( July 2, 2017, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over weeks we notice a change in approach, the need for policies of balanced regional development, with new and fresh initiatives being taken by the Yahapalanaya government to remedy this disparity. At long last, it has become necessary to consider the development of the whole of Sri Lanka is more important, than adding more to the populated Western Metropolis, while the latter has deserved attention.
This realisation it seems has come in the wake of lessons learned after much destruction and devastation since the earth slips and unexpected flash floods in the outlaying regions and other factors in climate change and drought, leading to the formation of future deserts in the arid zones.
The vision of sustainable development
Balanced regional development has become an important condition for the harmonious and smooth development of the country. It may not imply equal development of all the regions of the country. The benefits of overall economic growth are necessary to be shared by all the people of the different regions to avoid glaring regional disparities.
It would seem viable that backward and poorer regions of the nation should aim for a higher national growth than the present developed areas, if only to attain regional balance. There is an understandable reticence. But, this can change with government assistance, perhaps, through the exploitation of the natural resources, by the development of fishing, agriculture, industry, infrastructure, trade and commerce, productivity, self sufficiency and self reliance, best suited to each region. Regional economic advancement has to be created by planning at least for the better utilisation of capital and human resource, if nothing else.
Urban and rural advancement
Whilst regional development in Sri Lanka has drawn attention after the long drawn war, through necessity, this development has been piecemeal without an overall rural strategy or planning. It was easy for planners to accommodate the spill from Colombo to outlying areas and districts with more housing units constructed?
Dwellings and buildings were created without infrastructure planning and risk assessment in regional areas which were prone to disaster. Flood plains, river valleys, hill slopes, in proximity to modes of transport were the first areas for homes and settlement and the first to be affected by floods.
Besides, there was a desire to convert the rural landscape into a macadamised jungle for ease of transport access, as if Sri Lanka was a vast continent. The project was commissioned taking cost, distance and time factors as determinants. Perhaps, hydrological surveys, topography, and landscape geography too may have been considered. If drainage was one of the weighted considerations in construction, the removal of topsoil by the earth moving machinery during road infrastructure could well have upset the equilibrium. The unexpected and unprecedented rain, causing mud and earth slides, was an uncalculated cost.
Why metropolitan development?
Over the past six or more decades, the drivers of economic performance have increasingly been capital and labour mobility towards big cities. Geographical proximity often has represented the necessary setting for other forces to occur favouring development. The compensating benefits of urban location in terms of cost reduction, output, or utility gains did mitigate other social and environmental factors.
But limitations on city size, the external effects of urban environment, land values and transport costs with high population densities, air pollution from vehicles, potential disease, in essence “the quality of life” perhaps, was un-priced. The available evidence does not conclude that urbanisation is necessary for the development process, although it has been unquestioned.
Why the regions now?
The regions have been “starved” of funding, other than the minimum provision of road and rail infrastructure. How many of us know the percentage of Sri Lanka without electricity?
Will we be able to turn back the North and North Central Provinces of Sri Lanka from becoming desert in 30 years time? Can something be done to make farming with irrigation a reality, without the use of artificial fertiliser to produce crops, rather than kill people?
The North of Sri Lanka was a world apart from the rest of the country, yet we called it Sri Lanka. The region is gradually emerging from its long years of isolation and the painful process of rebuilding of homes, shattered towns and villages, demining fields and sustainable living.
Planning for awakening of rural economy
Regional development helps to converge and complement the government’s efforts.The country’s path to development must now change. Instead of making Colombo, a Singapore or a Dubai, we should be different and promote growth at regional level. We need to re-think and support policies and strategies that move economic prosperity, social infrastructure facilities and future growth over the long term, to the eight other Provinces. The Western Metropolis will develop whether we like it or not. But the awakening of the rural economy must be our sole objective in the immediate to long term.