By Madawala Hemananda –
I read the article by R.M.B Senanayake published in your esteemed journal, the Colombo Telegraph, and it provoked me to respond in a rather lengthy detail, as the idea of surcharging is such a foolish idea, because it will just prove to be a case of adding insult to injury, in addition to throwing good money after bad, without benefitting anyone, other than lawyers perhaps. It will certainly be an absolute waste of time and money, while the Airport remains moribund. The reality is that there is a brand new International Airport ready and waiting to be put into good use. What needs to be done is to come up with bright ideas and suggestions to make the best use of what is already there, without sloshing more money down the drain. With this in mind, I would suggest the following long term plan, if implemented will be of great benefit to the economy at large and to Hambantota District in particular.
In April 2014, I visited Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and what I witnessed, without a shadow of doubt, was terribly disappointing, not only because of sheer visible inactivity, but an investment of such magnitude not being put into proper economic use. I saw large sections of the newly built access roads to the Airport being used by farmers, living in the vicinity, to dry their newly harvested rice spread over the tarmac, in the hot mid-day Sun. The conclusion that one could safely draw from that was that the farmers were sufficiently convinced – due to obvious lack of traffic – that there would not be any vehicles to disturb their illegal use of the Public Highway.
Allocation of blame
It is easy to blame the Government and the political party, responsible for that inapt decision, but people of Sri-Lanka must now wholeheartedly acknowledge that there is, in fact, a newly built Airport at Mattala. It is absolutely true that this is a glaring instance, where the ‘cart is before the horse’, because it is well-neigh impossible to establish a well thought out business rationale for an Airport to be located at Mattala, other than to attribute it wholly to a politically motivated decision. It will no doubt continue to be a white elephant, for the new Government, calling on scarce resources, which the country can ill-afford. Also, it must be borne in mind that no real purpose will be served by the new Government, throwing good money after bad, trying to investigate and punish the wrongdoers. Instead, all efforts must now be concentrated in exploring, as a matter of urgency, using the best brains in the land, to hammer–out an economically viable strategy, to put this modern facility to the best possible use.
The existence of an International Airport in the remote area like Mattala, must now be viewed as a precursor to the much needed investment in this part of the country, with huge development potential, as well as a unique opportunity to ease problems, especially in Colombo and suburbs, which are continuing to worsen. The escalating property prices in Colombo and suburbs have now reached such levels that they are beyond the reach of many young people earning higher than average incomes. A sustainable solution also needs to be found for the ever worsening traffic congestion, expected to reach levels of grid-lock soon, if not already a reality. Most important of all is the need to arrest the gradual degeneration of the quality of life, resulting from these conditions, in Colombo and suburbs.
This is not unique to the Capital of Sri-Lanka. It had happened in all metropolitan capitals of the world. During the past five decades, Colombo has been a magnet for migrants from other parts of the country, lured by the prestigious schools, employment opportunities and training facilities for most professions. Despite massive infrastructure improvements so far undertaken by both Local and Central Governments, the present situation is that even the wealthy can only be accommodated in high-rise flat developments, which is not the best way to live in an Island with abundant developable land outside the Capital. It is in this context, we must view Mattala Airport as a bold, courageous and progressive action.
New towns in UK
Although rather tenuous, one way to justify the location of an International Airport in a totally unsuitable area like Mattala would be to draw a parallel with the successful creation of New Towns in the United Kingdom, to relive the population pressures in the City of London, after the Second World War. These New Towns have now achieved their target populations and increasingly becoming generators of wealth and sought after environments, where people want to live, enjoying freedom of space and what nature has endowed, rather than living in urban environments, in large cities, where bricks and concrete predominate.
In many ways, Mattala Airport resonates with what the British Government did, taking the bold step to establish New Towns outside the Green Belt, (designated area of farmland around conurbations of London, Birmingham and Manchester to prevent urban sprawl) in remote areas of England, to re-house the overspill population from London. Soon after the Second World War, the British Government launched, many regeneration projects, including the rebuilding of bombed out areas, but they were not adequate to relieve the pressure on housing where the majority lived in houses unfit for human habitation. As usual, despite the fact that they were living in sub-standard housing, many were totally averse to any form of disruption or change to where they lived. This was to be expected, because it is human nature to oppose change, and more so to suggestions of being relocated into unknown surroundings, voluntarily or otherwise, even if it was to be for their own benefit. It was to overcome this innate aversion to change, that the British Government took the precaution to use, more of the carrot and less of the stick.
The plan, at the time considered radical and controversial, was to declare large extent of virgin farm land 6 to 10 square miles depending on topography, as a New Town and the Government to offer incentives, by way of handsome subsidies, to encourage manufacturing and other non-conforming industries to move their factories from residential areas of London to the New Towns, to be followed by workers, who in turn were enticed to relocate, by offering brand new and heavily subsidised housing. The New Towns were planned strictly in accordance with Town and Country Planning principles, with wide roads, schools within walking distance of residential neighbourhoods, hospitals, and civic centres. The first wave of New Towns proved so successful, that two further waves totalling 21 were implemented in rapid succession. They were implemented under the New Towns Act 1946 and subsequent Acts of Parliament empowering the setting up of New Towns away from London. Each was planned for a maximum population of 100,000. Most popular New Towns have now reached their target populations and beyond.
People of Sri Lanka should right now, unequivocally and wholeheartedly accept that there is a spanking new International Airport at Mattala, currently underused, but which has a development potential that could work wonders for the Srilankan economy. There are many good reasons for saying this. The first and foremost is that the area immediately surrounding the Airport, extending to some thousands of acres – as far as the eye can see – is barren and virgin land, ripe for development. From this perspective alone, the site chosen to locate the new Airport (although roadside warning signs indicate that the Airport access road intercepts some spoors of wild elephants) is nonetheless, admirable.
New Town Commission
What the new Government needs to do, as soon as possible, is to set up a Special Independent Commission, by an Act of Parliament, with sole responsibility to develop Mattala as a New Town. The Commission should be endowed with generous annual budget allocations from the Treasury Loan Fund. The availability of this large extent of virgin land, immediately surrounding the Airport is the only principal factor, crucial to the realisation of its enormous development potential. Without this virgin land, future developments of the Airport would have been severely curtailed and in fact almost impossible, even to realise a reasonable return on this massive investment.
However, even if land suitable for development is available, if it were beset with problems connected with complex ownership issues, then its usefulness would be questionable, because of time required to unravel legal complications, in addition to time and unnecessary expenditure, they entail. This could only be circumvented by the Central Government declaring the land, in its entirety, as the Mattala New Town and vesting its freehold ownership in the State, by a vesting declaration, which will clear its title of all encumbrances. There may be better and more effective legal procedures in Sri-Lanka, which could be used to vest a clear and unencumbered ownership of the land in the State. Of course, compensation should be paid to owners who are able put forward proper legal claims, based on a flat rate to be decided by a Panel of Valuers.
The freehold ownership of the land in the designated area should be transferred to the Commission, and its first task would obviously be to instruct its Town Planning Consultants to prepare a detailed ‘Master Plan’ which should be exposed to the widest possible public consultation with ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ emphasis, before granting final approval. I may of course, be preaching to the converted when I say this is a unique opportunity for Town Planners to exhibit their unique and imaginative designs, working, as they say, on a blank sheet of paper.
The Commission must be given wide ranging powers to promote agriculture (part of which should be a massive programme of tree planting), build highways, railways, drainage systems, sewerage farms, hospitals, reservoirs, incinerators, industrial and office buildings, schools, arenas, cinemas, theatres, houses and other buildings for commercial use considered necessary to build a thriving New Town. In addition, the Commission must be empowered to facilitate the relocation of existing manufacturing enterprises, factories, industries, universities and power to entice professionals, white and blue collar workers, especially from Colombo and suburbs, by offering incentives monetary as well as in kind, e.g., letting properties both commercial and residential at nil or low rents, subject to conditions.
Colombo is overcrowded, with services stretched to their limits, infrastructure too costly to maintain and the ever increasing traffic congestion adding a huge burden on the economy, apart from other attendant harmful effects to public health and general well-being. The air quality in Colombo is much below international standards. Relocation of some of the population from Colombo is now overdue. To achieve this objective, the Commission must have the power to offer generous incentives, by way of handsome subsidies, grant long leases of parcels of land and new houses available to rent at affordable or economic rents. Of course, it is mandatory to move manufacturing, export oriented food processing and service industries from Colombo and suburbs by offering even more attractive incentives. This will no doubt, prove to be good value for money in the long term. The economic activity, such a bold imaginative project if implemented will generate, will be absolutely enormous and judging from the economic and other benefits so far gained in the UK New Towns they have exceeded all expectations.
From a unique Srilankan perspective, which places a heavy premium on education, what needs to be done first is to entice fully accredited branches of the best schools from Colombo and other cities to be established in the New Town of Mattala. Special consideration should be given to the provision of up-to-date educational facilities to facilitate the best possible education at all levels. Srilankan parents are keen to ensure that their children receive the best education and to fulfil that desire, they have been found always to go that extra mile to provide what is necessary, to the very best of their abilities. Consequently, education in Sri-Lanka has become extremely competitive, every pupil trying to achieve an edge over the other, by availing themselves of private tuition, on such a scale that over the past few decades, it has grown into a whole new industry, where competent lecturers are able to earn fortunes in a very short space of time. Having regard to this particular Srilankan phenomenon, every effort must be made to establish, at the earliest possible opportunity, branches of the most popular colleges in the country – Royal, Ananda, Nalanda, Trinity and others – within Mattala New Town, employing highly experienced, qualified trained teachers, offering them competitive and rewarding pay packages.
‘Foot loose’ industries
‘Foot loose’ industries are those industries which do not need to be in a particular location in the country for the efficient conduct of their businesses and therefore they could be located anywhere in the country, where there is reasonable public access for its employees. Most of the businesses associated with Information Technology in general and computers in particular, have been growing rapidly during the past two decades, and they are the industries that neatly fall into this category. They will be the first batch of industries that could easily be relocated to Mattala New Town with minimum disruption.
The formulation of a relocation strategy is the most vital of all strategies of a New Town and it should be carefully structured in such a way so as to give priority to the construction of Architect designed, spacious, good quality houses with modern conveniences and large gardens, schools built to the highest possible standards with state-of-the-art teaching aids, playing fields and hospitals equipped with up-to-date facilities. Professionals and other workers employed in these relocated industries should qualify for attractive and generous relocation packages.
Prior to the construction of any buildings, it is absolutely essential that a proper layout of highways and access roads for the whole area to be agreed and constructed to internationally accepted highway standards, with drainage, water supply, gas, electricity and telephone laid underground, with only the street lighting columns built above ground. We must admit that these, by their very nature, are extremely expensive, but a New Town must be, by definition not only be a trail blazer but also serve as an excellent example of good design, aesthetics, craftsmanship, economic use of materials and resources with resultant reductions in subsequent maintenance costs. The creation of a pleasing and harmonious living environment is always expensive and if we are determined to create a New Town to be one of the generators of new wealth, we must be prepared to take the bull by the horns.
There is a saying that if you assemble a group of deaf and dumb people and keep them in a restricted area, within a few minutes they will develop a language of their own. This epitomises the latent resourcefulness of the human being. That being the case, when the number of inhabitants in Mattala New Town reaches a certain stage, for instance the ‘critical mass’, it will create its own momentum and will invent ways and means to make life workable and comfortable.
It is quite feasible that given time, someone will come up with new a mode of transport, perhaps small shuttle aircrafts to fly between Mattala Airport and Colombo on a regular basis driven by demand if any. It will drastically reduce the distance between Mattala and Colombo and other cities, in the same way, the construction of the ‘Expressways’ have achieved, between major towns. These ‘Expressways’ have reduced the journey times by so much, that Colombo is now only one hour and forty minutes away from Galle, and Galle is half an hour away, from Matara. This is what the ‘Expressways’ have so far achieved. Imagine what shuttle aircrafts will do to shorten the distance between Mattala and Colombo and other Cities of Sri-Lanka? This is the future. Right now, it may sound far-fetched and ‘pie in the sky’ scheme, but in this day and age, nothing can be ruled out, as anything is possible, given the appropriate human resources, funding and time.
The major criticism usually levelled against New Towns in UK is the severe lack of venues for entertainment, theatres, cinemas and sports and community facilities, especially for youngsters. These venues and facilities will only become economically viable, when the population of a New Town reaches a level, where there is sufficient demand to support such facilities. Until then and in the interim however, people will have to use available traffic links, but once high-speed transport systems come on stream, which are expected to be available within a reasonable period of time, people will be able to travel with ease to venues in Colombo and other Cities in the country, while enjoying the good life in the New Town.
Agriculture and animal husbandry
In the ‘Master Plan’ adequate land should be reserved for agriculture with special emphasis on large scale cultivation of maize, paddy and banana plantations, bearing in mind the ever increasing demand for organic food throughout the world, with an eye to facilitate future exports using Mattala Airport. Many countries in the West, already Air Freight a wide variety of fruit and vegetables from Sri-Lanka on a daily basis. Tropical fruits – with limited shelf life–imported from the Caribbean Islands, India, Pakistan and South Africa, are now very popular in the West and demand for fresh, organic fruits which has been growing for many years is expected to reach new heights especially for mangoes, papaya, pineapple and water melon.
This part of Sri-Lanka is renowned for best quality curd made in long established buffalo farms. Although yoghurt, widely available in the West is popular, they do not have the same taste as the real curd, made in farms of Ambalantota and Hambantota. The demand for good quality curd exists not only in the West, but also in Asia, Middle and Far East to be catered for, if only cheap and frequent air transport could be found, which Mattala could easily provide.
Mattala is in the dry zone of the South, where fresh water is at a premium. This is undoubtedly a major hurdle that must be cleared before undertaking any new development. Until this major obstacle is overcome, guaranteeing an uninterrupted supply of fresh water, it is not be feasible to talk about any large scale development and the relevant Authorities must immediately embark on a project to explore all available sources and in particular the possibility of tapping into the Walawe Ganga, one of the major rivers of Sri-Lanka. In this regard, it would be necessary to seek international expertise, and funding for a major water supply scheme. River water is one sure way of providing a guaranteed supply of fresh water for domestic and industrial use and until a dependable supply of drinkable water throughout the year can be guaranteed, no development is feasible. This is the major stumbling block, but there are parallels in other countries especially those in the Middle East, where minor miracles have been achieved, in the provision of a dependable supply of water.
Exploitation of solar power, energy of the Sun, is a rapidly growing industry throughout the world, accelerated by the recent exorbitant increases in the unit prices of electricity. Solar energy is one form of energy found in abundance in this part of Sri-Lanka, and this could be the most welcome opportunity to the greater use of solar power. If this energy is harnessed in sufficient quantities, it may even be possible to launch into desalination of sea water, which is found to be economical only if cheap electricity is available. Electricity from renewable sources is the future and Sri-Lanka could, one day, become the country that could produce cutting edge solar technology of the future.
Solutions urgently needed
The time is also ripe and in fact most urgent and pressing, to examine the prevailing living conditions in Colombo and suburbs, which have been experiencing a marked deterioration in the quality of life, due to the rapid development of high-rise blocks of flats, houses, front boundary walls, commercial buildings and expansion of highways, resulting in large areas being covered in bricks, concrete and tarmac. This has been exacerbated by the invasion of ‘three-wheelers’ on an unprecedented scale. The air quality in Colombo and suburbs has declined considerably due to pollution and if an effective remedy is not found – already in place in most of the capitols of the developed world – it will contribute to a substantial reduction in quality of life in the Greater Colombo Area as a whole.
This situation warrants urgent consideration by the Local and Central Governments, because any further delay could lead to the need to take more drastic measures, when they begin to make inroads into health and wellbeing of the people.
The business rationale for the setting up of an International Airport in a remote location like Mattala, would be to solve the problems connected with Colombo and suburbs. As stated before the situation is becoming ever so pressing due to the rapid escalation of property prices, which have risen so much during the past decade alone, that properties are now beyond the reach of many who are doing well paid jobs. While a remedy for this is urgently needed, what is even more pressing is the a solution to the growing menace of traffic congestion, which is costing many millions to the national economy on account of waste, pollution and public health. These matters need urgent solutions and the creation of the New Town in Mattala will no doubt be a step in the right direction.