The United National Party (UNP) is passionate about the construction of the Central Expressway. The project was organinally planned during the former rule, but its work got underway after the new government assumed office.
The expressway, linking Colombo with Kandy via Kurunegala, is considered by the UNP as a key project to be completed somehow or other before the end of its term.
It is executed in three stages. However, the project has now hit fresh humps as a section of the Cabinet Ministers disputed the economic viability of the Pothuhera-Galagedara stretch of the expressway or the third phase.
When the Cabinet meeting chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena was in progress on Tuesday, Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka disputed the economic logic behind this particular stretch. He cited the high project cost involved with less returns to the overall growth of Sri Lanka’s economy.
The Minister argued that financing such a cost through a foreign loan component would constrain the economy, already ridden with a debt burden.
The UNP planned for it during its 2002/04 period. We lost the Presidential Election in 2005, in which Mahinda Rajapaksa won. Yet, he lost in Kandy. So, he did not consider the Kandy expressway
Instead, he suggested that the attention should be drawn to develop the road network in the Colombo district and nearby areas bustling with economic activities. Such investment, he said, would bear fruit in terms of economic dividends to the country.
Along with Minister Ranawaka, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara, Science and Technology Minister Susil Premajayantha and Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera insisted that the government should rescind the implementation of the third stage of the expressway primarily due to the high cost. It was alleged that the project had been overestimated for implementation.
They were not opposed to the expressway being constructed up to Kurunegala. Instead of developing it further up to Kandy through a diversion in Pothuhera, they asked for the development of the present Kurunegala-Kandy highway as a four-lane highway as an alternative.
The chorus against the central expressway, the passion project of the UNP, infuriated Highways and Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella. Outraged by calls against the project, he lost his temper and shot back at all the critics.
Still incensed, the Minister said Kandy, as a Sinhala-majority district, delivered the highest majority of votes to President Maithripala Sirisena at the last Presidential Election. As such, he said the current government was duty-bound to serve people in Kandy by constructing this expressway according to a time-bound action plan. So, it is more than a development project for Minister Kiriella.
“The UNP planned for it during its 2002/04 period. We lost the Presidential Election in 2005, in which Mahinda Rajapaksa won. Yet, he lost in Kandy. So, he did not consider the Kandy expressway. Instead, he prioritized the southern expressway. We have to build this now,” he said. In his barrage, he did not stop at that. In fact, he made it a political slander.
“These are the Ministers who tried to defeat the President. The President lost even Kurunegala and most other districts. We, in Kandy, ensured him the victory. Now, they have taken Cabinet posts in the government. It is like a free bonus for them,” he roared.
Minister Amaraweera was taken aback by such harsh criticism about enjoying Cabinet perks without working for the victory of the President and the government for that matter.
“If you want us to go, we will leave. This is not something about being in the government,” he retorted.
For Mr. Kiriella, the central expressway is more than a development project. It is also a fulfilment of an election promise.
As a politician representing the Kandy constituency, he counts on this project for his political success at future elections. As a result, he loathes any move to stop or block its work.
However, it transpired at the Cabinet meeting that the third phase of the project in question had been overestimated by the Road Development Authority (RDA).
The cost for this 37 km stretch of the expressway has been estimated at Rs.135 billion now. It was questioned during the Cabinet meeting. Mr. Kireilla said it was only 15% higher than the engineers’ estimate.
The Minister tried to justify this estimation saying that the cost of the southern expressway had been valued 125 percent higher than the engineers’ estimate during the previous rule.
Along with brickbats, the Minister also received bouquets to proceed with the project by ministers such as Sajith Premadasa, Dr. Sarath Amunugama and Rajitha Senaratne.
Dr. Amunugama said it was practically impossible to terminate the project at the moment. Mr. Premadasa remarked that the government should have something to be shown to people at the end of its term, and the central expressway could be the option for it.
President Maithripala Sirisena also did not favour the idea to terminate the particular stretch between Pothuhera and Galagedara.
“If there are shortcomings, let’s discuss and address them! It is not possible to stop the project now,” he said.
There was a veil of doubt over what the government would conduct first- referendum on the new Constitution or the local authorities’ election. But, the air became clear as of this week that it would be the local elections coming first.
With the enactment of three more legislations, amending the Municipal Council Ordinance, the Urban Council Ordinance and Pradeshiya Sabha Act, all legal bottlenecks are now cleared for conducting the elections. What is left to be done is the certification of the three Bills passed into Acts and the issuance of the relevant gazette notification by the subject minister.
It is learnt that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya will certify it today. After that Minister Faizer Mustapha is slated to meet with the Elections Commission on Friday with the relevant gazette notification.
The cost for this 37 km stretch of the expressway has been estimated at Rs.135 billion now. It was questioned during the Cabinet meeting. Mr. Kireilla said it was only 15% higher than the engineers’ estimate
President’s SLFP admits defeat
Amidst preparations for the elections, it is noteworthy to comment on remarks made by some ministers representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to their supporters.
At one such meeting in Ratnapura recently, Minister Amaraweera, the secretary to the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), said he would hold the remote control in running the local government authorities.
That is not a role obvious meant for the ruling party or the main opposition of a local authority. A long time back, the JVP talked about being the remote control in directing the course of the government, be it in Parliament, the Provincial Councils or the local authorities.
Today, the SLFP led by President Sirisena talks of its intended role to play. Mr. Amaraweera’s remark is nothing but an ostensible admission his party’s’ inability to perform either to be the ruling party or the main opposition at the local authorities.
It is indicated that the elections will be conducted in January, next year. If Mr. Amaraweera himself admits to be in the third position in the contest, the UNP and the political force led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the main contenders trying to get hold of local power at this election.
In the manner of holding the remote control in hand, the SLFP or the UPFA for that matter seem to be planning to align with the UNP after the election to run the councils as they do in the central administration with the share of Cabinet portfolios.
JO works out modalities for Polls
The Joint Opposition leaders met at the residence of former Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris on Tuesday evening to discuss modalities for facing the election. The leaders also discussed how quotas of candidates should be allotted to its alliance partners in filing nominations for the election.