Issues and Concerns in Spatial Planning and Management in Sri Lanka  — Part 3

Since independence, Sri Lanka has spent a colossal amount of borrowed/grants and own funds and sacrificed resources for development, especially for physical infrastructure.

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Central part of Sri Lanka [Mohamed Izad/ Unsplash]

Though spatial planning is essential, it has received extremely low priority in Sri Lanka. Also, there have been issues of concern about the management of spatial development programmes and projects that have been started. Consequently, many socioeconomic problems have been created. Some are irreparable; some can be rectified at an excessive cost. Unfortunately, policy formulators have yet to realise the gravity of the issue, and they keep blind eyes, allowing further mismanagement of the limited land resources without remedial actions. To understand the seriousness of the problem and the urgent need for solutions, some of the issues and related programs and activities that led to significant misuse/mismanagement of space and their effects are discussed below.   

4.1 Land Alienation Policy, Unplanned Village Expansion Schemes and Encroachments  

The traditional villages could no longer accommodate the increasing population, preventing them from becoming landless, homeless, and unemployed. The Land Development Ordinance-1935 allowed the legal alienation of state lands to landless people. The government has implemented many Village Expansion schemes, especially in densely populated wet zones, to distribute lands to spillovers from traditional villages for agriculture and dwelling purposes.  Very often, marginal lands next to the traditional villages, buffer zones of sanctuaries and national parks, and forest reserves around villages were selected for this purpose. Those were hilly or rocky trains with poor-quality soil, without drinking and irrigation water. Under a scientific and rational land use system, most of those should have been used for nature reserves, agroforestry, etc.  These lands do not generate a decent income to sustain settler families. Hence, it amounts to misuse of land and other resources.

Though the legal framework was provided under the Land Development Ordinance, there was no consistent policy or regular system to distribute land. So, people suffering from land hunger were prompted to encroach on state lands for housing, cultivation, and business purposes. Later, the government adopted a policy for regularising the encroached lands, and encroaching became the accepted practice to receive a block of state land.  This policy stimulated people (not only the landless) to encroach on any vacant state lands, including roads, rivers, reservoirs, forest and wildlife reservations, and environmentally sensitive places such as hilltops, flood plains, water sources, etc.  Due to social and political pressure, the government was compelled to provide infrastructure facilities and other amenities to these unviable settlements at a massive cost.  A proper analysis of the socioeconomic cost of these settlements would reveal that settling them in better locations would be much more economical and enable them to find jobs and easy access to services. In that case, the unit infrastructure cost per household will be much lower. The concept behind land allocation in village expansion and colonization schemes seems to be that farmers must cultivate the same land, which shelters them.  Therefore, the cost-effectiveness of infrastructure, service delivery system, and convenience of settlers have not received due attention.

 Moreover, there have been instances where lands suitable for productive purposes (commercial activities, industries, or tourism) have been alienated in small blocks for low-income housing schemes. Similarly, some East Coast lands ideal for tourism-related projects are used for military camps and related activities. A sizable block of land in Borella with very high commercial value is used for the prison. High-value lands in Colombo Fort have been used as military and defense headquarters until they were relocated recently. All those are a few examples of government-sponsored uneconomical use and mismanagement of the space.

4.2 Uncontrolled Urban Sprawl and its Effects

Western province, which includes the Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara districts, has the highest population density in the country: 3621,1802 and 815 people per sq. km. respectively. The urban sprawl of Combo extends more than 40 Km. from the city centre, which encompasses catchment areas of 3 District capitals, forming a single sizeable urban agglomerate. Settlements are expanding rapidly without proper regional and sub-regional plans to guide them. In the absence of proper spatial plans, land is being sold for property development in every nook and corner of the province, disregarding the need for transport, associated infrastructure, and urban services.  If the present phase of land sub-division and urban sprawl continues for a few more years, the entire province will be covered with roofs and septic tanks, leaving little space for other human settlement needs.

Another significant issue is the urbanisation along the main roads on a linear pattern (ribbon-type development), erecting barricades denying proper access to the much larger land area behind the built strip. Hence, those lands would remain rural or shanties with no commercial value. For instance, either side along the Galle Road from Colombo to Tangalle (205 Km) is blocked with linear structures, leaving little room for access to scattered housing and settlements (large areas) behind. It looks like the entire road passes through an extended urban area, making no difference between the village and the town along the road. The same situation exists along the Kandy Road up to Ambepussa, Negambo Road to Chilaw and Ratnapura Road to Hanwella.The ribbon-type development along the main roads prevents the trickle-down effects of costly road programmes. Urban sprawl is a significant issue for cities like Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, which are getting overpopulated beyond their carrying capacity. To accommodate the growing population, physical developments occur in environmentally sensitive surroundings of most hill country cities.

4.3 Conflict Between Settlement Pattern and Transport Solutions.

4.3.1 Colombo Metropolitan Region

According to an IMF analysis, Sri Lanka is among the countries with the slowest road speed.  As per the Road Quality Index 2019, Sri Lanka’s score is 3.9, which is below the global average of 4.07.  The traffic congestion and transport problem in the greater Colombo area has been a topic for several decades for many studies by transport planners and international funding agencies. Professor Amsal Kumarage states in his article titled URBAN TRAFFIC CONGESTION: THE PROBLEM & SOLUTION, published in the Economic Review, Sri Lanka, “According to the TransPlan Model (UoM,1999), average traffic speeds within the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) have dropped to around 20km/hr today. The typical corridor (major artery) speed is around 10-15 kms/hr within Colombo City”.  His research report titled GRATER COLOMBO TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT, submitted to the Minister of Transport, states “around 70% of the length of the national roads within the 10-km radius from the city centre is congested throughout the day. The average speed on these roads falls below 15 kms per hour. At such speeds, fuel consumption doubles, consequently increasing air pollution as well”. The article titled Transport Delemma: What is the Way out? Published in Daily FT on 7 February 2019, it states, “Commuting to and from Colombo city is a daily struggle. The average speed in Colombo’s major corridors during the peak hours has reduced to about 12km per hour”.  “The loss of productive time increases costs and productivity losses and waste of foreign exchange on fuel and mental agony of those commuters and drivers are the outcomes of the present transport economy of the country”.  “The average speed in Colombo major corridors during the peak hours has reduced to about 12km per hour”.

 The above excerpts emphasise the gravity of transport problems in Colombo City, Greater Colombo, and the Western Province. This problem also exists in other cities to varying degrees. Sri Lankan professionals and international funding agencies have put forward various solutions and project proposals to resolve the transport problem, especially in the Greater Colombo and the western province. Among them, the main proposals are Integrated Transport System, Multi-Modal Transport Hubs, Mass Transit Systems, Park and Drive facilities, and improvement of the railway system. The essence of these proposals is the need for an integrated transport system (Public Transport) combining different modes of transport (road, rail, marine, aviation, and public and other types of operations such as private, public, individual, etc.).  Some activities of those plans/ proposals have been implemented; others are yet to be considered or implemented. Though many proposals exist, there is no officially accepted master plan to resolve the transport problem in the Western region or the country except for some piecemeal projects.  Despite all those proposals and efforts, the transport problem worsens daily.

4.3.2 Settlement Pattern Discourage the Public Transport

With the expansion of secondary and tertiary sector activities, urban areas, especially the Colombo urban agglomerate, have become a hive of economic activities demanding more human resources of different levels to operate them. In addition to professionals and skilled workforce, it requires many unskilled labour and low-income groups to discharge municipal services, maintenance works, etc. However, those people can’t afford to live within the city or near workplaces, as the rent and land prices are beyond their affordability. This is a dilemma: the people who should attend the daily functions in the urban areas can’t afford to live there. So, the low-income groups are settling in slums of the city periphery or near transport hubs.

Professionals and middle-income groups travel daily to the city for employment, and children’s schooling, develop their habitats on low-priced lands, far away from public transport infrastructure and other urban facilities.  They must use a private mode of transport from home to the bus stop or railway station to use public transport, and from the destination, to reach the workplace, school, etc. This discourages the use of public transportation, encourages the use of private vehicles, and increases the demand for more and more roads and personal vehicles. This settlement pattern generates morning traffic toward the city and outward in the evening, creating heavy traffic congestion in one direction. Yet, suburbs or satellite cities do not provide urban facilities such as workplaces, schools, hospitals, shopping malls, etc. UDA planning guidelines and regulations are site-specific, limited to the declared urban area and do not consider the big picture. Sometimes, approvals are granted for large housing schemes, away from the essential services, compelling the use of the existing narrow village access roads and other infrastructure. Also, land blocking-out plans do not consider basic aspects such as sewerage, stormwater drainage, and the natural and built environment of the area. That creates many social and economic problems and increases pressure on the government to resolve them.

Based on the plethora of studies and proposals, it may be possible to introduce a proper transport policy and implement a comprehensive transport plan.But most of these proposals are to resolve the issue within the transport sector itself without looking at the macro picture, especially the settlement pattern (spatial distribution of physical development). Without addressing the core issue of space misuse/ mismanagement, even a well-formulated transport system may not resolve the transport problem in the Western region because it will not reduce the need for personalised modes of transport. A drastic change in settlement patterns is essential to reduce costs and improve efficiency, comfort, and reliability through a public transport system. Unplanned and unmanaged land use and settlement patterns increase the demand for transportation, private vehicles, more roads, and related infrastructures.

4.4 Adverse Impact of Settlement Pattern on the Cost of Infrastructure

Irrational use of the space increases capital and operational infrastructure costs (roads, electricity, water, etc.) while causing an added burden on the service delivery system and inconveniencing the service recipient. In many countries, higher population density reduces the unit costs of infrastructure and operational expenses. As discussed below, while the population is increasing, the unit cost of infrastructure is also increasing in Sri Lanka due to space mismanagement. Instead of following a rational spatial policy, the government brings all infrastructure facilities to where people live at any cost. In some instances, paved roads, electricity, water, and telephone lines extend several kilometers to provide the facility for a few houses. This often happens under the Decentralized Budgets and Provincial Council allocations. 

The road network in Sri Lanka has a total length of 114,039 km for a population of 22.2 million and a land area of 65,000 sq. Km.Sri Lanka has the highest road density in South Asia, with 173.9 Km of roads per 100 sq. Km of land area as of 2016. Road density-wise, Sri Lanka is in the 47th place in the global ranking. This is on par with advanced nations. For instance, the average road density in the UK is 175 Km/ 100 Sq. Km.  Though Sri Lanka is a developing country, its road density is almost equal to the UK’s. Perhaps, in a few more years, it will surpass the UK.

Out of the total network of 114,039 Km.,85,239 Km. are local authority roads that provide access to scattered villages, houses, and other properties. If minor access roads maintained by communities and individuals are added, the actual road density would be much higher than the official figure. The high density of rural roads demands a high maintenance cost, while its economic contribution is low. The road density could have been reduced if the human settlement development had been developed according to a rational spatial/land use/physical plan. In that case, most local authority roads could have become unwanted. For instance, Malaysia’s per capita income is US$ 13,382; the total population is 33 million, and the land area is 328,550 sq. Km. But the intercity connectivity and city travel are more convenient, with a road density of only km.47 per 100 sq. Km.  Though the road density is high, intercity connectivity in Sri Lanka was inferior (lengthy travel time) until recently, and city travelling is still cumbersome. This shows no correlation between road density economic growth and the quality of transport.  The high-density rural road network could only contribute a little to boost the national and rural economy while increasing demand for the maintenance budget. In many cases, the internal rate of return could have been negative. It shows that significant capital expenditures incurred for several decades, especially on access roads, achieved social justice but have been economically unproductive. Also, these roads’ land area isn’t justified as an efficient use of limited land resources. But, if we had kept the highway network in good condition and had appropriate standards, the contribution to economic growth could have been much higher through improved intercity and inter-regional connectivity. However, inter-city connectivity has been improved significantly due to the high priority placed on improving the national road network during the last two decades.

Sri Lanka’s Road network is not a systematically planned one. It is only a gradual development over a long period, from footpaths, cart tracks, gravel roads, metal and tarred black surfaces, and to the present condition of asphalt-paved two-lane roads, responding to the needs of different eras. Most roads do not have the shortest connectivity or access, appropriate width of the Right of Way, or horizontal/vertical alignments. Also, urbanisation has evolved on a linear pattern (ribbon-type development) along the roads, limiting road widening space. Thus, improving the road network to meet the present-day requirements involves high costs for land acquisition and profile corrections.  

In addition to roads and transport, electricity, pipe-borne water, and telephone(landlines) have become very expensive under the present settlement pattern.  According to the Findings of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Power System Failures on November 29, 2021, and December 03, 2021, “The CEB distribution network consists of about 33,300 km of 33 kV lines, 2,400 km of 11 kV lines, and about 150,000 km of 400 V or 230 V lines3. The distribution network of LECO consists of about 1,000 km of 11 kV lines and 3,800 km of 400 V or 230 V lines4.”.  Accordingly, the total length of the distribution lines comes to 190,500 Km.  The total domestic electricity connection is 6,709,574. This averages 35 connections per Kilometer or 2.9 connections per sq. km., reflecting a high capital cost per connection. For instance, under the Matara District Integrated Rural Development project, the electricity line was extended by about 13 km from Morawaka to the Kalubovitiyana tea factory in 1980. After two years of completion, I could find only about 30 domestic connections for the entire length as most houses were scattered and far from the electricity line. Today, the situation may be different due to the ribbon development along the road. Though the data is not readily available, like electricity, the capital and maintenance cost per connection for water and telecommunication would also be high.

4.5 Aligning Spatial Planning with Environmental Concerns and Initiatives.  

Construction and cultivation on environmentally sensitive locations such as hilly areas, steep slopes, catchments and reservations of rivers and reservoirs have caused silting of water bodies, frequent floods, earth slips, etc., causing loss of assets, environment stability and human lives and costing considerable sums to provide relief, relocate and reconstruct. Devastating floods and earth slips are frequent occurrences, with every monsoon rain destroying many lives and assets, while the intensity of such disasters is increasing.  This has become a common feature in the hill country. In addition to the risk, the people living in such locations are trapped in poverty. Unplanned land use and physical development in hilly areas demand more roads and other physical structures, disturbing soil stability. Further, it exerts pressure on environmentally sensitive areas for agriculture. In addition to local issues, it creates some national problems, such as the siltation of reservoirs, water pollution, floods, and climate change. 

Except for some areas in the Western province, human-wild animal conflict (wild elephants, monkeys, peacocks, hedgehogs, wild bows, etc.) is a critical problem in other provinces. The gravity of the issue differs from province to province and location to location. The damage to the economy, human settlement and life are high, and its social implications are immense. Expansion of human settlements to animal habitats, the location of development projects across elephant corridors, the declaration of small land areas as wildlife reserves between or within human settlements, and isolated and scattered small national parks are the leading causes. Small patches of forest/wildlife reserves within human territories provide daytime shelter for elephants to roam villages and farmlands for food at night. There are 28 national parks scattered throughout this small island. Except for the Yala and Wilpattu, all others are sieged by human settlements, restricting the roaming space for elephants and other animals. Sometimes, small human settlements are sieged by national parks, restricting people’s free movement. According to the present land use pattern, scrublands are the buffer zone between human and animal habitats. Usually, food for most animals is found in open areas and scrublands rather than in the thick forest. Elephants coming to buffer zones to scrublands for food are naturally enthused to invade human settlements where food is abundant.  Consequently, farmers/villagers are abandoning farming and making despicable attempts to co-exist with wild animals on the same land area as a survival strategy. The government strategy also seems to protect wild animals in a co-existing environment with human beings. In other words, it is a competition between animals and humans to use the same land simultaneously for food and shelter, increasing the conflict.  

Both local and foreign environmentalists are concerned about the damage caused to wild animals, especially elephants. They and the wildlife department see only one side of the problem, which prevents a sustainable solution. According to a preliminary estimate compiled by HARTI, the crop damage caused by wild animals in the first half of 2022 is Rs. 30,215 million (US$ 87.5 million). It is unclear whether the figure includes the loss of human and animal lives, the opportunity costs of abandoning farming, and the cost incurred by the government and farmers for protection. Today, wild animals have been dispersed in many areas of the country and infiltrate both new and old settlements, making it a national issue.  The national budget for 2023 has allocated Rs 525 million for electric fencing and human-elephant conflict mitigation. Similar or more amounts would be allocated annually, but isolated piecemeal works may not derive a long-lasting solution. Total socioeconomic losses and expenditures incurred by the Department of Wildlife annually call for a permanent solution.

In addition to the conflict with wild animals, most farmers in the dry zone face the problem of stray cattle. According to the traditional way of herd management, cows are released to find food from anywhere after milking. Bulls and heifers are released into the forest to grow wild. This was not an issue when there were common grazing lands. The land use pattern has been drastically changed, and there is no space for common grazing grounds.  Consequently, stray cattle have become a nuisance for farmers and national parks. Farmers are abandoning their farming in some areas as they can’t fight with influential cattle owners. This land use pattern is no longer viable in Sri Lanka. However, government authorities are still trying to maintain the system using political power instead of encouraging cattle owners to consider alternatives. The settlement and land use patterns need considerable changes to overcome the conflict between humans, wild animals, and stray cattle.

4.6 Overall Impact of Space Mismanagement  

Since independence, Sri Lanka has spent a colossal amount of borrowed/grants and own funds and sacrificed resources for development, especially for physical infrastructure. While some have contributed to the growth and well-being of the citizens, the rest have created irreparable damage to the environment and economic advancement and further obstructed the space for future development. The inappropriate interaction of humans (location of activities) with nature and land resources to satisfy socio-economic needs is a significant factor affecting the cost of production and competitiveness of our products in the local and global market. The logistics arrangement is a substantial cost component in agriculture and industry. Gathering local products, particularly agriculture products, to the market from spatially unorganized scattered smallholdings is a significant challenge, leading to high cost, time, inconvenience, and quality deterioration.  The farm gate prices of locally grown foods are very low in Sri Lanka, but the retail price for the consumer is exceptionally high. Sometimes, farmers spend more time and resources to sell than they spend to produce. For instance, in December 2023, a farmer told me his vehicle hire for transporting 100 kg of tomatoes to the Dambulla economic centre was Rs.1500 and sold it at Rs 150.00 per kg and spent the whole day, which could have spent to earn Rs 2000 from working elsewhere. So, his selling cost for a kg is Rs 35.00. Accordingly, his actual farmgate price is only Rs.115.00. However, I observed that the retail price in Colombo was above Rs. 500.00 during the same period. A significant portion of this price difference must be attributed to the system’s inefficiency, including logistics difficulties, arising from the scattered smallholding system. In contrast, if imported, it could be much cheaper. So, Sri Lanka’s sluggish economic growth is a structural issue for which spatial mismanagement is also accountable to a significant extent. Without correcting those problems, Sri Lanka will not be globally competitive in the ever-expanding market economy.

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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