Two things have escaped the general discussion on the highway. The first is the cost and the debt repayment over the next 20-30 years that, given the considerable cost overruns of 100 percent, the delays in getting the highway completed and subsequent maintenance costs, will continue over the years. The return on the tolls seemed to be encouraging initially and it is hoped that this revenue stream will continue to cushion some of the expenditure that the state has borne and will continue to bear for the operation of the Wonder Gateway.
The second, and the more important from the perspective of civil society in a democratic state, is the lack of acknowledgement of the contribution made to the construction of the Expressway by an estimated 1338 families who were displaced by its construction and others who, though not physically displaced, lost their agricultural land where they cultivated paddy, tea, rubber or cinnamon or their commercial properties.
There were also, about 550 households that were indirectly affected, and these included workers on the land and in the enterprises that had to close down or relocate, and others who had to manage the discomforts of construction – rock blasting, dust, unexpected flooding, and loss of common amenities etc.
These people were by and large willing contributors to the greater good but their contribution has not been publicly acknowledged. Despite discomfort to themselves, they recognised the role that the expressway was supposed to play in the country’s development and bought into the idea that it will be a catalyst for economic growth in the South that will in turn bring work opportunities for the poor.
For their part, the Road Development Authority (RDA), the implementing agency, also made some effort to understand the stress of disruption and involuntary displacement, and working within the ADB’s safeguard strategies, and Sri Lanka’s own National Involuntary Resettlement Policy, aimed to compensate and minimise the negative impacts. The final trace deliberately avoided highly populated areas though at considerable cost to the environment and to agriculture.
The innovative institution of the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Committees (LARC) at a local level helped bring about fairer compensation calculations for lost homes, agricultural land and business enterprises and on average doubled the legal compensation entitlement paid under the Land Acquisition Act No 9 of 1950, the existing state instrument for acquiring land for public purposes.
The impacts of the involuntary displacement and resettlement were both positive and negative. Many families improved the quality of their houses, but were unhappy that they had lost their green environment and quiet rural setting, the loss of shade and coolness and the loss of access to fruit and produce bearing trees. Poorer households and those who had only user rights to their land were able to acquire new homes and land title.
The Road Development Authority and local government institutions dealt with the land scarcity and rising prices by setting up and developing thirty two resettlement sites. Forty percent of the people who were displaced got land and built houses on these sites.
The RDA provided the infrastructure e.g. water supply, electricity, internal roads and drainage, though not at a consistent pace, or evenly across sites. However, many of the sites were selected in consultation with the displaced people, and were located in close proximity to the affected villages, resulting in minimal social disruption, though close proximity to the highway construction caused some unanticipated problems of noise and vibration.
The final outcomes came after a traumatic period of disruption, when most displaced families had to live in unsatisfactory, temporary accommodation and experienced considerable anxiety. It was particularly bad for families with young children or older people needing care, and for families going through critical life-cycle events. Older children were particularly traumatised and there are several stories of young people dropping out of school and not being able to sit for public examinations.
The main ‘losers’ from the displacement and resettlement were largely the rural middle class who had left behind either newly built houses or ancestral homes that had been in the family for generations. Older people also found relocation difficult. In many of the families, elderly parents lived with their children either in their own houses or in their children’s homes. Resettlement often resulted in a rearrangement of these living arrangements, with the traditional extended families breaking into multiple nuclear units.Several households saw a downturn in incomes because they lost either agricultural land or enterprises or because their access to employment was disrupted or lost. Many of the enterprises that were lost or disrupted were small, informal businesses such as small groceries and hardware shops or home-based enterprises, many carried out by women.
There is no doubt that the E01 is an important milestone in the history of Sri Lanka and that it will bring benefits to a number of people. After the initial years of traumatic temporary displacement, some of the people who were affected by the highway construction were able to get back on their feet and build better. Others are still struggling.
The writer is Director of the Centre for Poverty Analysis.