Saturday, April 8, 2017

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A new country through Megapolis

By Gamini Abeywardane

With the onset of the new government, Megapolis has been a much used term, almost like a panacea for all economic ills of our country, but unfortunately ordinary folks seem to be at a loss where its true economic significance is concerned.

Probably this fact in mind, the ministry in charge of the subject last week organized an event mainly for the media heads where the subject minister Champika Ranawaka himself made a comprehensive presentation on what the ministry has been doing up to now in this regard.  He presented the salient features of the official blue print which we understand will be presented to the President and the Prime Minister shortly.
According to the project’s master plan, the Western Megapolis is envisioned and conceptualized as Sri Lanka’s Grand Strategy to propel the country’s drive to achieve the status of a ‘high income developed nation’ by 2030. It is expected to provide a holistic solution to some of the long standing ills of our country particularly in the sphere of urban infrastructure.

This development Plan will provide solutions to many problems such as poor mass transport, lack of urban housing, shanty dwellers, absence of garbage disposal systems, environment pollution, road congestion, inadequate leisure and recreation facilities and urban flooding.
Once these problems are sorted out in the Western Province there are plans to extend its scope to other major cities as well. If the Western Province can be developed as a major economic hub in the region, the benefits will accrue to the whole country while development prospects will spill over to the surrounding areas as well, catalyzing economic development in the whole country.

The new opportunities in terms of income generation will reduce unemployment while discouraging migration of qualified youth to developed countries. Insufficient infrastructure in education, transport, housing and lack of opportunities for high income generating employment are main reasons for migration of youth.

Among its ambitious goals is the plan to make the Megapolis one of the top 10 most livable cities in Asia attracting entrepreneurs and professionals, reversing the brain-drain and building upon the pre-existing conditions of absolute peace and guaranteed security.

It also envisages achieving ‘Housing for All’ with water, sanitation, electricity, waste management and other urban services and amenities while reducing poverty and unemployment rates to less than 1 per cent by 2030.

It will also create the digital infrastructure necessary for a smart city enabling transformation of the national economy into a predominantly knowledge-based innovation-driven economy,

Overall, it appears that a lot of progress has been made in this regard by way of planning, undertaking studies, research, approvals, negotiating necessary funding and effecting legal infrastructure. Although these are not visible to the eyes of ordinary people, some serious work has already been completed.

The project, when completed, is expected to change the face of the entire western province and provide the required infrastructure for investors to look at our country. Once Sri Lanka has in place, proper transport systems both mass transit and goods transport, enhanced port and airport fallibilities, better housing infrastructure and less road congestion, the country should be able to realize the full potential of its locational advantage of being on a major sea route.

Some significant infrastructure projects planned by the previous government such as Colombo Port City now termed Colombo Financial City and relocation of shanty dwellers have been incorporated into the new Megapolis Development Plan while vital new additions such as further development of the railway transport network to include a monorail system and extending it to cover new areas in the city such as Town Hall, Kirulapone and Borella also have been included in the project.

There will also be a network of elevated roads running through the city which will substantially cut down the travel time and reduce road congestion. There are plans to introduce a new ferry transport system through the Beira Lake further reducing road congestion, while providing a comfortable and pleasurable mode of transport. For example, people getting off at the Fort Railway Station will be able to use this lake based transit system to reach the National Hospital in a short period such as four to five minutes.

Learning from major cities in the world like London, Berlin, Seoul and Singapore which have used rivers flowing through them for economic development, the Megapolis project has plans to develop Kelani river for goods and passenger transport, sports and recreation which is a far cry from the present situation where the river is being used for disposal of waste material and its banks are illegally occupied by shanty dwellers.

The project will considerably enhance the attractiveness of Sri Lanka as an investment destination as it will remove some of the present disincentives through major infrastructure developments.

When our economy was liberalized as far back as late seventies we had some competitive advantages such as liberal environment, cheap labour, political stability and reasonably educated workforce. Over the last few decades many countries have opened their economies eroding our competitiveness while we no longer have cheap lablour.

By defeating terrorism we have removed one of the biggest obstacles, but there are so many other negatives in areas such as infrastructure, labour, environment and economic and political stability. The proposed Megapolis, if successfully completed will remove most of these obstacles and will give the country many competitive advantages.

The project which is a brainchild of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was first mooted in 1994 during the time he was the Minister of Industries, Science and Technology and he attempted to revive it at least partially, through the Regaining Sri Lanka programme in the 2001-2002 period and none of these worked due to unforeseen political changes.

Now some of the post war plans of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government also have been incorporated into the new Megapolis Project with appropriate changes, while the peace prevailing in the country has provided a new platform for the implementation of this vital project which can change the future of Sri Lanka as a trade and investment centre.

Unfortunately, ours is a country where politics takes precedence over everything else and economic priorities were not given the place it deserved in our national agenda and as a result many countries in Asia which were far behind us fifty years ago have overtaken us in the run for economic development.

The ensuing frustration resulted in civil strife both in the south and the north and now it’s time to reverse some of those negative tendencies and there is no other project which can do this transformation better than the Western Province Megapolis.  The success of the project will depend on the support it receives from all political parties as it cannot be completed within the period of one government.

As pointed out by Minister Ranawaka its effective implementation will require some apex body like the Mahaweli Development Authority with adequate legal powers to deal with problems that may crop up from time to time during its implementation. However passing of a law to establish such an institution has still not been possible because of opposition from various institutions whose powers will be affected by such developments.

However, the fact remains that during the last several decades our country has missed many opportunities to develop its economy and our failure to address the infrastructure issues in time has contributed to this situation in a major way. With Japan, ADB and many internationally reputed private sector organizations having already come forward to assist the process Megapolis seems to be the grand strategy through which the country can rectify some of the past mistakes in the area of economic development.







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