Negativity has not been an option except for the critics | Daily News

Negativity has not been an option except for the critics

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando inspecting the Central Expressway.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando inspecting the Central Expressway.

The most scenic highway in Sri Lanka — the Central Expressway — is to be opened in May. The ‘ambul thiyal’ offensive-play is now over. It is remembered that the JVP started a campaign claiming the Southern Expressway when it was declared open in 2011, was built to transport ambul thiyal, a fish preparation famous in the South, as a privilege for ‘the ruling Rajapaksa family.’

There is no talk about this sour fish preparation anymore. The traffic on the Southern highway reaches ‘spill level’ when there is a national holiday such as the Aluth Avurudu. The income for the two days is in the tens of millions, as seen this year.

The reader gets the idea. The Central Expressway will be declared open despite the setbacks of COVID that basically shuttered a good part of the economy. Despite all this, the JVP is whining once more. This time they have ‘ambul thiyal-fied’ the Port City. It won’t be long before they find something to cry about in the Central Expressway as well. They may say it was built to bring brides from Matale. Or as it is said in the local idiom, ‘kettles from a basket’ (Kethalen mallak).

The Central Expressway was a project that should have seen fruition before the end of the tenure of the previous Yahapalana dispensation. They had five years in which to do it. But the project was buried in endless indecision about who should complete which stretch of the highway. Disputes were rife with the foreign — mainly Japanese — contractors. The then powers that be did not have the necessary focus or ambition to see it to a finish.

That’s their style. They also call it democracy not because they are in love with misnomers, but because they need some PR verbiage to cover up their lack of resolve, or their incompetence. They say that they are wedded to a democratic administrative style, which leads to equitable decision making with various involved parties such as contractors.

The scenic highway never got built. But it got built in the very short time period in which this Government had been in power. Basically, a year and a half. The highway, as will the Port City, would be reaping the rewards for future generations. It would also reap some rewards for those who will start using it now — for instance, in the tourism trade, when travel begins in earnest because the pandemic and its hangover would not last forever.

Work gets done. Jobs are provided for locals — and in this regard the decision taken in the teeth of the pandemic to restrict the last phase of construction to local contractors was a bold one that took some courage. The local firms have rewarded that move by delivering on time, and with exceptional sangfroid.

The nerves of the carping critics are frayed these days. They see things happening despite their forecasts of doom, gloom and disaster. The Port City Bill has been like some javelin driven right between their eyeballs. As someone quipped, they expected the artificial island that was built to yield a few thousand rupees with a few coconut trees planted here and there on the reclaimed terrain. When there are billions of dollars in investment on the cards, they wonder how this happened in a pandemic damaged economic climate.

Central Expressway, Port City projects

A lot of these ventures — the Central Expressway, the Port City and more — represent projects the previous dispensation did not want to complete, and/or could not complete. That indecision was partly a compact with certain other parties which were against these projects. Suffice to say here that there is a certain visceral resistance among some Sri Lanka watchers abroad about the country dealing with the Chinese in any way, shape or form. Let us leave that aside for the moment.

What of the Central Expressway? There was resistance to that too. It was after all a project begun by the previous dispensation — the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government before the advent of the 2015 Yahapalana regime.

If the country is interconnected by an efficient highway network, that would give traction to the new rural based agrarian and small industry based economy that if not front and centre of the State’s economic plans, are at least a major component. The British opened up tea plantations, but this new estate economy would have amounted to nothing if they had not conceptualized and implemented the plan for a brand new railway network. The construction was through difficult hilly terrain, and the engineers did not have the benefit of modern equipment. But yet a spectacular railway was built through one of the most scenic routes. Not even the most hard boiled of cynics and negativists could avoid a lump forming in their throats when they traverse that part of the railway from Ella, Talawakele up to Badulla, which has been called the most beautiful train route anywhere in the world by more than one international travel writer.

There was no JVP at that time to stage protests to say that the track was an excuse for the Governors to haul mineral water from St. Clare’s falls. Or golf balls from Nuwara Eliya. After the British built the railways, the highway network conceptualized by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration was the first national project that was ambitious enough to join the entire island in one interconnected grid. The scenic aspect was a by-product of the ambitious scheme, as it was during the British era.

Yahapalana years

The British were exploitative — they certainly wanted to siphon off the tea earnings to England, and that was what being a colonizer was all about. But they knew how to build and manage things, even if it was for themselves. In contrast, these days we have a people’s administration — elected — that wants to grow the economy. There is no easy estimate on how much the national economy would be enhanced with the highway project. But certainly, once the pall cast by COVID is lifted there will be growth, and that will be seen in the numbers. That evidence will be incontrovertible and as incontrovertible as the regressive growth line that was evident in the Yahapalana years.

There is also the tangible growth that is more in the realm of perception than in the numbers. That is the single biggest difference between a right wing SJB/UNP type of regime, and a progressive regime of the sort in power now. There is an almost touchable, solid perception of growth even in the most difficult of times. Take the current conjuncture. It bears repetition that within a space of two months the Port City and the Central Expressway both became functional realities. The Port City was already in existence in physical form but it was just this month that it was given the legal go-ahead to begin functioning as a fully operational business oasis. What’s more, these two months referred to, are not quite in the ‘out of danger time zone’ as far as the pandemic is considered.

But that’s a tangible outcome is all about. People are seeing results. That immediacy is more potent than mere numbers on a graph. After the long hiatus of stagnation under UNP rule, it’s as if a dam burst. The JVP and the SJB opposition seem to be flailing in the floodwaters that have resulted. They are clutching at straws mouthing the sovereignty argument, which is a joke coming from folk who have demonstrably shown serial disrespect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this country. Those facts have been gone through elsewhere in previous articles by this writer.

Besides, the Port City is a new additional land mass added to the island, which was not even on the map. It is truly ‘offshore’ in that sense, and even though it does not mean that it should function as a separate entity that does not fall under the sway of the Executive and Legislature, such a scheme of things would by definition have a great degree of autonomy. Such is a sine qua non. Those who have no understanding of that fact are either pretending to be daft, or are being blinded by the spite engendered by success of the Port City and highway projects.