by K.Locana Gunaratna, PhD

Following some independence from the Colonial British through the Donoughmore Constitution in 1931, our prime indigenous concerns focused on agriculture for domestic consumption and on the broad-basing of education. These particular achievements were due respectively to two farsighted Sri Lankan politicians: D.S.Senanayake and C.W.W. Kannangara. They were the first Sri Lankans appointed to the otherwise British dominated Cabinet of Ministers.

The unique consequences were an effort towards food self-sufficiency and a mass-scale free education system. They resulted in: rebuilding of our abandoned ancient reservoirs in the Dry Zone to resettle land-hungry Wet Zone farmers; and, making primary education free to the public in all government schools and to be conducted in the indigenous languages.

Following ‘Independence’ in 1948, these same priorities continued and there was also a new focus on hydroelectric power projects. This latter arose through the pioneering work of the brilliant Sri Lankan engineer Wimalasurendara. His original proposals presented earlier at the local Institution of Engineers had been shot down by the then predominant British membership who were influential with the Colonial Government.

Also, multipurpose irrigation and hydroelectric power generation projects came into being only through the efforts of notable Sri Lankans, some of whom were inspired by the success of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US. This inspiration was important which in due course resulted chronologically in the Gal Oya, Walawe Ganga, and the Mahaweli Ganga multipurpose development projectsConsequently, an important difference between our progress then and that of many other low or middle income counries (LMICs) was that we, until relatively recent decades, were focused more on rural upliftment in preference to urban development.

It is relevant to note that implementing a plan for Colombo prepared by the famous British Town Planner Patrick Abercrombie, working in collaboration with his former student, Oliver Weerasinghe, who was by then the first head of our new Town Planning Department, was sidelined by our government in favour of the Gal Oya Project. A few years later, implementing the Colombo Master Plan Project prepared by the same Department then under the direction of Neville Gunaratna, with the support of a massive UNDP team of foreign experts was also sidelined again this time in favour of the Accelerated Mahaweli Project’s Master Plan.

Thus, rural and regional development projects at that time clearly received priority over urban development. That committed focus is the reason why we then had less urban blight and its adversities than in most other contemporary LMICs. This situation changed negatively for us only in more recent decades.

Current National Developmental Concerns

There are qualified and experienced professionals, who were and some of whom still are available in Sri Lanka despite recent adverse economic conditions. Given the unfettered opportunity, they surely can help to deal with many areas of serious national concern that confront us today, a few of which are:

– the ailing agricultural sector and rural development;

– the Human-Elephant Conflict in many rural areas;

– the impacts of Climate Change including recurrent floods, droughts & landslides;

– the vulnerability of some coastal populations to likely sea-level rise in the near future;

– the state of our cities with gross living conditions for the poor; and,

– the ailing construction sector.

All these identified areas require expertise in various professional disciplines to successfully deal with them. Spatial Planning expertise is required in almost all of these areas of concern. This latter specialization is commonly referred to in Sri Lanka by the old British terminology: “Town and Country Planning“. ‘Country Planning’ includes both ‘Regional and Rural Settlement Planning’. The latter has never been comprehensively taught in current Sri Lankan academia.

While this important profession has no expertise in Agriculture and Agro-Pedology, specialists in these areas fortunately are still locally available, but may not be for long. It is important that we do our best to retain these and indeed all other professionals we have to serve our country. The important areas of Rural Settlement and Regional Planning are also required immediately and in the foreseeable future. They are clearly needed for our collaborative national developmental work.

Our cities and Towns

It is not suggested here that we should now neglect our urban areas in favour of rural development. We need much better urban public transport, safer streets and sidewalks, in-situ slum-upgrading and much more environmentally friendly ‘green’ buildings for desired urban progress. The cities that have growing unhygienic slums and shanties need close consideration. Improving the living conditions of their underserved communities will indeed be very necessary and beneficial. These required solutions clearly do not and should not involve the building of multi-storied flats for shanty-dwellers in the suburbs of these cities as is sometimes done, which merely transfers urban blight from city centres to their suburbs.

The planned development of small towns including those required in the Dry Zone is very important and should be given much higher priority than at present. They must be so located and equipped as to serve not only their own populations but also their rural hinterlands. There must be provision within these towns of technical support facilities for agriculture and also social infrastructure including secondary schools and well-equipped small hospitals. These should be designed to serve not only their own urban populations but also be intentionally designed and located so as to encourage and facilitate access by folk in the nearby rural hinterlands of these small towns. Only such provisions will directly help in reducing rural migrations to Colombo and other cities.

The Mahaweli Project

It may be recalled that by ‘accelerating’ development work on the Mahaweli Project in the late 1970s, completion of the very costly ‘headworks’ with hydropower generation capacity were achieved early. A key important achievement was the much lower costs to the country than if these large and very expensive headworks were left to be built later. Accelerating the Mahaweli Project with early borrowings of foreign exchange has indeed greatly benefited us in many ways. One of these very important benefits is that it provided us and will continue to provide us with more clean energy from hydro-electric power for the present and also the future, at a lower cost than otherwise. With that ‘acceleration’, some of the agriculture and human settlement components on the Mahaweli Systems ‘H’ and ‘C’ were also substantially completed.

The Maduru Oya Dam in ‘System B’ was the last main ‘headworks’ to be realized under the Accelerated Program. It was built by a Canadian company (FAFJ) with funds from their government. A small extent of settlement work in ‘System B’ including the planning of a few small towns was begun earlier by the Mahaweli Development Board. But, the main irrigation and rural settlement planning work on this ‘Downstream’ development aspect of the Maduru Oya Left Bank was entrusted to a consortium of two US consultancy firms (Berger & IECO) with funding by USAID. Those two firms worked in very close collaboration with Sri Lankan professional expertise from a local consulting firm mainly on the aspect of Rural Settlement Planning.

This latter important work on the System B downstream area ended abruptly with much of our efforts still on the drawing boards. The reason for the sudden stoppage was due to the threat of resumed armed hostilities by the LTTE against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL). Apparently, the LTTE’s perception then was that the ongoing project would result in non-Tamil citizens being settled in areas the LTTE considered as their ‘Tamil Homeland’. This perception seemed to have been successfully canvassed by them with the governments of Canada and the US.

This writer’s understanding is that the settler selection policy in the contested parts of the System ‘B’ area, had not been clearly defined by the GOSL at that time of work stoppage. Tragically, this important downstream work on ‘System B’ of the Accelerated Mahaweli Project, which could also have benefited some parts of the North and East as well was aborted and came to a sudden halt.

It would now seem appropriate,

in the current context of the extraordinarily high National Debt, for the GOSL to put together a competent professional team of relevant local expertise to do some preliminary work on this aspect of the Project. The required expertise should not only be in Engineering but also importantly in the professional areas of Agro-based Regional and Rural Settlement Planning.

The starting point of this work should be the last competent feasibility study done by the Consultants.

It was entitled ‘Land Use and Settlement Planning for Two Sample Areas of the System ‘B’ Irrigation Project’ and dated August 1982. The two sample areas in this said study had been identified on the basis of a thorough Agro-Pedology study of the Project Area. They represented the two predominant soil types relevant to planned agriculture in that area.

Further work on Settlement Planning in this effort would also require the

definition of a rational and fair settler selection policy in this under-populated regionIt may also require external funding to restart and continue work on the remaining downstream areas of ‘System B’. In this time of need, receiving international funding for this abruptly halted Mahaweli Project work, would surely be beneficial to us in every way. We could even seriously consider proceeding in due course to complete the remaining stages of the Project as set out in the Mahaweli Master Plan.

(The writer is a Chartered Architect; Chartered Town Planner; Past President, National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka; Past General President, Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science;Past President, Sri Lanka Institute of Architects; Past President, Institute of Town Planners of Sri Lanka; and Vice President, Sri Lanka, Economic Association.)


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