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The recent reassessment of the Rajapaksa model of development, which is in essence an intensely urbanism and transport infrastructure emphasised program, has created much debate as to what the worth of the mega scale projects truly are. The ‘worth’ in this case being both costs-borne and potential to actually generate profits in the long run.

Although authorship is duly given to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the first creator of expressways in Sri Lanka, the first roadmap for a network of expressways was charted at the turn of the century under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s second term as Prime Minister.

I recently met with commercial photographer and advertiser Berty Gunasekera who related his experiences as the official photographer assigned to the team that was sent to Malaysia to study the highway network there and report back, in order to assist the government at the time to develop an initial conceptual framework to create a future network of highways in our country.

‘The study tour to Malaysia on the national highway network’ had happened in December 2002 and the team had consisted of the following persons:

PPKL  Gunaratne –Team Leader, Project Coordinator, Road Development Authority of Sri Lanka. Upali Tennekoon –Editor of ‘Divaina’, Saman Wagaaratchchi –Editor –‘Dinamina’, Ranjith Ananda Jayasinghe –Journalist –‘Lankadeepa’, Yasanga Jayakody –Cameraman, Independent Television Network, Ms. Nilmini Wewalatenna –Producer, Independent Television Network, Berty Gunasekera –Photographer, Lal H. Mawalage –Producer, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Athula Ravindra –Cameraman, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Newton Seneviratne –News Editor –‘Ravaya’, Ranjan Paranavithana –Journalist –‘Lakbima’, RM Didula Bogahakumbura –News Producer, Swarnavahini TV Network.

Berty said the ad agency ‘Ranjith Jayasinghe Associates’ was commissioned to do the still photography for this tour, and he in turn was commissioned by them to be on the team as the official photographer. Berty shared his outlook on what he experienced lucidly, revealing that it was evident that what was planned and executed as a national highway network in Malaysia was made with very specific objectives to be achieved with respect to economic outcomes. “The purpose of a highway for which a vast amount of forests and vegetation is sacrificed is not simply to give beachside vacation seekers a quick route to have a sea bath.” Said Berty speaking of what he saw as the primary purpose perceived in the eyes of a section of the public with regard to our Southern expressway.

Berty spoke of what he saw as salient features in the Malaysian highways network which included resting stops every 200 kilometres. These stops included food and beverage sales outlets, recreational facilities, and even shopping centers. Facilities for drivers to rest were provided as well. And of course the southern highway does have such a stopover facility. Stressing on how the growth of new cities and a metropolitan culture was growing in Malaysia when they went on the study tour, Berty said that each province in Malaysia was different from one another. And that extensive plans had been done to comfortably relocate the people whose houses were lost to make way for the highway network.

When I asked him if the purpose for their visit to Malaysia on this study tour was to introduce the Malaysian highway system to Sri Lanka, Berty answered that it was not so. He said that he believed a country must develop its own system with regard to infrastructure planning as roadways and not merely try to adopt the system of another country. A point he stressed on was that a highway network must be integrated to the import export market activities of our country and not merely serve the needs of the travel and leisure sector. The industrial and agro sector must benefit through efficient transportation as a result of the highways, he said. “Vegetables from Dambulla reaching Colombo very fast by the container loads to be shipped for export is one example.” He said, adding “This can reduce the transportation cost that gets inflated when several lorries  have to be used instead of one container truck.”

The subject of expressways in Sri Lanka which had now hit a very controversial point where the present government alleges that mass scale cost inflation was cooked up for embezzlement while the helmsmen of the previous regime clamour that ‘development’ has now been brought to a standstill for purely political victimisation. Perhaps revisiting the original plans that were conceived under Wickremesinghe’s second premiership may reveal what the then government had in mind for Sri Lanka as a national highway network and how similar or different is it to what was set out to be implemented by the previous regime. Questions will continue to be raised surely in the days ahead as to whether the previous regime did in fact envision a network of highways that will serve the larger purpose of connecting the country’s industrial and agro sector transportation needs for economic growth. Among such questions could be was what Ranil Wickremesinghe sought to achieve through a network of highways back then, the same as what Mahinda Rajapaksa set out to realise as Sri Lankan expressways network?