Sri Lanka: Light-Rail derailed by Executive disorder


 More grievous than technical illiteracy is the economic thinking, rather the lack of it, that is behind the cancellation. The argument of high costs and low returns does not hold water, given the plethora of coastal and highway construction projects that have been undertaken at exorbitant and even uncontrolled costs.

by Rajan Philips

LRT project to be inaugurated today ~ (Daily News, Wednesday, July 3, 2019)

The picture and the caption above are from the Daily News dated July 3, 2019, announcing the commencement of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project “construction work under the patronage of (then) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe,” with (then) Urban and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka calling the LRT project “a measure to ease the traffic congestion in and around Colombo city.” Four months later on October 11, 2019, Daily News again reported that the LRT project “will be ready for commissioning by end of 2024 and for commercial operation by early 2025.” Not anymore. It is kaput now.

The LRT project, Champika Ranawaka’s preferred modal showcase for the Western Megapolis has been stopped in its tracks. Worse, it has been derailed and ordered to be junked. The order emanated from the fount of all power in Sri Lanka, the executive presidency. It was transmitted down by the Secretary to the President to the Secretary of the Ministry of Transport. The source of the order and its mode of communication are quite the illustration of the model of government that has arrived in Sri Lanka. The Minister of Transport, whoever she or he is of the 225 nobodies, is nowhere near the tracks. There is no mention anywhere of any of this being discussed in cabinet, a decision being made, and the Minister of Transport taking over to instruct his Secretary and staff. And inform as well that other missing entity, not so much the parliament which has its name but no use, as the general public, in whose name all power is purportedly exercised. This is how things were – when there was only a PM and who was merely primus inter pares. For translation, ask Wigneswaran, the expert on old languages, dead and alive.

And all this under the 19A Constitution, which apparently precludes the President from being a Minister of any subject (especially Defence), let alone ordering the Secretary of a Ministry while bypassing the subject Minister altogether. Even in the army, does the Commander in Chief give direct orders to privates? One would have thought that the civilian President was powerless under 19A to do any of this. Hence the ‘fierce urgency’ for 20A. So, we were told. Oops, I am sorry, I am veering too far off. Let me get back on track.

Secretary Jayasundara’s letter (dated September 21) to the Transport Secretary became public, courtesy of a scoop by BBC journalist Saroj Pathirana, who went on social media two days later to share it with others. Economynext picked it up the same day (September 23) and ran a good story, and here I am with half a bushel grist for my Sunday mill. In two paragraphs containing three stiff sentences, it is observed from one Secretary to another that “Light Railway Track System is very costly and not the appropriate cost effective transport solution for the Urban Colombo transportation infrastructure.” Ergo, the directive to “terminate this project and close the project office with immediate effect.” Then shines the light for the future: “A suitable transport solution could be worked out in consultation with the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing and the Department of National Planning with the Ministry of Finance.” Just like that! Easier done than said!!

Cancel politics

The secretarial termination of the LRT project is part of what is turning out to be ‘cancel politics’ in Sri Lanka. Not quite like ‘cancel culture’ (the social media practice of naming and shaming public figures and private companies, and ‘cancelling’ or boycotting them if they do or say anything objectionable or ‘incorrect’); but adaptable for our purposes in Sri Lanka. It is ‘cancel politics’ from taxation to constitution to environment to projects – cancelling everything that was started or half-started under the last government. It would be all right if cancellation leads to something better or positive, but that has hardly been the case so far. Tax cancellation immediately created half a billion hole in government revenue. Environmental cancellations are now regular news. The much bandied 20th Amendment has taken constitutional cancellation to new lows of mediocrity. It is perhaps the first authorless bill to be presented in any parliament. And now we have light rail derailed.

I am not sure if any of the current decision makers bothered to review the work that went into the LRT project that they have now taciturnly cancelled. The cancelled project was identified through the Western Region Megapolis Transport Master Plan (TMP) exercise that was completed in November 2016. With 2035 as the planning horizon, the TMP focused on four areas – Public Transport, Road Infrastructure, Transport Demand Management, and Environmental Sustainability, for project identification in seven corridors.

Radiating north to south from Colombo, the seven corridors extend towards Negombo, Kandy, Kaduwela, Malabe, Kottawa, Piliyandara, and Moratuwa. The cancelled project is one of the seven LRT lines identified TMP, and is for the Colombo-Malabe corridor. The planning exercise was conducted by a Core Team of six and a broader study team of 36 – Sri Lankan (and also Sinhalese) professionals and a few academics. What they laboured and produced certainly deserve a whole lot more than a summary cancellation in three technically meaningless bureaucratic sentences.

The Colombo (Fort) – Malabe line, extending over 16 km and including 16 stations, was selected as the first LRT project for implementation based on technical grounds such as giving relief to existing vehicular traffic congestion in the Colombo-Malabe corridor, and convenient right-of-way availability. A soft loan arrangement to cover 80% of the project cost (USD 1.8 billion out of USD 2.2 billion) was arranged with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In March 2020, after the November Presidential election the (Rajapaksa) government signed a 30 billion yen concessionary loan with Japan. Then in June, out of nowhere, the government halted the project, giving high costs and low returns as reasons.

More grievous than technical illiteracy is the economic thinking, rather the lack of it, that is behind the cancellation. The argument of high costs and low returns does not hold water, given the plethora of coastal and highway construction projects that have been undertaken at exorbitant and even uncontrolled costs. As for returns, any public transit project, such as the cancelled LRT project, will be beneficial to large numbers of ordinary Sri Lankans unlike any of the port, port city and highway projects undertaken over the last decade. Leaving aside conventional costs and returns, what is inexplicable is the government’s blindness to the economic stimulus potential of this project in the current and dire Covid-economic situation. Especially given the facility of concessionary loans that Japan is willing to give. And Japan is not even a Christian country with Tamil or Muslim populations, to provoke civilizational diehards.

Curiously, while rushing to cancel the LRT project supported by Japan, the government has gone quiet on the controversial MCC grant offer from the US. Is it because the US has Sri Lankan dual citizens, and Japan doesn’t? Or is it because the LRT project is too much of a Champika Ranawaka project that should be removed root and branch to politically starve the former Minister out of any future presidential reckoning? Either way, they are not technically defensible or economically sound reasons for project cancellation. The non-decision over MCC is depriving the Colombo City of good grant money to address traffic congestion at nearly 130 of the City’s junctions. On the other hand, the politically vindictive decision to cancel the Japanese LRT project is depriving the Colombo region of a much needed and readily available economic stimulus to tide over the current Covid-economic and low employment situation. In addition, the cancel decision will also deprive the people in the Colombo-Malabe corridor of the benefits of the LRT project – avoiding the congested roadways, and travelling faster and safer.

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  1. Until politicians are separated from the siamese-twin-like grip of Panchikawatte and the bus/car/lorry import and spare parts companies, there will be no policy changes in favour of nor funding given to building public mass transport systems. Bribery and corruption of the ruling elite/families cannot possibly challenge common sense and climate change activism ..."Money Talks!"