Colombo, September 21: For more than two decades, Colombo was an embattled city. Having been in the midst of a seemingly unending war, neglect was writ large on its face. It was pockmarked by unkempt, even crumbling, colonial-era buildings. Houses were surrounded by high walls and key establishments were surrounded by barbed wire fencing. The roads, generally in disrepair, were blocked by barricades with gun toting troops flagging down vehicles to check for bombs and terrorists.
But come 2010, Colombo, lovingly nurtured and influenced by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British over five centuries, began to blossom. The man who retrieved it from the gloomy interregnum was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who while being Defense Secretary, took on the onerous task of rebuilding Sri Lanka’s capital city in 2010.
Gotabaya brought to the task, not just the efficiency and goal-orientation of a war-winning ex-military Defense Secretary but also a sense of artistry innate to the Sinhalese.
Under his stewardship, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) carefully and artistically restored and built buildings, gardens and walkways. Many properties were made fit for commercial use. New housing complexes and markets were created. Slums, which were eyesores, were removed and their occupants allotted brand new flats with modern amenities.
The story of Colombo’ makeover under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s direction is told in a most engaging way by Maj.Gen.(Rtd) Kamal Gunaratne in his new book “Gotabaya” brought out by Vijitha Yapa publishers. To use Gen.Gunaratne’s words, the process of urban development which heretofore was “haphazard”, was effected with a “proper vision, fine outlook and a pragmatic plan.”
According to Gen.Gunaratne, Gotabaya had two objectives: To run the UDA along lines of a top notch private sector business. And to settle the massive debt owed by, and to, the UDA and make it a profit making institution. Many of its officials were not only corrupt but were using it do their private businesses. To clean up the stables, Gotabaya appointed the trusted Nimal Perera as Chairman.
The first problem Gotabaya took up was slum clearance and relocation of the under-privileged slum dwellers. To get an accurate idea of the task on hand, he got university students to do a methodical socio-economic survey which, according to Gen. Gunaratne, was “excellent.” Colombo was found to have 68,894 slums and low facility settlements. Added to the data was what the slum families could do to upgrade their lives, which helped Gotabaya enhance their life chances in their new locations. Another key element in the planning was the need to retain the existing social networks to avoid alienation. So, the new multi-storied but tastefully laid out housing colonies had instructors to teach English and other vocational skills.
The initial plan was to build 65,000 housing units with a 10 billion rupee debenture issue. By 2014, 5009 flats, each of 400 sq ft, were released for occupation. Subsequently, 500 sq ft flats were built. Besides, 182 hectares out of the 360 hectares which were under slums, were released for money-spinning commercial constructions.
Since the government by itself could not meet targets, private sector participation was obtained. The TATAs were roped in to invest in the Slave Island project in return for land which they could use to earn money. However, Gen.Gunaratne notes, under the successor Yahapalanaya governmet, this process “ground to a halt.”
One of the early problems that Gotabaya encountered was discontent among UDA employees. When he learnt that this stemmed from lack of permanence in employment, he regularized the employees which perked up their spirits. To raise employees’ standards, he held competitive examinations for recruitment. Programs on productivity were conducted. Scholarships were given to staff who wanted to enhance their skills.
Gotabaya used defense services personnel in building and maintenance as the war had ended and soldiers and technicians could not be discharged. This gave rise to some resentment among some soldiers which was exploited by the opposition parties. War heroes were being used to clean drains, they said. This resulted in many military men not voting for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 Presidential election. Getting military officers to go by the cumbersome civilian procedures was another challenge.
Gotabaya left his mark in Colombo’s history by not destroying rundown colonial buildings but renovating them, adhering to the original style. HE also made them earn money. The Race Course complex, the Dutch Hospital and the office complex in Independence Square bear testimony to Gotabaya’s finely honed historical and aesthetic sense. The Sri Lankan armed forces which provided the labor for these works of art deserve kudos, says Gen.Gunaratne.
The plan to locate the 350 metre Lotus Tower on D.R.Wijewardene Mw and not in Peliyagoda was Gotabaya’s. He wanted it to be in a central place to be able to use its facilities to the maximum. He removed the ornamental flower traders from the Vihara Mahadevi Park (Sri Lanka’s oldest park) and relocated them in Battaramulla in a beautifully laid out lakeside complex near Water’s Edge.
However, two of Gotabaya’s projects did not work. He wanted to relocate the St.John’s fish market from opposite the Colombo harbour to Paliyagoda and locate the Sea Street gold merchants there. But this did not work. In the relocated fish market in Peliyagda, ransom taking and extortion were reported. Gotabaya posted plainclothesmen to identify and arrest the extortionists though this earned the wrath of a local politico.
One of the difficult projects was cleaning up and connecting the canal running along Bastian Street in Pettah with Beira Lake. The hawkers around the canal were re-located in a tastefully designed floating market, to sell local products and handicrafts. The canal was restored by the navy. The project was part of a plan to develop the entire area including the Fort Railway Station as a Transport hub. Unfortunately, the successor Yahapalanaya government neglected the maintenance of the floating market. The government also neglected the related project of turning the Fort area into Colombo’s transport hub.
The restoration of the Gafoor building, which is known for its peculiar shape, and which has been an iconic landmark in Colombo, was another of Gotabaya’s pet projects. According to Gen.Gunaratne, it was acquired by the UDA after much difficulty and work on it by the navy was to end with its inauguration slated for June 2015. But in January 2015, the Rajapaksa government was voted out. The pace of work went down so much that even in mid-2019, the end of the project was nowhere in sight, Gen.Gunaratne says. However, the TRACE Expert City built after renovating British colonial era warehouses and meant to be a technological and research hub was inaugurated on July 28, 2014.
Another example of the restoration of a site going to seed was the Defense Services School in Slave Island. In British times it was the headquarters of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. The present building built in 1860 was a two-storied one with very wide and airy verandahs. Gotabaya was enamored of this building and wanted it to be used as a school for kids of army personnel. But it had been earmarked for a shopping complex. Since nothing was being done about that, Gotabaya pressed his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa to hand it over to him for building an army school. The defense forces renovated and built upon it keeping the original design in mind. Later, when personnel from navy, air force and the police sought admission for their kids, the army school became the Defense Services School.
In telling commentary on the fate of many of the projects after the exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the government in January 2015, Gen.Gunaratne’s says: “The work carried out by the UDA under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership following his advice based on his vision, were overwhelmingly successful. However after the collapse of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the succeeding government did not take measures to continue those projects. The subsequent plight of the projects was pitiful, as they lay dormant for several years. Fortunately, following the election of Gotabaya as President, the projects have now resumed.”
(The picture above shows President Gotabaya reviewing a mixed development project in Colombo)