This week’s series at CoLab Radio related the stories of individuals affected by the construction of the E01, Sri Lanka’s first expressway. In doing so, it endeavours to generate discussion and reflection about the hidden costs of large-scale infrastructural and developmental projects, whether in Sri Lanka or abroad. These often cannot be adequately quantified in statistical or economic terms. The many communities that were fragmented and displaced by the highway lost more than land and livelihoods. It is impossible to replace or offer adequate compensation for the loss of an identity that was intricately bound up in a way of life, or of a house that carried the memories of generations. In some cases, individual stories highlighted that the need for in-depth research on the issues being discussed – a substantial analysis of the effects of the E01 on the many small businesses on the Galle Road would buttress efforts to examine the inevitable economic shifts that will take place as the expressway network continues to expand.
Of course, this story is necessarily incomplete. In focusing on the stories of individual people, it makes no mention of the E01’s significant environmental impact, both during its construction and in its continued use. It also omits to discuss whether the developments along the roads connecting to the highway enhance or decrease the quality of life in surrounding communities, which are largely rural or semi-urban.
It has been argued that these effects are the necessary and unavoidable price of development, and that with time the positive aspects of the highway network will significantly outweigh the costs. Some of the benefits predicted by the Road Development Authority (RDA) include the reduction of travel time and traffic congestion between Colombo and Matara (thereby decreasing delay and fuel costs), the expansion of tourism beyond the southern coastal belt, and the expansion of the job market through private sector investments in regions outside Colombo. The original Environmental Impact Analysis for the trace supports the claim that speedy transport of perishable produce along the expressway network will benefit the fisheries and agriculture industries. However, these rosy predictions may only come to pass with the aid of a strategic development plan, which includes assisting those whose former means of employment are no longer viable in a changing economy.
Is there a possible alternative to the highway itself? Many Sri Lankan transportation experts are sceptical that the E01 was the right choice to make, advocating instead for what they believe would be a more egalitarian public transport system. In an interview, Dr T. L. Gunaruwan, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Colombo, argued that a well-planned railway system is people-intensive and fuel-efficient, which makes it more environmentally-friendly and economically equitable than the proposed expressway network. Rail tracks take up only a third of the width of the expressway, which would have minimised displacement and environmental impact. He also felt very strongly about the investment of resources on infrastructures that can necessarily only be utilised by an elite few because of Sri Lanka’s existing tax structures. He stated that approximately 80% of tax revenue comes from indirect taxes like sales tax; this means that while the economically disadvantaged have paid for the expressway, their bicycles, motorbikes and three-wheelers are banned from using it. He also noted that the few buses allowed on the expressway are more expensive than the average user of public transport can afford. Additionally, they run the entire length of the E01 from Colombo to Galle, offering no options to those who need (or want) to travel a shorter distance.
Both Dr Gunaruwan and Dr Amal Kumarage, a professor in the Department of Transport and Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa, are also troubled by economic issues with the expressway network that undermine its potential benefit. In the case of the E01, the project is jointly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and the total project cost is estimated to have been approximately 740 million USD. Dr Gunaruwan is particularly concerned that many of the expressways in the works are similarly funded by foreign loans, as the projects are then unlikely to be competitively bidded in the investment phase. This leaves legroom for corruption, which brings the legitimacy of the true investment cost into question. Possibly owing to the fact that such a small fraction of the nation’s citizens can use the E01, Dr Kumarage revealed that the E01 is currently incurring a loss of 5.5 billion rupees (over 4 million USD), while Dr Gunaruwan noted that the toll fees collected from the E01 barely cover the interest generated by the loan.
Of course, these debates are not new. Although the E01 was completed just two years ago, the idea for an expressway network has been on the table from at least the early 1980’s, with the Road Development Authority (RDA) proposing a high speed highway from Colombo to the Katunayake International Airport (completed in 2013). Opposition from planners who advocated for a high speed mass transit system, public protest at the estimated mass displacement, and a three-decade civil war, delayed the process.
Urban infrastructure projects at this large scale are inherently political. By this, I do not only mean the fact that at one point, the E01 trace was changed by a local politician so that the road would not cross through his electorate. The construction of the E01 itself has not been smooth. The original trace for the E01 was drawn up by the RDA in 1992, and the project was started in 1994. Funding assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) resuscitated the project in 1996, with the ADB offering an alternative design. The RDA and ADB proposals were combined in 1997. The final trace, however, contains alterations that reflect political and public pressures. Additionally, although the RDA expected to complete the necessary land acquisition between 2000 and 2003, this was only completed at the end of 2006, which added to the trauma suffered by the displaced.
There remains the question of whether a mass transit system would be as well-received as an expressway. Dr Janaka Wijesundera, a professor in the Department of Architecture of the University of Moratuwa, is unsure that Sri Lankans would be entirely enthusiastic. “Our social system is such that vehicle owners prefer travelling by their own vehicles rather than taking public transport. They are further discouraged to use public transport again due to its inefficiency, unattractiveness, [and] safety issues.” The recent failure of a Park and Ride system in Colombo indicates that attempts to encourage the public to use public transport – or to dissuade them from using their own vehicles – must be strategic and cannot be implemented overnight. (Systematically reducing parking space to encourage the use of bicycles in Copenhagen, for example, has taken forty years.) The RDA’s former General Manager, P.B. L. Cooray justifies the construction of the airport expressway (the E03) with the claim that “even the housemaid bound to Dubai would use an airport taxi rather than going to the Fort railway station.” Public transport in Sri Lanka is currently plentiful but of poor quality, which Dr Kumarage attributes to lack of maintenance. The advantage of this is that bus and rail continue to be relatively cheap modes of transport despite rising fuel costs (taking the train from Colombo to Galle costs less than a dollar for a third class ticket). Dr Kumarage highlighted the need for “something radically different to make public transport more appealing to the public,” and that the implementation of a rapid transit system that is fast, convenient, and cheap would take time, which is a commodity in short supply for politicians hoping to be re-elected.
This series hopes to serve as a reminder that the “public” and the “poor” are not undifferentiated masses reducible to a comforting statistic or generalisation. These groups comprise individuals with diverse stories, who respond differently to personal, social, and economic pressures. Some researchers suggest that the seemingly ill-informed decisions of the poor are rooted in a mix of emotional and psychological factors, which can only be understood through sustained interaction with affected communities. Additionally, poverty has been cited as a reason for some of Sri Lanka’s past political uprisings, a reminder that the gap between the construction of the expressway system and its purported economic benefits can only be so large. For the upcoming highway network to deliver on its promise, the eyes of politicians and planners cannot only gaze upon a projected future, but also focus keenly on present conditions.
This post is part of a series on Sri Lanka’s first expressway.
Text: Nushelle de Silva
Photo credits: CEPA staff