When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe put together a new cabinet after his election victory in August, he surprised many by creating a new portfolio, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Province Development, handing it over to the right-wing Sinhala-Buddhist leader Champika Ranawaka, who is part of the United National Party-led coalition.
Ranawaka’s brief: to implement an estimated $300 billion city development and urban renewal project spanning the entire Western province, stretching on the western seaboard from Negombo (45 km north of Colombo); and Beruwela (about 40 km south of the capital), but the development also pushing inland into the province.
Wickremesinghe believes the project, which he spoke about even before becoming the Prime Minister in January this year, is the right prescription for Sri Lanka. As excited about it, if not more, is the Indian establishment.
First, the project. The plan was designed during Wickremesinghe’s earlier tenure as Prime Minister between 2001-2004 by a Singapore firm called CESMA International, an arm of the country’s state-run housing development corporation. It is now named Surbana, the same consultancy said to be designing the master plan for Andhra Pradesh’s new capital. When Singapore Foreign Minister K Shanmugam visited Sri Lanka in February, the Sri Lankan government asked for his country’s assistance to help update and implement the plan.
According to the state-run newspaper Daily News, it is a plan to convert the Western province into a “major megapolis by 2030”, and aims to position Sri Lanka “among the rising Asian economies converged in big cities such as Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Karachi – each city housing populations that range from five to 15 million. These densely populated, large urban cities made economies of scale possible and thereby provided an impetus for growth. In comparison, Sri Lanka did not have a large metropolis to power large-scale growth. The CESMA Plan provided the answer — a megapolis of 8.5 million, which was envisioned as the only planned city in South Asia.”
The plans for Colombo alone are extensive, with a marina, a cruise centre, a waterfront promenade and housing for an estimated 2 million people eventually, as opposed to the approximately one million now. The argument for locating this megapolis in the Western province is that the region already has well developed infrastructure, which can be easily scaled up to international standards at a cost that won’t break the bank for Sri Lanka.
So why is India excited about the megapolis project? Because it views it as a proposition that could eventually lead Sri Lanka to scrap the China-led Port City Project. The controversial $1.5 billion project, in which Chinese developers had begun work to reclaim 108 hectares of land, 20 hectares of it as freehold and the rest on a 99-year lease, off Colombo’s main Galle Face oceanfront, has been suspended since
March for not having proper environmental clearances.
India remains concerned about the Port City project. New Delhi had hoped that after the January ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa as president, his successor Maithripala Sirisena would cancel it outright. But Colombo is still undecided. New Delhi is already seeing the “megapolis” project as a potential replacement for the Port City, with some voices in the establishment speaking about the possibilities of a similar reclamation project south of Colombo — without the Chinese, of course.
There is even talk in the Indian establishment that a 42 km stretch of a scenic rail line that runs along the western seaboard from Colombo to Kalutara could be realigned and diverted to free up land along the coast. That, however, sounds like a stretch. The landside of the line is densely populated — even the seaside has fishing hamlets — and any attempt to reroute it inward would result in large-scale disruption of settled populations.
For now, the Indian side is making an effort to have IRCON, the infrastructure building arm of the Indian Railways, back in charge of upgrading that stretch of rail line. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu during his visit, though it is not known if this figured in their discussions.
If and when the megapolis project takes off, India also sees it as a huge investment opportunity for Indian real estate developers. That the minister in charge is also known as someone who, despite his initial anti-India views, is now known in Sri Lanka as a pro-India man, can only add to the possibilities, from India’s point of view.
At the height of the agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu, Ranawaka had said that the reactors posed a risk to Sri Lanka too. He retracted the statement within days, pronouncing the reactors to be absolutely safe.
There was initial gossip that Ranawaka, who is a national leader, was unhappy with a portfolio that would confine him to the Western Province. Also, he is reported to have expressed concern that the scope of his portfolio was restricted as he did not have charge of the Urban Development ministry. But as the scale of the project, and its strategic significance, are beginning to emerge, he seems to have no complaints.
Ranawaka has talked about it as a project to transform the Western province as a “hyper centre of the Indian Ocean” and Sri Lanka into a “smart nation”. He said recently (as reported in the Daily Mirror) that to achieve the target, Sri Lanka would need smart infrastructure, telecommunication and IT technology among other things. All music to Indian ears.