Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Colombo’s changing face

Colombo is getting cleaner, greener and safer, much to the pride of the entire country. Similar changes are taking place in suburbs such as Nugegoda and Rajagiriya, thanks to the new management of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) under the Ministry of Defence.

It is refreshing to see the emergence of order, charm and beauty in the Colombo city after years of squalor and chaos, especially over the past 30 to 40 years. Mismanagement, maladministration and corruption in the administration had ruined the order and propriety of the city, spoiling the image of the elegant and beautiful Town Hall. The edifice of the colonial administration had reflected the order and management of the day.

The beautiful parks, playgrounds and tree-lined roads and streets that had once earned Colombo the title ‘Garden City’, had faded out at the hands of bad managers and administrators. Colombo, which was perhaps the most beautiful tropical urban environment in the region, had gone into decline and decay.

Stagnating city

The poor nomination process to select councillors to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) often resulted in ineffective, inefficient and corrupt councils during the last two/three decades. With the Open Economy, things went from bad to worse, instead of improving. The result was uncollected garbage, clogged drains and floods during rains, outbreaks of deadly diseases and the emergence of unhygienic public places in the city.

This environment also bred the underworld, the drug menace, illicit dealings and the black economy. Finally, it led to the creation of vulnerable localities for the LTTE to penetrate and attack within the city. The timely action by the Defence Ministry at the height of the battle against terrorism saved Colombo from a massive explosion. The action taken to protect the city, by eliminating underworld gangs, saved Sri Lanka just as much as the operations of the Security Forces and the Government in the North.

Colonial setting

Having taken over the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, the British strategy of developing a port-based economy for the then Ceylon, brought them big dividends. Constructing a network of roads and railways leading from the port city of Colombo, to the interior to develop plantations of tea, rubber and coconut out of virgin forests led to a lucrative plantation economy. Security and economic exploitation were the two main prongs of their strategy in Ceylon.

This enabled Colombo to become a pre-eminent port city in South Asia, if not Asia and a high-standing colonial administrative centre within the British Empire. The close proximity to the British Raj in India, particularly South India with a large pool of cheap labour, led to the growth of the colonial economy here. The emergence of a South Indian community as a minority group in the island and particularly in Colombo was a promising factor for the economics and politics of the British Raj.

British development of city

The British were aware of the flood plain status of the city being located close to the river Kelani. They built a flood protection bund along the river to prevent excessive flooding of the city during monsoons. The relatively flat terrain of the flood plains allowed lateral expansion of the city. The British used the canal system built by the Dutch as a drainage system to take excess water to the sea, rather than as a mode of transport. They also allowed the lagoons and wetlands outside the city to absorb the excess water during monsoons.

As a result, housing developments and settlements in the city and outside became ‘ribbon settlements’. Housing development fanned out of the inner city which housed the export-import businesses and government administrative offices. Outside the Municipal limits, small towns such as Moratuwa, Dehiwala, Mount Lavinia, Nugegoda, Maharagama, Kelaniya and Wattala developed to cater to the population employed in the city. This was the pattern of growth in Colombo before 1948.
There had hardly been any serious physical planning, even though the Town and Country Planning Act had good prescriptions to follow. Colombo and the suburbs developed rather haphazardly without a master plan.

However, with a six to eight million population and the city area probably holding under half a million, Colombo was a ‘caring city’. It offered facilities such as parks and open spaces for the people to play and relax in, a public library with branches in different locations, a charity scheme for the poor administered by a Charity Commissioner, a sewerage system, roads, a garbage collection system, good street lighting, public toilets and pipe-borne water.

The British established an effective Municipal administration for Colombo to ensure efficient management. They also took steps to maintain the city’s tropical charm and beauty, keeping the city clean and healthy. It had been reported that Colombo then was exceedingly elegant, and provided high quality urban living, compared to, for example, Singapore, the port city of British Malaya, South East Asia.

The charm and beauty surrounding the Town Hall and Vihara Maha Devi Park (Victoria Park) lingered on for a few years after Independence. Soon, with competitive party politics, things started sliding despite the CMC remaining with one party (UNP) for nearly 55 years. The conversion of Colombo beyond its colonial structure into a vibrant and dynamic metropolis, appropriate for a newly independent nation, never materialised, remaining a dream in the minds of people.

Post-Independence period

There was no terrorism in the country up to 1983 and peace prevailed. The powerful government after 1977 was politically Colombo-based. A strong Cabinet and a steamroller majority in Parliament also provided the legislative and fiscal support to effect changes in the law to develop the city. The Open Economy and access to and availability of foreign aid provided a favourable environment for the then government to turn Colombo in to a modern city.

Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened, except location changes for the Parliament and a few administrative offices shifting to Kotte. This is the most pathetic story of Colombo after Independence.

There may have been a will to change, but a strategy for transformation beyond the colonial mindset and trappings was missing. Devoid of any structural change, Colombo limped on. It was forced to accommodate a larger population and an increased volume of trade and commerce with the same infrastructure facilities and administrative capacity. The net results were overcrowding in the housing sector, traffic congestion and pollution.

This increased the vulnerability of the city to natural and man-made hazards. It became the ideal grounds for crime and diseases. There emerged a setting for city politicos and other interested groups to capture power and be in power by building vote-banks through the promotion of urban slums in the city and elsewhere.

New role for Colombo

The present Government’s strategy, under the Mahinda Chinthana aims at transforming Sri Lanka’s economy by diversifying and developing new sectors with growth centres by tapping the island’s regional resource potential and location advantages. With peace and stability, a strong political leadership which is committed to development can make all the difference in the island.

This holds true for Colombo residents too. Improved material comforts for all people, including those in remote villages, should be the goal. People need a quality life, within a sustainable environment and we are blessed with such a biodiversity. All it needs is effective leadership promoting well designed socio-economic development.

Colombo has to play a new, more dynamic role in this transformation. The urban renewal and development program undertaken by the new UDA management in Colombo is thus praiseworthy.

The Authority, under the Defence Ministry with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa must have realised the important role a clean and safe urban environment, particularly in Colombo, plays in the important national task of maintaining law and order after defeating terrorism and establishing peace in the country.

The housing development it is implementing for the city’s slum-dwellers is the most praiseworthy and economically sound component of this program. It is heartening to note that a new, graceful outlook is taking shape in Colombo after many years. This would fit very well with the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo (CHOGM) in November.

by Prof. Bernard W. Dissanayake -