Transforming Colombo | Daily News

Transforming Colombo

Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka is one of the few ministers in the Yahapalanaya government who maintains a visible presence. The other, of course, is Sajith Premadasa. Both are on the ball, so to speak. Hardly a day passes without either one or the other being shown on TV, opening or initiating some development project or public welfare scheme, demonstrating their dedication to public service. Minister Ranawaka, no doubt, has a gigantic task on his hands, that of developing and upgrading the infrastructure of the Western Province, particularly effecting a radical transformation of the Colombo city from its present parlous state.

Speaking at a function the other day, the minister revealed his master plan to rebuild and change the facade of the Colombo city. In this endeavour his first task will be the relocation of shanty dwellers to more acceptable accommodation. The minister plans to construct 100,000 fully fledged apartment homes for Colombo city's shanty dwellers within the next ten years. This no doubt, is going to be a monumental task, but the minister appears to have set his mind to it in all seriousness. It is time the country's Capital city gets the facelift that it deserves.

However, the minister is bound to face resistance in his endeavour to provide better accommodation to the city's shanty dwellers. To begin with, there are some 60,000 shanties in the Colombo city alone, according to a recent survey, the demolition of which is going to run into stiff opposition. It is difficult to change the life pattern of a people who have been entrenched in a particular way of life for generations. It is certainly not going to be easy to persuade these people to move out of their squalid dwellings, short of deploying the military, as done by former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in Slave Island, sometime ago.

Hellholes they may be, but these folk will not move out of their digs. To begin with, slums have their own independent existence and it is difficult, nay well nigh impossible to persuade the dwellers make the shift. One should not lose sight of the fact that there is a subterranean life cum economy in the slums to which the inhabitants had got accustomed to where drugs, prostitution and other forms of sleaze form the core of their existence. Moving away means the purveyors of these vices are going to lose their economic sustenance that would affect all the members of their families.

Hence, the minister will first have to condition these people for the change he has in mind. It has to be a social change. For instance, the children of slum dwellers don't have schooling and this aspect has to be addressed on a priority basis. Employment avenues have to be created for the adults who have been living on vice all their lives. It has to be a wholesome change rather than mere supplanting these slum dwellers from their ‘roots’ to more hospitable accommodation.

Besides, there will also be an unforeseeable issue of a political nature that will work to the disadvantage of the UNP. Slum dwellers in the Colombo city, by tradition, vote for the Greens and the UNP is bound to lose this bloc vote, to some degree at least, if it tries to evict them by force. It matters little to them if the change is made to better their lot, for the above stated reasons. Hence, the minister should move cautiously in the matter.

Be that as it may, slums are not the only problem affecting the Colombo city. There are a multitude of tasks to be undertaken if Colombo is to be transformed into a modern metropolitan city. The minister should begin with the basic infrastructure. The present deluge only went onto expose the sad state of affairs with entire zones in the Capital city cutoff due to the floodwaters. The derelict drainage system, which is of colonial vintage, should be ripped out and re-laid. The system was built when Colombo hardly had 500,000 inhabitants. Today there is a floating population (non residents arriving from outside) alone, of over one million each day. A quick solution should also be found to the garbage problem. A recent media report stated that there was a delay in the Puttalam landfill project for garbage disposal due to some dispute in connection with the funding source. This matter should be resolved speedily. A plan should also be formulated to deal with congestion. Hopefully the plan to relocate the Pettah Manning Market would provide some breathing space in the area. Roads and byways littered with potholes needs to be renovated. Today, flyovers are erected in areas where they appear to be redundant while areas well known for massive traffic snarls are ignored.

It goes without saying that Colombo today is bursting at the seams and with the increase in the population, things can only get worse. A complete overhaul is needed instead of the piecemeal solutions applied in the past if Colombo is to be transformed into the Garden City of Asia as it was once famously known.


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