by Gamini mWeerakoon
Most great cities around the world have public places that have acquired historic sanctity and are left untouched even by eager modernisers who develop an itch to leave behind puny constructions for their immortality.
London has those great grand parks, palaces and open spaces such as Piccadilly Circus; Paris — the historic 86,400 sq km cobbled stone park Palace de la Concorde; New York, the Times Square; New Delhi — India Gate, their national monument standing amidst acres of spreading lawns and Beijing a vast square by the Great Hall of the People and Mao Tze Dong’s tomb
Poor Colombo has no such historic parks or squares but still has a kilometer or more long stretch of green by the sea which looks absolutely delightful, bathed by the warm sun by day and providing views of stunning tropical sunsets as the big red sphere tantalizingly dips into the ocean over the horizon.
Galle Face Green has no monuments and does not need any. Its plain natural beauty has won encomiums around the world.
But now it is to be vandalised by 21st Century savages.
A 400 room super luxury seven star hotel is to be built at a cost of US$ 500 million’ and obliterate the Green. And more! ‘A six star hotel also costing $ 500 million is to be built by another Chinese company.’ This report of the destruction of this esplanade which had been described as ‘a part of the government’s ambitious plan to make Colombo the Garden City of Asia’, appeared in an English language daily on Thursday.
How the obliteration of this Green which has been the playground and a place of relaxation for residents of Colombo for well over a century by concrete structures could make Colombo ‘the Garden City of Asia’ boggles our imagination.
The ‘Garden City of Asia’ is a cliché coming down from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when streets of Colombo were lined with red, flamboyant and other flowering trees and the flowers covered roads over which a few cars and rickshaws pulled by barefooted men passed.
The scenario is quite different today as is apparent from the over heated roads sans vegetation and houses standing cheek-by jowl even in areas which was once called Cinnamon Gardens. Tourist writers are searching for clichés to justify the vandalism of the Green.
Only two parks
Galle Face Green it is well known is the only public park for residents of Colombo other than the Vihara Maha Devi Park (VMD) which former President Premadasa tried hard to vandalise by introducing cheap gimmicks imitating Disneyland. Mercifully after over a decade most of these Disneyland imitations have gone into limbo and the park is coming back to its natural state.
Galle Face Green (GFG) and VMD — the latter was earlier called Victoria Park, were gifts of the wicked British colonialists to the citizens of Colombo. Since the British were sent packing home, the native sons and daughters who ruled the land and administered Colombo have not built one park in Colombo worth pointing out! In Sri Jayewardenepura fair sized grounds opposite the parliament came into existence but periodic internecine political quarrels left it in a quagmire most of the time. Now a significant part has been partitioned for a memorial for the War Heroes.
Certainly War Heroes need to be honoured and remembered but their memorial could have been located elsewhere in Jayewardenepura where land is available other than reducing the area of the only playground. The other public park built was the one where the Water’s Edge Hotel is located. The Supreme Court cancelled the sale of this land but once again the hotel seems to be in operation.
Massive stadia but kids on streets
In Colombo, the massive stadia built for cricket and other big sports events are taboo to ordinary citizens. Poor kids play on the streets outside massive stadia whose gates are firmly locked. Thus, the question which Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has been vested with the Urban Development portfolio has to consider is where the citizens of Colombo are to relax once the Hong Kong Shangri-La or the other six star wonder occupies the Green.
Of course anyone would be permitted to enter the Shangri-La or the other Six Star wonder. But as the saying goes in America, ‘anyone can enter the Hilton but very few do.’ The thickness of the purse matters. Bank accounts or the thickness of the purse will not be the only issues but most GFG users would far prefer the free and open air of the Green, sea breezes and kotthu rotti from carts rather than the unpronounceable names of Shangri-La delicacies.
It would be safe to presume that citizens of Colombo will be deprived of the pleasures of their traditional park except for the dirty rich or the mysterious new rich that take delight in inhabiting such places.
What’s the opposition doing?
The Cabinet it is believed would approve the sale of land to the Chinese buyers and President Rajapaksa would approve the sale. Whatever procedure is adopted, do citizens of Colombo have any say in the matter?
This is a matter of grave concern to all Sri Lankan citizens because the most valuable land in the country — land which was never intended to be sold — is being sold to foreigners. So far we have not heard of any reactions of opposition parties. What does the UNP say amidst squabbling about party leadership? Even the JVP seems to have gone on to low gear.
What do the city fathers of this apparently fatherless city say?
Will there be no public agitation?
It would be recalled that the Supreme Court a few years ago ruled that even sections of Galle Face Green could not be rented out to a television company to stage musical shows because the Green was intended and built for the benefit of ‘the ladies and children of Colombo’ as a plaque still standing on the promenade of the green says.
We do hope the authorities would still attempt to save GFG from foreigners. If the two hotels have to be built, why not sell the land occupied by the Navy Headquarters on Marine Drive and even some parts of the garden of the unoccupied President’s House? The premises of the army headquarters will be the location for one hotel project and the army headquarters is to be moved elsewhere. So, why not the navy headquarters which has no naval deployments in Colombo harbour or on the coast nearby?
The sale of Galle Face Green to foreigners is a slap in the face of the citizenry of Colombo. It shows utter disregard to public opinion because the public was never consulted. To us who have used and enjoyed doing our morning constitutional for over a quarter century on the Green, it is a crime. It is also a dangerous precedent.
The Urban Development Authority may assume divine powers and decide to give over Kandy Lake to build another Shangri-La hotel! We could even have the historic Galle Fort given for another tourist resort and even the grounds of the Anuradhapura Lovamahapaya for a multi storeyed Shangri-La. The dollar carrying tourist has become God and King. ~ Courtesy: The Sunday leader ~