Rural Development in Sri Lanka — Part 5

Long-Term Prospective Proposal for Regional Development and Poverty Alleviation in Sri Lanka

7 mins read
Galle, Sri Lanka [Photo: Christoph Theisinger/ Unsplah]

Click here to read Part Four of this series

5.1 Introduction

The concept of rural development through city-centred regional development, discussed above, is to build from the present status of rural development to elevate it to another step and consolidate what has been achieved so far. However, the said model alone will have limitations. Rural townships are like mini-growth poles and have a limited scope for expansion. It would also reach a saturation point and be trapped in a low-level equilibrium like the traditional rural development strategies if there is no major push from the national economy. Therefore, complementary to the above approach, several large-scale growth poles in regions with strong economic bases and comparative advantages must be developed to accelerate and sustain national and regional growth momentum.  It could strengthen the above-discussed concept by building backwards and forward linkages of the economy. Central growth poles can stimulate investments in many sectors for a self-sustainable development process. In that case, cities of the divisional municipalities and UCs could become more robust through trickle-down effects.

5.2 Western Region Growth Center.

Over centuries, the Colombo-based Western region has become the country’s commercial capital and the prime growth pole. It accommodates 28.7% of the population and contributes 42.6 % of the Gross Domestic Product. Undoubtedly, the Colombo-based Western Region growth centre must be grown and strengthened further to increase its contribution to the GDP and accommodate more people. There are substantial external economies for investment in this region due to its location, human resources availability, and physical and institutional infrastructure developed over centuries. Most areas of the province are becoming semi-urbanized under different forces such as migration from other regions, in-situ urbanization outside the greater Colombo (expanding small townships into urban areas and villages into small townships, etc.) and pushing human activities from the centre to the rural periphery, which are looking for more space.

As per the Department of Census and Statistics, Western Province’s population density as of 2021 was 1688 per sq. km, and only 36.5 % of its population is urban. It has a large rural population and a rural periphery with backward villages. It shows that the Western region’s growth pole has enormous potential for further development to provide more employment and residential facilities for the unskilled, skilled, and educated youth of the Western and other rural regions. When I was the Secretary to the Ministry of Western Region Development, during 2002/2004, under the initiative and guidance of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, the “Western Region Megapolis Plan” was prepared with technical inputs from a Singaporean Consultancy firm. After finalizing the plan, I expected further policy directives from the PM to proceed with identifying the implementation mechanisms and resource mobilisation strategies. He advised me to wait until he gave instructions on the next course of action. His government suddenly dissolved, and implementation mechanisms and resource mobilisation strategies were never prepared. Again, the plan was revised and launched under his government in 2016 but faced the same fate again. The plan was shelved by the new government, which came into power at the end of 1019.

However, the Mahinda Rajapakse government (2006/2014) selected one project component of the Megapolis Plan, filling a large sea area adjacent to the Colombo Sea Port for high-end development activities. The implementation commenced with the private sector participation in 2013, known as the Colombo Port City Development Project.  At its inception, the project created great enthusiasm among global investors to invest in it. However, after the change of government in 2015, due to adverse publicity given by the then government and suspending its implementation for about two years, the project’s image was changed from Colombo Port City to China Port City. Consequently, unwanted international geopolitical issues emerged, and inventors’ interests faded. Though the project was reactivated later, it has become challenging to change the project’s image internationally.  As the Sri Lanka High Commissioner to South Africa in 2021, I tried very hard to seek Western missions’ support to canvass the project among investors in their countries.  According to their understanding, it is a Chinese project, not a project of the government of Sri Lanka. This strong perception could not change, and their response was negative.  If the Megapolis plan and Colombo Port City had proceeded as planned, asignificant percentage of the unemployed in the Western region and other rural regions could have found gainful employment, and the pressure on the rural resource base could have been relieved to a significant extent. Further, it could have substantially answered the foreign reserve crisis in 2022. Instead of falsifying for petty political gains, considering the national interest, the Megapolis Plan and Colombo Port City project must be implemented with strong policy support, like the Mahaweli project in the 1980s.  

5.3 Mahaweli Growth Pole

Mahaweli is another resource region created by trans-basing development, which has been substantially completed by this time. It cut across several provincial, district and divisional boundaries, forming a large resource region. Further, it changed the landscape, agroecology, social and business patterns, and their relations with other regions. However, its primary focus was resettling peasants from densely populated villages and strengthening smallholder farming systems and power generation. Like other colonisation schemes, Mahaweli also did not seriously consider the urbanization and development of the secondary and tertiary sectors. Hence, settlers’ next generations have no opportunities within the region. Even before the project’s completion, the problems of the next generation have emerged. If land fragmentation occurs, they will become subsistent farmers like in their original villages. Otherwise, the natural trend will be migration to cities. However, except for Colombo, no other megacities exist in the country. Therefore, secondary and tertiary sector development is essential to prevent Mahaweli settlers from becoming subsistent farmers and out-migration.  As discussed above, to this end, a city-focused development programme may be introduced to promote industries, service sector expansion, and high-density housing. Selected medium-scale towns must be upgraded as urban councils with a futuristic spatial plan. As discussed before, following the In-Situ urbanization model, small townships must be planned and developed as divisional municipalities enclosing their rural peripheries. A second master plan, combining spatial and economic aspects, is essential to consolidate Mahaweli’s achievements and make it a dynamic growth front.

5.4 Hambantota Growth Pole

During the Mahinda Rajapakse Government, Hambantota was planned to develop as the second growth pole, using the international seaport, airport, and Southern Highway. It can become an international commercial hub linking the domestic and global economies. The road network has already been developed to satisfy the needs of a modern mega city. A physical plan has been drafted with zoning for industries, settlements, services, commercial activities, etc. The hard part of the growth pole (seaport, airport, expressway, urban highways) has been done at a massive cost. Like the Western Megapolis plan, implementation mechanisms and resource mobilization strategies are yet to be identified. The physical plan is not enforced and allows uncontrolled, unregulated developments, which would disturb future development. The government must focus on activating the second growth pole instead of misusing massive investments to achieve petty political interests.

5.5 Trincomalee Growth Pole

With a large and deep natural seaport, Trincomalee has vast potential to develop as a megacity with a metropolitan region to provide global and domestic economic linkages. It could become the international gateway for the Mahaweli Region as well.  When I was secretary for The Ministry of Highways, the Road Development Authority developed the concept of the Trincomalee Outer Circular Highway, a crescent with a 10-12 Km radius from north to south of Trincomalee Bay and about fifty (50) kilometres in length. Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then Defense Secretary, highly supported this idea, offered human resources from the army, and initiated the highway tracing. The idea was to lay the foundation for a planned mega-human settlement using export-oriented heavy industries, power generation and tourism as the economic base. Before investing in the Highway piecemeal, the ministry sought the Cabinet’s approval to do a detailed feasibility study costing several hundred million rupees. However, the proposal was not accepted as some Cabinet members objected to spending significantly on the feasibility study without using that money to construct the road. However, I failed to convince the relevant authorities about the importance of a feasibility study to prevent wrong investments and redundant work and achieve the highest rate of return through minimum capital costs. It was the end of the project.

5.6 Growth Corridors

In addition to the above growth poles, a lengthy development corridor may be established from Hambantota to Trincomalee via Colombo using the expressway network. An area of a five to six-kilometre radius from the interchanges can be developed as growth centres, making it a long corridor from Colombo to Trincomalee, which will interlink all three significant seaports. When I was in the Ministry of Highways, several rounds of discussions were conducted with the RDA, UDA, and National Physical Planning department officials to prepare physical plans for interchanges of the Southern Expressway. However, during my tenure, due to unexpected circumstances, I could not formalise an institutional mechanism to continue the planning process.

Development of the growth poles mentioned above would minimize the need for scattered distribution of economic, social, and physical infrastructure throughout the country at a high cost, giving a low rate of return. It will attract investments, improve economic efficiency, and become competitive in the local and global markets.

6 Conclusions

 Poverty is not a new situation; it has existed for many centuries. Since the pre-independence era, Sri Lanka has been attempting to resolve it immediately, hurriedly, and haphazardly, sacrificing many national resources. Now, we have struck and stagnated or even reversed without solutions. Without growth, the transfer/distribution of income to the large rural community in Sri Lanka for an extended period is impossible. Social welfare must be limited to vulnerable families and people who cannot engage in economic activities. Others must work and earn a living instead of carrying the begging bole forever. Instead of wasting another century, we must develop an economically rational, long-term policy and strategies to resolve rural and urban poverty through economic growth.

The policy of bringing infrastructure to the doorstep of remote/scattered settlements at any cost and helping them to be satisfied with the bare minimum and artificially created comfortability by rural development must come to an end. Solutions for most of the rural problems do not exist within the village.  They must be encouraged to seek better opportunities outside the village and use the present achievements of rural development as the springboard for sustainable development. In brief, the concept is that ‘development can’t be brought to the doorstep of everybody; instead, people must move to where the development can happen or is possible.’ So, the core of the policy should be growth, growth with equity. Instead of artificial interventions, there must be an inbuilt mechanism for the egalitarian distribution of growth benefits. Finally, rural development and poverty alleviation must become irrelevant to the development agenda.  


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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