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Cancellation of the light rail between Fort and Malabe – Some alternative options to reduce traffic

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By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

(Continued from yesterday)

If the Cabinet wishes to cancel the project for other reasons, it certainly has the right to do so, but should say so directly without giving invalid justifications putting the blame on environmental issues. This will naturally undermine the credibility of the Cabinet. Needless to say, it will make foreign governments losing trust in and respect for Sri Lanka which certainly will not do any good for the country.

It may be recalled that the vision of some of our past leaders was to make Colombo another Singapore with high rise buildings scattered all over. Having an LRT was a part of this vision as such urban rail systems are common in other countries including India. The Ministry of Megapolis was established for the purpose of converting Colombo into a mega-city.

With this mandate given to the Minister-in-charge, naturally he had to initiate this LRT project to emulate other cities, which the present Government is not willing to support. Hence, it is far better to tell the Japanese Government that the present government has other priorities and does not wish to pursue the project rather than cancel it giving flimsy excuses.

For example, many parts of the city get inundated whenever the city receives heavy rainfall as witnessed recently. This is despite the government spending many billions of rupees to improve the drainage around the city, but with little success. As described by the writer in his article appearing in the Island of 21.07.2020, a master plan study on flood protection in the city undertaken by JICA at great cost ended up in cleaning canals around Borelesgamuwa and Rattanapitiya but nothing in the city! Hence, there is much more to be done to solve this problem after understanding the issues properly.

 

REDUCE WORKERS COMING TO THE CITY FOR WORK

With the cancellation of the LRT system, the government will have to look for alternative ways and means of reducing the traffic heading to the city. Such traffic will comprise people coming for work, attend to business matters, purchasing goods as well as those passing through from the South to the North and vice-versa.

During President J R Jayewardena’s tenure, both the Parliament as well as several administrative complexes were brought to Battaramulla with a view to easing traffic heading towards the city. But many of the commercial premises are still located in the city and they may be encouraged to have branch offices in suburbs where customers could get their services without travelling to the city. Today, on-line transactions are becoming popular and people should be encouraged to use such services as most people today are in possession of smart hand-phones through which such services could be obtained.

During the curfew which was imposed island-wide for several months because of the COVID 19 issue, all the offices both in the public and private sectors were closed down and the staff were asked to work on-line at home without having to be present physically in the offices except for a few to attend to urgent business. This brought down drastically the number of people travelling to the city for work.

This practice could continue wherever possible making it optional for the staff to attend the offices only once or twice a week. It is economical for the government to provide concessionary loans to the staff who do not possess IT facilities at home enabling them to attend to their office work from home. This however needs self-discipline among the work force and the government will have to introduce new mechanism to monitor the work being done from home. By implementing these proposals, the number of people coming to the city daily could be significantly reduced.

 

MAKING FORT AREA ACCESSIBLE TO EXISTING HIGHWAYS

With the construction of the Outer Colombo Highway linking the Southern Expressway with Kadawatha and Kerawalapitiya, traffic from the South heading for North or Kandy and vice-versa could do so without entering the city, again reducing the city-bound traffic. An elevated highway is being planned from the New Kelani Bridge (NKB) to Rajagiriya with a later extension to Athurugiriya Exit of the Southern Highway. It also has a spur to Dematagoda. These could be used by motorists travelling on highways to enter the city.

Another highway is being planned from Orugodawatta Junction of the NKB ending up at Galle Face to take Fort-bound traffic. This highway going past Kotahena will have an access to the Port and it will be mostly container traffic heading towards Colombo Port that will be using this highway. With the increasing number of 5/7 star tourist hotels recently built or under construction in Fort, Slave Island and Kollupitiya areas, a considerable amount of tourist traffic is also expected from the airport to this area of the city. Also, there will be many local passengers coming along Negombo Road and Kandy Road heading towards Fort. Instead of building an elevated light rail system for them, an extension to the existing highway as proposed could be built.

The writer proposed to the Road Development Authority (RDA) an alternative trace for a new highway linking the NKB with Fort, when public comments were invited for the new elevated highway, but without receiving any response. The NKB could be extended with a highway built on pillars over St. Sebastian Canal commencing from the Orugodawatte Junction up to Panchikawatta. It could then be diverted parallel to the Panckikawatte Road and cross the Maradana Road and the railway lines on pillars and terminating on Wljeyawardane Mawata. Exits could be provided for traffic moving along this link both towards Fort and Darley Road.

By this means, traffic coming from the Airport Highway as well as from Kandy Road could have access to Fort within the shortest possible time. Even the traffic coming in the Southern Highway could reach Fort using this link after coming along the proposed elevated highway via Rajagiriya from Athurugiriya exit. Motorists and buses from Malabe, Battaramulla and Rajagiriya could use this highway to reach Fort making the LRT train redundant.

 

REDUCE THE NUMBER OF BUSES COMING TO THE CITY

Currently, all the long-distance buses coming to Colombo have their destination as Pettah. This needs not be so, as it increases congestion in Pettah and also creates a problem for the private buses to find parking space to wait until they get their turn for the return trip. The long-distance buses coming from the North and East along Negombo Road and Kandy Road could terminate their travel at a bus stand built at a suitable location north of the Kelani Bridge.

Similarly, buses coming from the South and SE along the Galle Road, Horana Road, High Level Road and Low-Level Road could terminate their travel at a bus stand built at a suitable location south of the city. A shuttle service could link these two bus stands which are routed through different points in the city such as Pettah, Fort, Slave Island, Town Hall, Maradana, Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya, Thimbirigasyaya etc. This shuttle service should run continuously at short intervals in both clockwise and anti-clockwise directions through these locations. A traveler reaching the city could use this shuttle service to get to any place within the city.

Ideally, such a circular shuttle service could be provided by an elevated LRT system operating within the city only rather than in radial routes as proposed in the current project. This service will, however, benefit only the bus travelers because with the availability of highways island-wide, the motorists will continue to use them. But it will solve the parking problem for private buses plying on long-distance routes waiting for their turn.

The other option is to re-introduce the trolley bus service which provided a very good service in the fifties and early sixties. It was an electrically operated system with power supplied by overhead lines and managed by the Colombo Municipal Council. Regrettably, it was closed down as a solution to an industrial dispute with the workers and the buses sold for scrap. If properly designed and managed, a trolly bus service could serve as a shuttle service, which will be cheaper to introduce and manage than an LRT system.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The decision of the Cabinet to cancel the LRT project may be desirable when there are alternative means to reduce traffic heading for Fort area. However, it is important that the Cabinet divulges the real reasons for taking such a decision without hiding behind environment issues.

The government should also give priority to implement projects that would reduce inflow of traffic to the city such as on-line working and on-line transactions and on-line purchases. Priority should also be given to complete the planned and on-going projects to build highways that would divert traffic coming to the city.

The government should also give serious thought to terminate long-distance buses before entering the city and run an efficient shuttle service for the benefit of travelers coming in these buses to get to different locations in the city and as a link between the two terminals.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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