Sri Lanka: The Way Forward — Part 4

There is a unique pattern in the flow of goods and services and human interaction with multiple functions and needs based on social, economic, historical and resource factors.

6 mins read
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Irrespective of being rural or urban, everybody prefers the convenience of urban facilities. In a developed economy, the unit cost of goods and services is affordable to its citizens, and export-oriented products are competitive in the global market. Developing the right policies and strategies is essential to achieve the same in Sri Lanka. Under the present context, the following are a few suggestions to consider in the short, medium, and long term.

(a)         A mechanism to ensure the locations of all strategic public and private sector projects are compatible with the approved National Physical Structure Plan is essential. It will set the trend for translating the national physical plan into a reality in the long run. In addition to the Megapolis of the Western Province, two other metropolitan regions based on the seaports of Hambantota and Trincomalee may be developed with a long-term vision. Further, a development corridor linking Hambantota Colombo and Trincomalee may be formed using the expressway network and interchanges. That will prevent the unhealthy expansion of present settlements beyond their carrying capacity, especially the hill country, and encourage the concentration of development activities in the growth centres. That will facilitate improving the overall efficiency and diversify the economy with the export orientation. The remaining areas can gradually be converted into zones of agriculture, forestry, wildlife, tourism, national heritage, etc., as per the national plan.

(b)         Within the National Physical Plan framework, regional and local authority-level plans must be prepared for the country, embracing all human and environmental needs, which must be legally enforceable and enforced strictly. Institutional and judicial arrangements are paramount to monitor the performance of the enforcement authorities to prevent officialdom and misuse of powers and eliminate corruption.

(c)          There is a unique pattern in the flow of goods and services and human interaction with multiple functions and needs based on social, economic, historical and resource factors. Townships of different scales have evolved based on those factors disregarding administrative boundaries. Therefore, from the socioeconomic point of view, catchment areas of cities and towns of different scales are the best territories for regional and local level planning. The total catchment area of the township/ resource region should be regarded as one entity for planning purposes. However, implementation and enforcement may be done based on the administrative boundaries.

(d)         The present land use pattern can’t be continued unless it is substantially readjusted. Expansion of settlements using tiny land blocks must be prevented and encouraged for vertical living. However, the present land tenure system and holding size are not conducive to that and remain significant constraints. It can’t be changed in a short period without disturbing the lifestyle of the people and a massive investment. To this end, the government and local authorities must create an enabling environment to satisfy the increasing housing demand through proper zoning plans, land acquisition, land amalgamation/augmentation, reallocation, relocation, urban rejuvenation, regulating land blocking out, etc. Unhealthy settlement expansion shall be stopped as quickly as possible. If necessary, laws/ regulations must be amended/repealed or new acts introduced to facilitate planned development.

(e)         Infrastructure such as access roads, electricity, and pipe bone water should be provided only according to a rational spatial plan encouraging the ever-increasing population to move into planned settlements. Instead of ad-hoc responses to the demand for land, infrastructure and services must be managed through land use/ physical structure plans and regulations.

(f)          Urban planning and enforcement must be effective enough in converting low-value/unproductive vast land areas behind the ribbon-type development along the main roads by providing proper access roads, land acquisitions, resale, redistribution, etc. Those should become revenue sources for the local authorities while contributing to the development and social welfare.

(g)          The road sector must have a clear policy on road classifications, width, alignment, pedestrian movements, shoulders, drains, etc. and a long-term structure plan for different grades of roads. Instead of acquiring and digging from time to time along the same road, lands should be acquired as per the long-term plan once and for all to avoid abortive structures and inconvenience to landowners. If there are financial constraints, the Right of Way should be marked on the ground, and the development should be frozen.  Construction of buildings using bypass roads as access should be controlled under the Thoroughfares Ordinance and urban planning guidelines.

(h)         As discussed, the traffic in the Colombo Urban Agglomerate is mostly in one direction in the morning and evening, creating unmanageable peak hours. To reduce the demand for travelling and prevent one-directional traffic, the daily travel needs (health, education, workplaces, shops, and other services) should be deconcentrated to suburbs and satellite cities based on proper urban plans. Establishing popular schools in the suburbs will reduce one-directional transport to a considerable extent.

(i)           Instead of depending mainly on public and personalised road transport, attention should be paid to developing mass transportation for inter and intracity connectivity. The vicinity of railway stations should be planned as urban centres. Such plans must focus on concentrating housing facilities, schools, and economic activities according to transport convenience. Park and drive, storage, loading, and unloading facilities at the railway station will encourage railway usage for passengers and goods transportation, minimising the cost, traffic congestion and risks.

(j)           Large housing schemes such as Raddolugama, Mattegoda, and Millenium City would ease the travelling inconveniences of those who commute daily to urban centres. Such a settlement should be large enough to have the scale of economies for transport and other utility services, shopping, schools, etc.

(k)          A national programme to relocate settlers in unviable villages is a must. High priority should be given to villages/encroachments in environmentally sensitive locations, isolated hamlets, villages threatened by wild animals and urban slums. Those lands should be released for forestry programmes or encouraged owners to cultivate perennial crops with proper soil conservation measures. The land occupied by slum dwellers can be used for high-value economic activities to recover part of the relocation costs.

(l)           The settlement expansion in the environmentally sensitive hill country must be prevented with immediate effects. Such areas must retain only the number of families/people required to operate specific economic activities endowed by nature or exceptional circumstances.

(m)        Dry zone land resources should be used productively to accommodate unviable settlements in the wet zone and the hilly country and the future economic development needs of the increasing population. Most areas may be used for large-scale commercial farming with modern technology to improve the quality of products and reduce the cost. Land alienation and land use policy should be revised to encourage land augmentation and large-scale farming with modern technology. Subsistence agriculture is not the solution to increasing unemployment; it only shares poverty with the present and next generation. Smallholder farmers must be supported in labour/land-intensive farming with modern technology, such as drip irrigation, greenhouse cultivation, etc.

(n)         Wildlife authorities and spatial planners should examine ways and means to minimise human-wild animal conflicts. The possibility of establishing a single extensive interconnected national park system by connecting isolated parks through protected wider corridors, free from human interaction, must be investigated. Instead of encircling scattered human settlements with electric fences, which limits the people’s movement, circumscribing larger animal habitats must be considered. Initially, such large animal habitats may be encircled with electric fences. Long-term fencing must be done with elephant-resistant flora and fauna. Habitat enrichment (provision of open areas, food, and water) should be done inside, not in the outer skirts of forests.

(o)         The National Planning Department and the Department of Physical Planning must collaborate closely. The physical planning department must have control over the location of all major development projects of the public and private sectors. It must have a mechanism and legal authority to enforce the spatial aspect of development. Similarly, all local government authorities must have approved spatial plans and legal authority to enforce them. All sectorial institutions shall comply with the national, regional, and local authorities’ spatial plans. Necessary legal provisions must be introduced to that end.

(p)         Land sales without due consideration to transport, access to utility services and schools, stormwater drainage, etc., must be prevented, and land subdivisions must be strictly controlled.  Alienation of government land to landless must be spatially rationalized. Allocating tiny blocks of land of high value to individuals and using marginal or environmentally sensitive locations for housing must stop with immediate effect.  Instead, facilities and systems must be introduced to expand settlements vertically in urban and semi-urban areas.

(q)         An urban rejuvenation program with the involvement of landowners, tenants, the private sector, and the public sector may be introduced to change the landscape of dilapidated, congested urban business areas and shanties. Laws preventing land augmentation and improvements (The Rent Act, The Land Acquisition Act, The Land Development Ordinance, etc.) must be amended or repealed to facilitate urban rejuvenation.


Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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