What factors underpin the Critical Importance of Spatial Planning in Sri Lanka? — Part 2

 Sri Lanka never had a coherent regional economic development policy; hence, preparing regional spatial/physical plans poses a challenge.

5 mins read
Houses and Apartment Complexes seen from the top of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on August 7, 2023. The current metro area population of Colombo in 2023 will be 633,000, a 1.12% increase from 2022. The metro area population of Colombo in 2022 was 626,000, a 1.13% increase from 2021. The metro area population of Colombo in 2021 was 619,000, a 0.98% increase from 2020. (Photo by Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto)

2.1 Sri Lanka’s Unique Human Geography

Sri Lanka is a small country with a population of 22 million and a land area of 65,610 sq. km. Comparing population size with other nations, Sri Lanka is not small. It is an average-size country, with a high population density of 335 people per sq. km., where many human needs compete for limited land resources. A significant land area is essential to preserve and protect as environmentally sensitive areas, reservoirs, wild animal habitats, archaeological sites, cultural and world heritage sites, forests, wetlands, water retention areas, etc. The population density of the remaining usable land area is much higher than the above figure. Hence, more than many other countries, Sri Lanka Should be more concerned about the rational and scientific use of space. Even thinly populated countries with large land masses, like Australia and Canada, have prioritised spatial planning to achieve the efficiency of production factors and protect the environment and land resources for future development.

2.2 Long and Lingering History and Tradition of Human Settlements in a Subsistence Economy

Ancient human settlements in Sri Lanka were based on agriculture, especially for food crops such as rice and other grains. All ancient ruins and archaeological sites are found in river valleys from the Maha Oya to the Walawe River, known as the Dry Zone today. Archaeological evidence about ancient human settlements is rare in the Wet Zone and Hill country. It shows that with or without a national physical plan, human settlements have been set up in conformity with the natural resource endowments: river valleys for agriculture and seaports for internal and external trades. The spatial plan of a typical ancient village is a classic example of rational land use: housing in secured places from natural disasters, paddy fields below the reservoir, area for highland farming (chena cultivation), forest and grazing land for common use, reservoir catchment area, temples, and religious sites, often separated from the residences on marginal lands such as rocky/hilly areas. Houses were in clusters, convenient for social interaction, communication, protection, and social cohesion.  Hill Country and the wet zone, prone to natural hazards, were left for the water source and habitats for wild animals, preventing human-animal conflicts.

2.3 Growing Needs for Human Settlements Confirming the Market Economy   

After collapsing the kingdoms centred on the dry zone’s river valleys, human settlements gradually shifted to the wet zone and the hill country. During the colonial period, with the expansion of the plantation economy, human settlements with modern facilities were developed in the hilly country and the wet zone of the low country. This was a notable change in the land use and settlement pattern, creating land use issues and conflicts with the natural environment and traditional way of life.

Major infrastructure, such as roads, railways, airports, seaports, telecommunication systems, etc., have been gradually developed to meet the needs of the export-oriented plantation economy. Villages and cities have been shaped to facilitate the new economic order. The modern economic sector has been progressing with government patronage. The people in domestic agriculture and traditional economic activities and the space they used gradually disintegrated from the mainstream of the economy, and their welfare was neglected. However, after independence, successive governments started various programmes, schemes, and projects providing infrastructure facilities and welfare that benefitted neglected communities and areas. The service-providing agencies did not adhere to a spatial strategy and located their project activities according to popular demand, political guidance, implementation convenience, and space availability.

3. Institutional and Policy Frameworks and Key Spatial Planning Initiatives in Sri Lanka

3.1 Institutional Framework

The Urban Development Authority (UDA) was established in 1978 with the objectives and powers to promote integrated planning and implementation of economic, social, and physical development and regulate them. However, its authority is limited to declared urban areas; hence, it does not consider the whole human settlement or the territory as spatial units for planning. The Department of National Physical Planning is entrusted with the authority to formulate the national physical planning policy and the National Physical plan. It could prepare regional and sub-regional physical plans based on the national physical plan. The National Physical Planning Policy and the National Physical Plan- 2017/50 of the department were approved by the National Physical Planning Council, chaired by the HE president in 2019 and gazetted. The National Policy Framework: Vistas of Prosperity Splendour-2020/2025, the policy document of the Gotagaya Rajaksa Government, discusses a New Approach to the National Spatial System, but details are unavailable. According to the National Planning Department (NPD) website, “…as a part of the apex Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs, it is committed to policy development, planning, and implementation to accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic growth and social progress. It provides a national perspective to policies, programmes and projects, in contrast to the sectoral or regional perspectives of other institutions”. It shows that the National Planning Department, the central institution mandated for formulating development policies and plans and having the powers to guide policy and plan implementation, has no concern over the sectoral, regional, and spatial distribution of development activities. 

3.2 Institutional Constraints

The physical planning department has no power, strategies, or mechanism to translate the spatial plan they designed into an implementable economic development plan and monitor the implementation. It has no line of command over the implementing agencies, who place the development projects on the ground. Also, it has no institutional or functional relationship with the National Planning Department, the apex body with the power of the purse to drive development. Institutions such as BOI, EDB, and IDB, who approve/ facilitate private sector projects, do not work with the physical planning department. They are not concerned about whether the project locations conform to the national physical plan. Though space is rapidly becoming a critical issue for socio-economic development in the country,it still allows locating projects and human activities, disregarding the spatial aspects.

3.3 Policy Framework-Structure and Short Commings

 Sri Lanka never had a coherent regional economic development policy; hence, preparing regional spatial/physical plans poses a challenge.  In the absence of regional spatial policies and plans, urban plans prepared by urban councils for their precinct can’t consider broader regional development issues/needs, urban-rural linkages, and spatially cross-cutting issues. Such isolated, disintegrated urban plans cannot harness the full potential of the region or sub-region. Many urban councils are yet to prepare even pragmatic plans for their precincts. During my tenure as the Secretary of the Ministry of Western Region Development, the UDA commenced preparing physical plans for a few selected municipal/urban council areas. Preparing rational physical plans requires high professional skills, which most urban councils lack. Though the UDA has several confident physical planners, I observed that its institutional capacity was inadequate to provide technical backstopping for all municipal and urban councils.Moreover, rural Local Government Authorities do not have any physical/structural plan; hence, construction/human interaction with the space is not regulated.

3.4 Western Region Megapolis Plan Initiative

During the 2002/2004 period, under the guidance of the then-prime minister, the Western Region Master Plan (Megapolis Plan) was prepared. In 2016, it was revised and approved as the Western Region Master Plan-2030. This is the first regional development plan prepared for the capital region (an urban region), which combines physical and economic development aspects. It has incorporated national development objectives and international and peripheral linkages (urban hierarchy within the planned area). However, an implementation mechanism is missing in it. Despite having only seven more years left before the planned period elapses, very little has been implemented.

3.5 Mahaweli River Valley Development Initiative

Mahaweli is the major rural-regional development program implemented in the country based on a physical plan. Instead of tinkering with an existing region, it created an entirely new resource region.  However, its primary purpose is to reap the maximum benefit of the water to generate electricity and irrigated agriculture, especially paddy farming. Its infrastructure programme has not considered the needs of secondary and tertiary sectors. Functionally, the whole Mahaweli area is not integrated as one region. Gradually, functional sub-regions are developing within the Mahaweli region. Some of them are augmenting with non-Mahaweli areas as well. Now, the Mahaweli region needs several regional and sub-regional development plans, with due consideration to spatial aspects, to address emerging development trends and issues.

3.6 Greater Hambantota Development Initiative

 During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the Urban Development Authority started preparing the Greater Hambantota Development Plan, but it has not yet been approved as a regional development plan. In 2023, cabinet approval was granted to prepare a comprehensive regional development plan, like the Western region master plan, and the task has been assigned to a Singaporean firm.

To be continued

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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