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The need to establish comprehensive policies for infrastructure in Sri Lanka

For decades, Sri Lanka’s development has been characterised by policy inconsistencies, fragmentation of national policies, compartmentalisation of state agencies and overlapping functions leading to repetition and redundancy of development effort and initiatives.

The Infrastructure sector is no exception. The country’s infrastructure policies and plans are much more departmentalised, fragmented and lacks integration and coherence. This short articles stresses on the importance of having comprehensive and integrated infrastructure policy in place, if Sri Lanka is to achieve economic competitiveness and social upliftment.

Infrastructure and development

National authorities, development partners, experts and academics are aware of the need to expand and upgrade existing infrastructure in Sri Lanka. This need is particularly acute in the urban and sub-urban regions where the inability of infrastructure to cope with future demand may pose serious constraints on future economic and social development.

Whether infrastructure is provided directly by the State, indirectly through a contract awarded to the private sector, or via a public-private partnership, the State’s active participation is vital for securing social returns on investments. Many projects present deficiencies at the planning stage, which sooner or later will reappear during implementation, thus reducing the synergy that can be created by appropriate infrastructure and economic activity. Often emphasis is mistakenly placed on economic variables, such as the quantity of investment, the project’s bidding fee or the direct income that will be derived by the State, whereas the main concern of the Government should be the social or overall benefits that will be generated in the country’s economy or that will help to enhance its competitiveness.

In order to attain accelerated economic and social development, the Government must further improve and strengthen the state institutions, as well as increase public-private coordination through up-to-date regulatory frameworks that strike a balance between planning, appraisal, capacity and investment maturities. The main focus of such regulatory frameworks should be not only financial considerations but also the comprehensive development of the economy in which the infrastructure is installed.

Towards comprehensive policies for Infrastructure

The planning and implementation of public policies, therefore, should be considered from the point of view of the competitiveness and productivity of the goods or services exported or imported by the country, and not on the basis of the mode of transport. This is why, instead of discussing maritime or rail transport policies, for example, a national transport policy should be established according to the productivity and competitiveness of the national economy. Ultimately, the State’s main concern is that exports should be competitive on the international market, and how such products are actually transported is irrelevant for the country. With respect to imports or internally traded products, the focus needs to be on reducing the cost of transport and logistics and passing on those savings to the end-users, thus improving their purchasing power and standard of living.

Consequently, the focus of sectoral policies needs to be changed and directed towards comprehensive policies that cover the different areas and sectors that form part of the problem, incorporating not only economic factors but also social and environmental considerations. For this to happen, a genuine dialogue between the different actors involved is required. The sectoral focus has been unable to address the complex problems caused by negative externalities in the area of transport and infrastructure, such as pollution and road accidents, precisely because such problems require coordinated and multisectoral responses to deal with the different variants of the problem.

The rationale for having a comprehensive policy

In globalized economies, productivity and external competitiveness are conditioned by multiple, interrelated and mutually-dependent variables, requiring a joint and multidisciplinary analysis for planning, implementation and oversight of comprehensive solutions. Consequently, the components of economies (infrastructure, transport and logistics) should be analysed as a whole system and not as separate entities. This would logically involve important administrative and legal modifications.

The main considerations regarding the strategic, administrative and legal issues involved could be as follows:

Strategic considerations

  • National policies should be designed comprehensively rather than as a compilation of sectoral development plans.

  • Policies should be designed and implemented taking into account the competitiveness and productivity of the goods or services being exported or imported, rather than the transport systems used.

  • The focus should be not so much on distribution logistics as on advanced logistics, which seeks to integrate production and facilitation as well as distribution.

Administrative considerations

  • A central agency should be established in order to direct development initiatives and implement comprehensive policies.

  • Coherent strategic plans must be drawn up and coordinated by the different government departments and must be based on a shared vision of the future.

Legal considerations

  • Legislation should be established that is clear, coherent and condensed in a single legal instrument, facilitating its implementation (an all-inclusive policy).

  • Policies should ensure the coherence and consistency of national policies and strengthen the synergic effects.

  • Legislation should be created to facilitate logistics and the transport of goods, and not on the basis of the form of transport used.

In this context, it may be worthwhile for Sri Lankan infrastructure policy makers to identify common elements from an analysis of case studies relating to successful developments in countries such as Finland, France, Germany and the Republic of Korea. Although they reflect different economic, social and cultural circumstances, they do provide real and specific options for the establishment of a comprehensive infrastructure, transport and logistics policy.

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

Featured image: Central Expressway Project Section II - 01 by RDA 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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