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Colombo cannot be made "Garden City of Asia" without gardens

Feb 26, 2011 8:11:18 PM- transcurrents.com

by Gamini Weerakoon

A recent report of the Economist Intelligence Unit of the 168-year-old Economist magazine would have rudely shattered the dreams of those visionaries of making Sri Lanka the ‘Asian Miracle’ with its capital, Colombo, as the ‘Garden City of Asia’. After conducting a global survey on basic criteria essential for good living, the Economic Intelligence Unit declared that Colombo was among the ‘Worst Ten Livable Cities’ in the world’. The other cities conferred this dishonour are: Dakar (Senegal), Douala (Cameroon), Lagos (Nigeria), Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Harare (Zimbabwe), Karachi (Pakistan), Tehran (Iran) and Algiers (Algeria).

The world walks by as the sun sets in the west. Pic by Brett Davies

The other day we were being told that our capital would once again be the ‘Garden City of Asia’ with the construction of Chinese Shangri-La’s in the Galle Face environs along with other tourist attractions. Being a citizen of Colombo and its environs for long years we certainly wish that our city ranks as a Garden City of Asia but all of us should not be carried away by the euphoria and tourism blurbs of propagandists, determined to please their masters, ignoring stark realities.

The horrendous dump

One such example is seen on entering Colombo from the northern point of the ‘city’ alongside the majestic Kelani River. A huge mountain of stinking garbage materialises on the banks of the river assailing the nostrils of one and all. It has been there for a near decade and considering the feeble efforts of our city fathers, leading politicos and environmentalists, it will be there for quite some time. We cannot expect visiting journalists to have their olfactory senses numbed and sight blinded to go along with the projected paradisiacal scenarios such as the Garden of Eden, Shangri-La-a or the Garden City of Asia with the mountain of rotten garbage at the entrance to paradise.

Why the vigour and enthusiasm displayed for conducting all forms of elections, international conferences like SAARC and now international sporting events cannot be devoted to eliminating this garbage pile — the garbage dump for the entire Colombo city — defies an answer. Many attempts down the years have been made to clear this horrendous dump by the Colombo Municipal Council and others but apparently not with much success.

Greater Colombo

Most Sri Lankans think of Colombo as being the area of the municipal limits of the Colombo Municipal Council extending from Colombo North to Wellawatte. Today, a greater Colombo has come into being extending from Negombo, including Colombo city and the municipalities of Sri Jayewardenepura, Maharagama, Dehiwela-Mt.Lavinia, Moratuwa, Panadura and Kalutara. This is certainly not a Garden City but a sprawling slum of city blocks, tourist hotels, industries, middle class homes with shacks and shanties dominating and with people living by railway lines have their sitting rooms on railway tracks! That indicates the extent of town planning that has gone into the capital of Sri Lanka.

In this age of instant solutions we have to keep reminding ourselves there are certain problems that defy the well intentioned brain storming of quick-fixers. An elementary lesson to be learnt is that Rome or any other great city was not built in a day. Our colonial conquerors planned out the urban centres they established — of course for their own benefit. Since the British left this country in 1948 the population of this country has burgeoned from around 7 million to 20 million.

And the volume of garbage of the citizenry increased exponentially but this factor has been ignored by our leaders whose solutions have ranged from sparkling oratory to absolute lies. A critical point — as scientists say — has been reached on disposal of garbage and the problem is about to explode. International metropolises have been built over the centuries in stages by engineers, architects and those of similar disciplines alongside town planners. But town planning in Sri Lanka has taken a back seat for decades.

Quick Fixes

It certainly wasn’t the fault of town planners who carried on their functions but the know-it-all politicians carrying out their own harebrained solutions that has landed the country in this sorry mess.

The Defence Ministry we note has moved into various branches of town planning and efforts have been made even at clearing the Bloemendhal Road dump even though we have not come across reports of much success.

This reminds us of a story related to us by the late Ben Fonseka, a pioneer Sri Lankan foreign officer who ended his career as the Foreign Secretary. A Senior US Ambassador had been told by a US Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet that on his retirement he was seeking an appointment as an American Ambassador. The Ambassador had informed the Commander that he on retirement would be seeking appointment as a Commander of one of the US Fleets spread out through the world oceans!

Military no panacea

The military after winning the war is moving into many civilian areas such as cultivation and marketing of vegetables, whale watching, road building and civilian air transport, construction and now town planning. In certain instances the military moving in can result in opening up of bottle-necks in the processes and bring success which civilian authorities have failed to achieve. But military entry into civilian processes cannot ensure long term success.

The collapse of military strongmen in Africa and the Middle East — Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Col. Muammar Gaddafi — now spreading out to neighbouring regions illustrates the point we are making. These comments are not meant to undermine the success of the military elsewhere and even here where they have done their job of defeating armed terrorism. But the line separating military functions from those that are essentially civilian has to come into play at some stage.

Beyond Colombo

The problems of town planning are causing havoc in most parts of the country. We will mention only a few such as the spread of housing construction into the Coconut Triangle where coconut plantations are being felled and land parceled out in to small blocks of ten perches or so for housing construction.

Indeed the pressure for land by the middle class is great but this cannot be done in an ad hoc manner. Vast housing estates have to be planned out where common amenities are provided including transport to work and schools.

Colombo is turning out to be ‘One of the ten worst livable cities’ from the Garden City of Asia. Our stupidity lies in not following established lines of town planning by other countries including the vileness of our politicians.

Colombo cannot be a Garden City without any gardens whatever our grandiose dreams may be. There hasn’t been one noteworthy public park opened since Independence. ~ courtesy: The Sunday Leader ~