A symphony of development, controversies, and environmental vigilance
Photo credit: Road Development Authority (RDA)
In the heart of Sri Lanka's burgeoning development agenda lies the Ruwanpura Expressway, a project that has traversed a tumultuous journey since its inception in 2014. Intended to seamlessly connect Kahathuduwa to Pelmadulla, this 73.9 km highway is heralded as the country's sixth E Class highway, promising to enhance connectivity and regional development. However, recent events and multifaceted challenges have cast shadows on its trajectory, sparking heated debates about its necessity, environmental impact, and the labyrinth of funding hurdles. Meanwhile, the project has come to a standstill.
Origins and delays: A political tapestry
The genesis of the Ruwanpura Expressway can be traced back to the ambitious "Maga Naguma" development initiative of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014. The initial approval marked the commencement of a journey fraught with delays and political intricacies. Originally slated for construction between 2014 and 2019, the project encountered numerous setbacks, including a change in government dynamics in 2015 and the subsequent cancellation of the Chinese contract in 2020. The consequential shift to local financing and the contract awarded to Maga Constructions represented a pivotal turning point.
Environmental concerns: The central fragile area debate unveiled
As the project unfolded, a tapestry of environmental concerns emerged, triggering a fervent discourse among stakeholders. Critics from an anonymous source within the Road Development Authority (RDA) raised questions with the writer about the consistency of claims by the National Physical Planning Department. The source claims that the National Physical Planning Department insisted that the project poses risks to a Central Fragile Area, but the anonymous source contests that the real threat lies elsewhere. The source claims that the Central Expressway poses a greater threat than the Ruwanpura Expressway. This debate gained momentum with on-ground protests from affected locals, who sought answers regarding the adequacy of compensation for their acquired lands.
Financial quandaries: Navigating the rollercoaster of funding challenges
The Ruwanpura Expressway encountered financial hurdles that added layers of complexity to the project's narrative. A delayed debt restructuring program and the government's pivot towards public-private partnerships (PPPs) or build-operate-transfer (BOT) models injected uncertainties into the financial framework. The Cabinet's approval for consultants and the reliance on Chinese funding underscored the intricate dance of securing sustainable financial avenues. According to the anonymous source within the RDA, the looming cost escalation, estimated at Rs. 13 billion in 2021, became a substantial concern, raising questions about the long-term economic viability of the expressway.
Benefits and justifications: A closer examination of development goals
Amidst the controversies and challenges, proponents of the Ruwanpura Expressway champion its strategic significance. The promised reduction of travel time, alleviation of traffic congestion, improved regional development, and support for tourism are touted as transformative benefits. The potential economic and social upliftment, particularly in Rathnapura, renowned for its gem trade and housing a medical college, adds weight to the argument for the expressway's completion.
Photo credit: Road Development Authority (RDA)
Environmental assessments: Conflicting perspectives and delicate balances
Mr. Gamini Hewage, Director General of the National Physical Planning Department, shed some light on the Ruwanpura Expressway's intricate status. Emphasizing a steadfast commitment to environmental preservation, Hewage noted that the second and third sections of the expressway have encountered a hiatus due to the pending environmental impact assessment (EIA) report with the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). Acknowledging the pivotal role of the environment, he underscores the department's cautious approach, asserting that development, while crucial, should not come at the expense of irreparable damage to the Central Fragile Zone or vital water resources. Contrary to claims of deliberate omissions in the 2050 Development Plan, Hewage maintains that the department has neither included nor excluded specific projects by name, urging dialogue with the secretary of the Road & Transportation Ministry and the CEA for comprehensive insights into the project's trajectory.
The environmental impact assessment has remained a contentious issue throughout the project's evolution. While the CEA approved the first section from Kahathuduwa to Ingiriya, the second and third sections faced heightened scrutiny. Mr. N. S. Gamage of the CEA emphasized that environmental concerns do not warrant halting the project, as robust solutions are in place. This conflict of perspectives brings into focus the delicate balancing act between developmental goals and the imperative of environmental preservation.
Future outlook: Navigating challenges for sustainable infrastructure
Mrs. Chandrani Samarakoon, Additional Secretary (Development) of the Ministry of Transport and Highways said, "Due to the current economic situation of Sri Lanka, temporarily, the project is stopped. However, the government has instructed us to continue acquiring lands so that construction of the Ruwanpura Highway can commence in the future." Regarding concerns about injustice in compensating landowners, she mentioned, "We are following strict government processes, and 90 percent of the landowners have agreed to the compensation." Additionally, addressing potential dissent, she noted, "In any situation, there will always be people who will not be happy with anything. Also, these days anyone can start any organization and produce any grievances. But it doesn’t cover everyone’s opinion; it's only a handful of people."
As the Ruwanpura Expressway continues to be a focal point of discussion, with further interviews pending, it remains a microcosm of Sri Lanka's evolving development narrative. Striking a balance between the aspirations for seamless connectivity and sustainable infrastructure becomes imperative. Navigating the intricate web of political, environmental, and financial challenges will be instrumental in shaping Sri Lanka's journey towards a connected, prosperous, and environmentally conscious future.
In conclusion: A symphony of resilience and adaptability
In the symphony of the Ruwanpura Expressway, resilience and adaptability emerge as recurring themes. The project, with its twists and turns, embodies the evolving nature of Sri Lanka's development ambitions. From political shifts to environmental debates and financial puzzles, each note in this symphony contributes to the larger orchestra of a nation striving for progress. The denouement of this saga will likely influence not just the physical landscape but also the intricate fabric of Sri Lanka's developmental ethos.
Written by Shanika Gamage
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.