Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor, proudly and justly proclaimed: ‘I found Rome built of brick; I leave it clad in marble.’ Most potentates and rulers in contemporary times — great and potty — entertain such Caesarian visions.
Though cities ‘clothed in marble’ are not possible to be built even in Western capitals during these days of economic recession, the dream of many Third World rulers and aspirants is to leave behind a capital with monuments that would be their stamp of immortality in the history of their countries.
Leaving behind cities of splendour and beauty is certainly an admirable and endearing endeavour, provided of course that they are not at the sufferance of the people. The pyramids, granite European monuments such as castles and palaces, massive oriental religious monuments, the Taj Mahal and even the US House of Congress and White House — certainly magnificent and aesthetic monuments — are mostly the products of slave labour.
Sri Lanka it appears is about to take on projects that would add on beauty to the City of Colombo that would be in keeping with the much touted tourism blurb: ‘Garden City of Asia.’ China has already left its mark in Colombo — at no extra cost to the Sri Lankan people — the BMICH, the Supreme Court, and now the sprawling National Performing Arts Theatre that gives Colombo a flavour of a China town.
There are also fanciful pipedreams such as staging the next Commonwealth Games here — not in Colombo but in far away Hambantota. The sheer illogicality of the project such as the finances involved, the massive investments called for and the lack of any athletic talent to win even a single medal has been bypassed by the surging euphoria of the thought of staging such an event in the ‘home town.’
What is of immediate concern is the take over of functions of urban development by the Ministry of Defence, with the Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the key official and the unprecedented move of the armed forces being deployed for urban development. Already houses which tenants have lived in for generations such as in Slave Island have been demolished and the residents asked to move out. Some of the residents seem unhappy at this compulsory evacuation because of a host of problems. Shifting out from their familiar neighbourhoods — even though they may be provided alternate accommodation, often disturbs the way of living, family income, and also causes problems such as travel to work places and choice of schools.
Not many serious complaints have been received as yet about the military taking to urban development but it is obvious that urban development should be in the hands of institutions under civilian control such as the Urban Development Authority which is answerable to parliament. Quite recently valuable prime land in Colombo around Galle Face Green has been sold to an entrepreneur from China — the Shangri-la Group. This group may be internationally reputed but the public was made aware of it only after the deal amounting to over 500 million dollars had gone through and another hotel deal amounting to 400 million dollars is said to be pending. More deals involving prime land in the Colombo Fort are also in the offing. The deal, we are informed, had been approved by the Cabinet. The present Cabinet, with all due respect to it, can be described as an HMV — His Master’s Voice — record of yore. It would be far better if such deals are placed before parliament and debated before being referred to a Cabinet which finds disagreement among itself impossible, before presidential approval is given.
Another discordant feature is that the all powerful Defence Secretary is not an MP. He is a public official whose brother is the President as well as the Minister of Finance! We are not suggesting that anything hanky-panky is going on but such familial relationships particularly regarding high finance are unheard of in modern day parliamentary democracy.
It need hardly be stressed that military strategy and strategies in town planning are poles apart. The military put on a job is quick and efficient but it depends on the kind of tasks they are asked to perform. For tasks which entail laying out an army cantonment with well watered lush green lawns and neatly cut borders and preventing miscreants from stepping on the lawns, there is no machine more efficient than the military. But to plan out the development of a capital city with a population of nearly a million people with yet another million entering the city in the morning and leaving it by night is quite a different task. We have yet to hear of the military of any superpower undertaking such a civilian task.
The Rajapaksa government has not yet deployed the military for civilian work to a great extent but the increasing amount of duties conferred on military personnel conveys the impression that the military may soon take over most of the duties of Town Hall and even those of other ministries like agriculture. Much has been made in the media about soldiers growing vegetables, transporting and marketing them. Can soldiers be vegetable cultivators for long and if so what would be the effect on the much hyped ‘morale of the fighting forces’? And could they be better cultivators than the traditional vegetable farmers?
The navy it is reported is taking tourists around for Whale Watching and the Air Force may turn out to be part of a wing for tourist aviation. No doubt the government spends much of the GDP on the maintenance of the armed forces but does the answer lie in the militarisation of civilian occupations? The normal practice in countries that have ended a war is to demobilise the armed forces and find them alternative forms of living; not put military men in uniform into civilian jobs under the command of the Defence Ministry.
If any serious thought is being given to improvement of the City, no ad hoc moves should be made. The armed services do not have the expertise in urban development and town planning and other multifarious functions necessary to develop and administer a capital city. What could be done is to employ demobilized servicemen in tasks which they may be capable of performing such as dredging of canals, prevention of sea erosion (probably caused by the construction of breakwaters and harbours without considering changes in ocean currents) and road construction under civilian administration. If the militarisation of the civilian administration is not halted and there is no effective political opposition the consequences to the country could be disastrous.
Most military personnel, retired and in service, as well as some in the extreme right of the political spectrum in most countries, often entertain the view that military rule or a military administration is a panacea in countries where democracy has led to chaos. This is a fallacy, so well illustrated in two South Asian countries: Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even in oil rich countries in the Afro-Middle East region where military men have ruled with an iron fist for decades, the military has failed abjectly as current events in the region show. In Sri Lanka the view is being projected that the ‘war heroes’, victors in the war against terrorists, are the answer to all our ills — Kokatath Thailaya. The universal Thailaya that had failed in every country is not going to work here.
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