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The Central Expressway – E04: A case of political manoeuvring affecting the best public interest

The Central Expressway is a priority expressway project under the National Master Plan for 2007-2017 of the Government of Sri Lanka. Once completed, the Central Expressway will connect to the biggest and busiest highways in Sri Lanka: the E02 Colombo outer circular highway; E03 Colombo-Katunayake expressway; A3 Colombo-Puttalam road; A1 Colombo-Kandy road; A9 Kandy-Jaffna road; A6 Ambepussa-Kurunegala-Trincomalee road; and the A10 Katugastota-Kurunegala-Puttalam road.

The Central Expressway which starts from Kadawatha runs from Kadawatha to Kandy – Galagedara and from Kadawatha to Dambulla. Initiated in 2017, the project is divided into four stages as follows,

  • Stage 1 - Kadawatha (0.0km) to Mirigama (37.1km) – Cost Rs. 158 billion – to be completed in 2024.

  • Stage 2 - Meerigama (37.1km) to Kurunegala (76.8km) and Ambepussa link road (9.3km) – Cost Rs. 137 billion – completed in January 2022.

  • Stage 3 - Pothuhera (0.0km) to Galagedara (Kandy) (32.5km) – Cost Rs. 142.5 billion – to be completed in 2024

  • Stage 4 - Kurunegala (76.8km) to Dambulla (137.1km) – to be completed in 2024.

On completion, the Central Expressway (E04) will stretch almost 100km, significantly reducing congestion on access roads between the Capital, Colombo, and the East coast and Central hill-country.

Although the project is bound to reduce the travel time, enhance ease of travel, fuel-efficiency etc., the fact that the project had been subjected to political bungling by political decision makers in the successive governments across many decades has significantly reduced the level of ‘best public interest’ which otherwise may have been achieved by the project.

The Central Expressway commenced as the Kandy Expressway, long ago. An expressway to Kandy originating from Kadawatha was proposed and a Swedish Consultant presented the feasibility report in December 2001. The proposed highway was offered to international investors in May 2011, to be built as a privately financed toll road on BOT (build, own and transfer) basis. The investor would design the road within the selected road corridor, build the highway and operate without funding from the Government, costs to be recovered with collected toll charges for an agreed time period. The Cabinet approved the award of the construction of 100 km Kandy Expressway to two Chinese companies, China Merchant Holdings and China Merchant Huajin Investment Company in July 2012, and a MOU was signed.

On the instructions of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the highway route was modified, moving the commencement of highway from Kadawatha to Enderamulla. The President advised the Road Development Authority (RDA) officials to amend the route accommodating wishes of some members of Parliament, also to avoid demolition of houses. The President also renamed the it as the Central Expressway.

The Central Expressway project would go down history as the most messed up highway construction project in Sri Lanka. The project which commenced as an expressway to Kandy, the heaviest trafficked road in the country, was accepted by two Chinese companies to construct the highway without any financial burden to the country, getting payment based on toll collection.

But the entire scenario changed when the political leadership at the time wished to accommodate wishes of local politicians and moved the road closer to their cities. In addition, shifting of commencement from Kadawatha to Enderamulla, which is surrounded by marshes making construction expensive. The shifting of the highway in 2013 resulted in redesign of the entire highway route, especially with political instructions to avoid disturbing local residents.

The political bungling in shifting the commencement and moving the route from solid grounds to paddy fields and marshes resulted in increased project cost exceeding two-fold and delays in completion. Looking into previous happenings would disclose how interferences by the politicians serving their own objectives, delay important projects resulting massive cost escalations borne by the citizens.

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa changed the scope of Central Expressway, the first three sections were expected to be completed by 2018. Today the entire project is seriously delayed, also funding requirements keep on mounting.

Another issue that has created serious concerns in ensuring the ‘best public interest’ of this Large Scale Infrastructure (LSI) project is the potential threat of ‘involuntary displacement’ of lives and livelihoods of many hundreds of people in the project locations.

The impact on the communities arising out of such ‘popular political decisions’ is evident by the fact that as many as 400 Right to Information (RTI) requests being submitted by families affected by the construction of the Central Expressway seeking information from the RDA and the contractors Maga Engineering Ltd. including the damage assessment and relevant financial reports related to their homes damaged in the process.

The RTI requests were filed by 200 local residents whose houses were damaged in the last stretch of the central highway from Mirigama to Kurunegala. They demand that the information be released within 48 hours as per S. 25.3 of the Right to Information Act, where institutions are required to respond within 48 hours if the matter concerns a citizen’s life or personal freedom.

The information requests sent to the RDA comprised 18 questions, while those addressed to the contracting company each comprised 16 questions.

Members of the Association of Victims’ Families said more than 400 houses suffered damage during the construction of the Central Expressway, spanning from Madatiyawala to Kurunegala. This extensive impact extended to the last kilometre of the currently opened section, which runs from Mirigama to Kurunegala. According to them a portion of the affected group still awaits compensation, while some have received meagre amounts as compensation. “In certain cases where houses suffered significant damage, compensation as low as Rs. 5000 rupees and Rs. 10 000 has been provided,” they said. “Due to recent rainfall, the structural cracks in some houses have expanded, and the walls have deteriorated to the point of potential collapse. This situation poses a significant threat to the lives of those affected.”

Affected residents further pointed out that, as no significant progress was made despite their complaints to the RDA, the Sri Lanka Police, and the Human Rights Commission, local residents took the initiative to submit 400 information requests under the Right to Information Act.

The country is facing a severe foreign exchange and local fund shortage has already delayed payments to contractors, affecting progress. The Mirigama to Kurunegala sector has been opened. But joining Kurunegala with other expressways in the country depends on completion of Kadawatha to Mirigama sector, which would be at least an year or more away, if loans currently agreed on are sufficient, which is doubtful.

Highway to Kandy which was originally proposed is beyond imagination.

Written by Samantha Abeywickrama, Convenor, Alliance for Sustainable Infrastructure – Sri Lanka

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article reflect the author’s views, and not the wider views of the Alliance for Sustainable Infrastructure.



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