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Sunday, June 4, 2017
by Rajan Philips-June 3, 2017
The flood havoc has proved to be far worse than anyone could have imagined. The death and missing toll is now past 300. That includes nearly 50 school children. Kids who like to have fun running in the rain have instead perished in the floods. The list goes on, making finger pointing meaningless. The government invariably is getting the flak, as it must, for by its own admission the ministry in charge of disaster relief was not prepared for this disaster. And the minister in charge was out of the country attending an international conference on disaster. How more disastrous can you get in your public relations? Timing never comes right for this government. The Prime Minister’s pre-arranged medical trip to America could not have come in a worse week. And the President too pre-occupied for ceremonies looked glum while swearing in the second-tier of ministers who were all trying hard to appear smiling. That was Part Two of the cabinet reshuffle.
Disasters are no blessings, in disguise or otherwise. But the period after a disaster provides the opportunity to get right things that went wrong; and to stop going ahead with initiatives with identifiable externalities, whose intended results are uncertain, and whose unintended results could be harmful. The 2004 tsunami disaster presented Sri Lanka the proverbial ‘tabula rasa’ (clean slate) for a fresh start, as the late Fr. Dalton Forbes, the Oblate priest and professor at the Catholic National Seminary in Ampitiya, wrote at that time in a beautiful articulation of the religious understanding of the hand of God and the resourcefulness of humans. The ‘clean slate’, Fr. Forbes had in mind, was for a new political chapter. It was not to be for whatever slate there was, was quickly broken up by the political tom-tom (PTOM) beaters of the day.
Focus on basics, not fantasies
The 2017 flood disaster, to my mind, presents the opportunity for a physical makeover of the country’s landscape and infrastructure, and through the most rational method of doing it to have positive political consequences at the national, provincial and local levels. But it is an opportunity that the present government is not motivated or equipped to seize on its own. Instead, it must be dragged, kicking and screaming, by public opinion and pressure to do what is basic and necessary and not something that is idiosyncratic and farfetched. After the flood affected people are, as far as possible, relieved of their immediate difficulties, the government’s focus must be on basic rebuilding and restoration and not Megapolis fantasies.
It is not necessary to abandon the idea of urbanizing the Western Province. Rather, the idea of state sponsored urbanization must be thought through more thoroughly and its implementation must be systematically broken into phases in terms of time and locations – i.e. spread over manageable time and undertaken in consultation with the different municipalities where developments will occur. Further, against the backdrop of the Meetotamulla garbage mountain and with the experience of the recent drought and current flood crises, urban development in the Western Province and elsewhere must proceed from the ground-up, and not top-down from the deceptively glittering heights of condo-towers.
There is no point building towers for banking or luxury living without checking infrastructure capacities to provide water and sanitary services, address drainage impacts, manage garbage collection and disposal, meet energy requirements, and accommodate traffic and parking. Addressing drainage systematically and consistently could no longer be ignored in the wake of the current disaster. Even the most elaborate drainage system could be overwhelmed by a massive downpour. But at least you will have some control over the runoff instead of having water levels rising everywhere.
There are also economic and social concerns in the rapid development of apartments and condominiums in Colombo and Greater Colombo areas. Remarkably, the Governor of the Central Bank has raised concerns about the over-heating of the apartment building sector, its credit-squeezing effects, and its potential bubble-risks. Remarkably, as well, a major ‘development industry player’ has reportedly ‘rebuffed’ the Governor’s concerns. In mature market societies, market leaders (except the Trumps of the world, who on Thursday brought upon himself universal ridicule, withdrawing America from the Paris Climate Change Accord, along with Syria and Nicaragua) do not usually ‘cross words’ with their Central Banks but take Banks’ opinions for their cautionary worth. Not so in societies, where political connections matter more than market fundamentals for business success. Specific to Sri Lanka, what should be of concern is not only the danger of real estate speculation but also the broader social relevance of an over-heated residential market in Colombo.
Put another way, the Colombo, or greater Colombo, condominium market is out of bounds to the vast majority of people living in Colombo, or the Western Province. The Colombo market is also sustained by a disproportionately large share of national resources to provide the services the new developments will require. The Port City development, or whatever it is fancifully called now, is a case in point, and a huge one at that. As far as resource allocation goes, allocating resources to service Colombo condominiums comes at the expense of the rest of the country. As I have said many times in this column no government worthy has responded to the JVP leader’s very pertinent question, that I paraphrase again: if the government thinks Sri Lanka desperately needs a financial centre, why not build it in the old Fort? That would be economically more responsible and environmentally sustainable than the Port City project.
But WHAT does Sri Lanka desperately need? That is the real question in the wake of the flood disaster and the drought disaster that preceded it, not to mention the huge hangover from the war disaster? How would a financial centre in Colombo help the needs of the country? Bear in mind, Sri Lanka is neither Singapore nor Dubai, socially, culturally, or politically. And there is no economic certainty that, globally or regionally, a third financial centre between Singapore and Dubai is needed or would be viable, and that Sri Lanka is the god-chosen location for it. What the country desperately needs is to heed the warnings of recurring natural disasters and return to addressing its basic infrastructure, hard and soft. That would also make a good deal of economic sense. How is it to be done?
Devolution by validation
It is not only the Western Province that requires urbanization, but also other provinces that need urban services for their cities and towns. More importantly, all the provinces need proactive and preventive measures for dealing with drought, floods and landslides. There is enough information about flood-risk river basins and locations prone to landslides. The NBRA puts out notices of warning about potentially landslide locations. But how is the general public supposed to act on these warnings? And what is the likelihood that everyone gets these warnings, or the weather forecasts announced by the Meteorological Department.
There was some exasperated ministerial musing that the Meteorological Department might as well be closed because no one is heeding its warnings. The answer is not in closing national institutions some of which came into being long before our cabinet ministers were born. The answer is in increasing their effectiveness by establishing institutional connections between the national, provincial and local levels of government.
For example, the national government would take the lead in designing and implementing flood protection measures on flood-risk river basins, while their maintenance and upkeep are best left to provincial officials. All three levels of government will need to be involved in mapping out floodplain and landslide areas, and in regulating and controlling development activities in those locations. It would make rational sense to adopt similarly hierarchical and co-ordinated approaches in providing urban services – from water and sanitary, to drainage, garbage and road building.
This is how things were, albeit in somewhat rudimentary form, during the last years of colonial rule and the first years of independence. What has got derailed since must be put back on track now. The political consequence of involving the three levels government in basic rebuilding and restoration would simply be the experiential validation of the provincial and local levels of government. Such experiential validation may prove to be more successful in silencing the critics of devolution than all the attempts to achieve devolution through constitutional texts. A purely constitutional exercise, without corresponding practical validation, almost always favours its detractors rather than its proponents.