While the country is preparing itself for a crucial Parliamentary election, the capital city of Colombo and the entire Western province are on the threshold of a major transformation.
Megapolis - The plan initially submitted to the Board of Investment (BOI) in 2004 but failed to get off the ground due to various reasons – has now returned to the country’s national agenda. Comprehensive plans and roadmaps are being designed to convert the entire Western Province into a Megapolis area to usher in comprehensive and development within the next five years.
The plan – which was developed by CESMA in Singapore in consultation with experienced architects and town planners - includes business centres in the financial district around Pettah, a recreation and entertainment district around Beira Lake, a shopping district around Slave Island and a harbour front district. It will also address Colombo’s housing problem and other socio-economic issues in a comprehensive manner, positioning Colombo as the best city in the South Asian region. The project will be carried out in a manner that will preserve cultural and historical “riches” of the Western province.
Under the plan, Pettah would be developed into a harbour front district comprising a cruise centre, a marina and waterfront promenade. The master plan maps out a vision for the Western region from Negombo to Beruwala while the core area plan for Colombo maps out a detailed long term development project for a population of two million. The Colombo core area will be divided into 12 areas as part of the planning process.
The plan will also focus on pedestrian traffic and parking management as the existing pedestrian network is not well linked and the segregation of pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic was inadequate.
One has every reason to believe that the Western Region Megapolis Planning Project will be a revolutionary initiative that will transform the collective social life of Sri Lanka in an unprecedented manner. It will be second only to drastic economic reforms introduced by former President J.R. Jayewardene who came to power with a sweeping majority in 1977.
In fact, city beautification was a much-talked-about activity over the past five years as there were various projects carried out in the recent past on this front. Plush jogging paths, new shopping complexes and hotels were constructed with the aim of attracting more tourists to the capital city. Slums were demolished promising better housing facilities for residents and sometimes the military apparatus was also used to make way for this process. But, parallel to such initiatives, “economic life” of the people did not reach new heights. Avenues of income shrunk and jobs were not created, despite the ‘infrastructure development drive’ which was characterized with haste and lack of proper planning. As a result, there was no inclusive development in the capital city and a sizable proportion of people, who were supposed to be benefited from city beautification and infrastructure development projects, languished in poverty.
It was against this backdrop that the plan was unveiled for a megapolis covering not only the capital city of Colombo, but the entire Western province. There was a need to rectify the “errors” of development projects carried out in the past while capitalizing on existing facilities and advantages.
The “megapolis” region stretches from Negombo to Beruwela with the city of Colombo as the core. Authorities dubbed it as an ambitious plan to convert the hitherto unplanned Western Province into a major megapolis by 2030 with an estimated population of 8.4 million (an increase of 3 million). The project aims to position Sri Lanka among the rising Asian economies converged in big cities such as Seoul, Tokyo Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Karachi – each city housing populations that range from five to fifteen million. These densely populated, large urban cities made economies of scale possible and thereby provided an impetus for growth. In comparison, Sri Lanka did not have a large metropolis to power large-scale growth. The CESMA Plan provided the answer – a megapolis of 8.5 million, which was envisioned as the only planned city in South Asia.
In terms of economic development, this would give Sri Lanka a definite advantage vis-à-vis the other economies in the South Asian region. Colombo has the potential to become the base for many foreign enterprises that were conducting business in the southern part of the Indian Sub Continent, as Chennai, Bangalore, Trivandrum and Cochin were only an hour’s flight from Colombo.
Why Western province?
A key objective of the plan, according to the Ministry of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs, is to separate the Western Region from other regions in the country to promote a higher growth which will not only benefit the Western Region but also other regions through backward integration. The selection of the Western Region has received attention of the policy makers on the grounds of this comparative advantage in relation to other regions in the country.
The advantage that the Western Region has over other regions is clearly shown in the current economic development, which has been supported by the location of the capital city, main harbour and international airport and a higher share of economic and social infrastructure facilities in this region.
A comparison of the Western Region with other regions in the country demonstrates the dominance of the former not only in terms of economic activities but also in terms of socio - economic development.
In terms of production of goods and services, for example, the Western Region stands out with nearly 50% share of the total output leaving the balance 50% of the production to all other provinces. Similarly, the Western Region also leads in terms of almost all social indicators, which measure the level of living standard. The high concentration of economic activities and a high level of living standard in the western Region in relation to to their regions become even more significant since the area covered by this region accounts only for 6% of the land. Because of the existing socio-economic development, the policy makers believe that the Western Region could attract more local and international investments than other regions where such facilities are not well developed.
The spill-over effects form the faster development in the western Region will lead to higher production of goods and services in other regions which will in turn result in a higher economic growth for the country as a whole.
A commitment to higher growth by the Government has been greatly influenced by the low economic growth in the past quarter century after liberalization and increasing need to create productive employment, raise living standards and, more importantly, the miss opportunities because of inappropriate political decisions as well as the prolonged ethnic conflict which devastated economy and the society. The possibility of lasting peace has again raised the importance of economic development on a priority basis.
The decision to focus on Western Region has also been influenced by the existing infrastructure facilities and relatively low investment requirement to upgrade these facilities to meet the increasing demand for the under accelerated growth. Its growth oriented policies were designed for the country as a whole, the investment requirement to develop infrastructure facilities would be quite substantial and certainly, given the resource constraint faced by the country, not affordable. Furthermore there is no guarantee that investors would select these regions to establish manufacturing and commercial ventures. Since the economy of the Western Region is already dominated by the private sector, the improved and modern infrastructure facilities would enable the region to attract a higher level of private sector investment. That will result in much needed economic growth and job creation, paving way for advancement of living standards.
The strategy of converting Western Province into a Megapolis area has been favoured due to this region’s location within the country and in international context, current level of development with high share of the country’s production of goods and services, availability of infrastructure facilities and services and the location of the capital city, main harbour and the international airport. Furthermore, the composition of economic activities is relatively more diversified and the work force is more skilled in the Western Region and most of them are employed in manufacturing, services, business, trade and administrative services. Employment in agriculture is minimal and under employment is low in this region in relation to other provinces.
There is also very high concentration of health and medical services and educational facilities with this region. The metropolitan Colombo is also the financial hub of the country where nearly 60% of all financial transactions are generated.
Given the economic significance of the Western Region in relation to the rest of the country, the Western Region has been considered as more appropriate to accelerate economic growth than spreading development throughout the country, which is more costly and less effective.
This focus is aimed at developing this region to attract investment, promote economic and business activities, develop international linkages through trade and information technology and invite people to live and work. With nearly 40% of the population expected to live in this region by 2030, the supply of goods and services to meet the demand created by the people living in this region will also benefit the rest of the country.
The initial programme with regard to the Megapolis project took of the ground when the Cabinet of Ministers approved the proposal on April 23 to prepare the Western Region Megapolis Plan (WRMPP).
Objective is to serve as the main guiding plan of all future developments that will help transform the Western Region to highest international standard through series of large scale projects.
Western Region Megapolis Planning Project will provide a blueprint for the entire western region. With the endorsement of the Cabinet, four t committees were set up to work on all aspect of regional development.
The committees were listed as follows:
* Environment, Water Resources, Land and other Natural Resources both in Land and Marine Systems
* Socio-economics related Service Sectors (Logistics and Transport, Commercial and Business Development, Tourism, Security and Defense, etc.)
* Infrastructure needs (Housing, Roads, Industry, Power and Telecommunication, Municipal, Water Supply, Port and Shipping, Aviation)
* Policy, Institutional and Legal frame work (Regulatory Bodies and Legislative Provisions, Acquisition and Compensation, Role of Private Sector, Public Sector, new procurement and PPP Models)
An important step was taken in the direction of the implementation of the project when Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam visited Sri Lanka last February. The new government, which came to power in January, requested assistance to implement this project designed by a Singapore company.
According to sources from the Policy Planning Ministry, a major focus is given to set up eco-zones as part of the Megapolis project. By doing so, the project will be carried out with the consideration given to the natural environmental, social, political, economic and governance factors while providing a holistic frame work to achieve sustainable outcomes.
Western Region Megapolis Planning Project will be one of Sri Lanka’s prime project for the next 15 years. And it will be one of the projects that can position Sri Lanka among ‘developed’ countries in the world, while strengthening almost every aspect of the country’s economy.