The city of Colombo has evolved as the commercial power house, the political nerve centre, and the city of social elite of the country over the past few centuries. Centrality of Colombo in the socio-economic map of Sri Lanka is hardly likely to change in the foreseeable future, and hence the “Future Colombo” will continue to occupy a prime place in the national development dialogue.
What is the type of city that we as a nation should envision for Colombo in 10 years? Though there may be myriads of possibilities for the form of its physical, social and institutional infrastructure, conceptually there exists only one direction – ‘a smart-city’. What is a smart city? Amongst the multiple definitions complementing one another, one good working definition, due to UK department of business, goes as “Smart Cities are a process rather than a static outcome, in which increased citizen engagement, hard infrastructure, social capital and digital technologies make cities more liveable, resilient and better able to respond to challenges”.
Turning to ‘Future Colombo’, there is much in common between what the average citizens wish for themselves and what the politicians have been promising to deliver – a city devoid of slums, shanties or beggars, green and smarter mass transportation systems, efficient waste management systems, to name a few.
The question at hand is whether the successive governments in power since independence, through the times that the visiting Singaporean Premier Lee Kuan Yew famously wished to transform Singapore into another Colombo and many years later President Jayewardene wished to transform Colombo into another Singapore, to this date, have acted with a set of clearly prioritized consistent long term policies and strategies to transform Colombo into the ‘dream city’ that the citizenry of this country wish.
While each party may talk about isolated sporadic programmes implemented during their respective tenures on various thrust areas such as poverty-alleviation, elimination of slums, or supply of water and electricity etc., any professional, apolitical analysis of those projects, undertaken at the expense of billions of tax-payer-rupees, would adequately reveal their lack of consistency and lack of alignment with a clearly identified long term vision unobscured by interests of short term political gains and large scale corruption. Each programme in deed, has been a major political slogan at the time.
Let us begin with poverty alleviation, which is a broader national goal, nevertheless highly relevant to our dialogue on developing Colombo as a city free from poverty. Some of the bandwagon programmes of poverty-alleviation of the successive governments were free-rice-ration, Janasaviya, Samurdhi and Divi Neguma, with each programme accounting for a substantial slice of government spending.
What about the impact? According to statistics of the Department of Census and Statistics, the impact of those programmes has been merely ‘marginal’ or ‘minimal’ as far as their express goal of poverty elimination is concerned.
Those statistics further reveal that it is only the ‘pension’ scheme for the retired public servants that had made a significant contribution to elimination of poverty, as the percentage of population living in poverty shrank from 26.1% in 1990 to 6.7% in 2013. This shows that the rationale for successive governments to continue with those highly unproductive bandwagon of poverty–alleviation programmes has been predominantly political, rather than developmental.
The recipients of those ‘dole-out’ programmes were largely converted into a political cadre making up the grass-root level layer of the political machinery of the party.
“Samurdhi” movement with 1.4 million recipient families was a classic example.
A highly undesirable ‘side-effect’ of those politically motivated ‘dole-out’ style poverty–alleviation programmes has been development of the psychological complex known as “dependency – syndrome” on the part of recipients, which acts as a barrier for their liberation from poverty.
Closely associated with this is the issue of beggars. Whilst being an undesirable social phenomenon that needs to be contained from a social development perspective, the issue of beggars in an economy where there exists an acute dearth of labour for productive economic activity also indicates to some extent the lack of productivity of those ‘dole-out’ programmes.
Against the backdrop of the vision of “smart-city’ that we envision for Colombo, let us evaluate the progress of another important aspect of urban infrastructure development, namely elimination of slums and shanties. Unfortunately, in this domain too the projects implemented by successive governments have been far more politically motivated than development-oriented. There is an estimated 70,000 families living in slums and shanties in Colombo, built on almost anywhere from railway-reservations to petroleum transportation pipelines, and known to be crime-infested and poverty-ridden. While elimination of those slums poses a major development challenge, effective re-settlement needs a systematic and comprehensive process which addresses the associated socio-cultural and economic issues rather than mere shifting of physical dwelling.
An effective re-settlement process should include a programme for providing schooling for children and creation of suitable opportunities of livelihood.
Development of small and medium Enterprises for harnessing their labour into mainstream economic activity while addressing the livelihood issue, supported by opportunities for development of technical and other skills could be an effective strategy. In the meantime, appropriate measures should be in place to effectively manage the cultural aspects of such resettlement.
It is estimated that a comprehensive process of resettlement of that nature could be implemented at a cost of around Rs. 3 million per family. This is despite the fact that the cost of a housing unit per family alone, in respect of the several hundred families resettled during the previous regime, amounting to Rs. 8.5 million in certain cases.
With no margin for corruption, the estimate for effectively conquering this major development challenge of resettling those 70,000 families would be Rs. 210 billion. Just for comparison this is way below the cost estimate of Rs. 274 billion made by the previous regime for construction of Matara–Hambantota segment of the Southern Highway!
Finally, turning to our vision of the ‘Smart City’ ‘Colombo-2025’, it would also be of paramount importance, as far as its ‘social – infrastructure’ dimension is concerned, to incorporate effective measures to ensure ethnic harmony.
A fair and sustainable mechanism for regulating the long lopsided ethnic ratios, such as those ‘quota policies’ successfully adopted in Singapore in relation to housing and general elections, would be important in making the smart city “Colombo-2025” an ethnically representative and inclusive subset of Sri Lanka.
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