers away.


Hope springs and life goes on like Tennyson’s brook. Our wisest poetess Auvaiyaar points out that even as a tree on the bank of a river can crash any time, a life of power and pelf will certainly crumble. The reality of impermanence is dinned into us. Thiruvalluvar in his wisdom says that prudent words make no impression on the obtuse. To the unwise, his own one dimensional perception is supreme. Ilanko Adikal asserts in Silappadikaaram, aram (dharma) will deliver us from evil rule. Whatever the backdrop, on what has been initiated towards urban renewal in Colombo, a worthwhile edifice can be built. Eternal optimism is certainly never unrealism.

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