Icaruswept

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Tag: Colombo (page 1 of 3)

The Colombo People

Wednesday. 8th March, 2015. I was hungry, so I walked into a restaurant and bought food. It was a salad and it cost me 400 rupees.

It tasted terrible.

“Well, shit,” I thought. 400 bucks for a mass of green and a few shreds of chicken. It was about as tasty as a traffic accident. The accompanying milkshake was another 300 bucks and tasted like someone had kicked a cow multiple times in the unmentionables and mixed the result with some Elephant House ice cream. The only thing nice about the whole affair was the space: air conditioning, a bit of tinkling music, a bloke with an apron and a suspicious smirk waiting to take my order.

I had the hideous thing packed to go (no point in wasting food – I might as well take it home and try feeding it to the cat) , walked a couple of bus halts and came across ye average unnamed kadey, into which I dived. For 250 rupees I ate a rice so filling I could barely walk. The chicken had not just been cooked, but grilled, fried, roasted and possibly genetically modified so as to make hit that perfect balance of street taste. And I sat there, basking in the half-dingy, half-polished, half-seedy, half-open gutter professionalism of it all. Fuck the posh kadey, I decided.  I shall stick to this side of the street.

This is Colombo – or at least, Colombo as I see it in my mind, day in and day out. Men in Toyota Allions, Emerald shirts and ties speeding away from traffic lights and a cripple trying to save money for a plastic leg. Cheaply done nightclubs, painted with the glamour of night and dim lights and with about as much action as a dead duck. Bars selling Red Bull for 600 bucks while a few feet away, a saivar kadey sells Kratingdaeng, the real, Thai Red Bull, for a third of the price.  Pretty girls in expensive makeup and hairdos neatly sidestepping the woman with a goiter who haunts the lane between Unity Plaza and Majestic City. A train station where men and women surge in and out like an errant pulse of human flesh and breath.  Expensive shoes that turns out to be everywhere as soon as you turn into First Cross Street in Pettah.

Photo: "Sooriya" by Brett Davies. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Photo: “Sooriya” by Brett Davies. Licensed under Creative Commons.

I write this because I’ve seen the term “Colombo people” and “Kolombians” tossed around all the time, presumably referring to an elite class of Sri Lankans who ride a BMW to the bathroom and return in a chauffeur-driven Chrysler. This class of people exist, but they’re very much the background of Colombo, which is honestly a real place with real people and real problems – a little more dolled up than usual, and consequently a little more uncomfortable than usual. Software engineers wait for the buth packet van to arrive to that they can get their daily rice with fish. An expensively dressed, perfectly poised office lady turns out to be the cashier at Torana. The couple sitting at the Bay Leaf poring over the menu are actually looking for the cheapest way out of the night. Everyone wakes up the next day, groans at the damage their bank accounts have taken, then determines to live on ginger biscuits for the next three days.

Colombo isn’t just the province of BMWs. It’s the land of Che Guevra’s tuk-tuks, Honda Vezels bought on 8-year leases and rude politicians. It’s a place where people wander into pseudomalls, gape at the prices and decide to get their hoppers elsewhere. The real Colombo is the security guard who stands in 12-hour shifts for 750 bucks a shift. Or the woman in a sari waiting for a bus and wondering if she’ll get fired if she’s late again. Or the girl who just realized that the food at the Crescat Food Court is a bigger waste of money than the attack on Iraq. Or the dude on the train getting off at Maradana with his leftover lunch in his bag.

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Photo: “The Roadman of Colombo” by Brett Davies. Licensed under Creative Commons.

It is very easy to paint over these people, to gloss over everyone with a glamorous brush and call every “Kolombians”. To assume that a person is of a hallowed all-powerful white-skinned upper class  simply because they happen to be strolling down Queens Road with a smile on their face. But Colombo / Kolombo is so much more. Colombo is the bus drivers. The waiter who serves your tea. The hawkers in Pettah. The man peering out at the world from behind a shop window, waiting for customers who will never come. The diseased dog looking for a place to die. The beggar with a notebook, hunched over, raving.

If you’re seeing just the rich girl in the coffee-shop window, or the rich guy pulling out of the driveway in a shining silver Merc, you’re missing out. They’re not the scene. They’re just one small part of a much bigger tapestry, a cloak of many colours, ethnicities, eccentricities, classes and conversations.  I pity the fool who looks at it with color-blind eyes.

Why Did They March? (Galle Road | March | 2015)

On the 31st of March, a cordon of Sri Lankan Police – in full riot gear, truncheons and shields at the ready – stood on one corner of the Kollupitiya junction. One of them carried a gun that rained tear gas cartridges on the road ahead. In front of them was a short stretch of Galle Road, empty save for one young monk with a stick in his hands and a few university students, fleeing back into the army of protestors that all but blocked Galle Road. Towards the sea, where Marine Drive connects to Galle Road, stood a vast mob behind a cloud of white smoke.

The riot gun made a dull thumping sound.

I’m not sure you can see all of this in the video I captured. Maybe if you slow it down, look through it frame by frame, you can pick out the pieces.

(I tried sidling up to the action and getting a better shot, but stepping out of that bus was a fool’s errand – not only did I end up with my eyeballs set on fire, but the photos suffered horribly from camera shake. The police near Liberty Cinema also did not seem to appreciate a Lumia thrust into their faces. Perhaps they were Apple fans. )

Surprisingly, nobody knew this was happening, or why. People in Bambalapitiya, had no idea; neither did people at Colombo Fort; nor, for that matter, did people on Duplication Road. It was a bit surreal. News sites reporting later only said that the police had closed off a section of the Galle Road and fired tear gas at “a group of university students”.

That wasn’t a group, it was a bona fide battalion. The line stretched from Barefoot to Kollupitiya junction. At some points the crowd was four lanes wide. Here’s a video showing just how bad it was. So the question is, what the hell happened?

THE REASONS

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When on a protest, it is customary to bring along banners, with your vision and mission clearly stated – just in case everyone forgets why they’re here.  Going by the banners,  it was:

a) The Mahapola Scholarship

This country has something called the Mahapola Scholarship. Based on merit and need (determined by factors like annual income), a certain sum is given to select university undergraduates. Maithripala Sirisena’s 100 Day Manifesto promised to increase this sum. It wasn’t. We can assume that a portion of the students took to the streets because of this. The protest seems to have worked because two days ago the government announced that the Mahapola Scholarship would be upped to Rs 5,000 (from Rs 2,500) starting June 2015.

b) University Attendance

Then there’s the question of making 80% attendance compulsory for students. This is where opinion kicks in with a punch, so I’ll share my thoughts about it below.

c) Political motivation

Sri Lanka’s universities have a history of being hotbeds for political activity; in fact, many of our politicians were once student activists. Our ivory towers, it seems, are two stories high and made of wood. It’s easy for political manipulation to set in. This current protest can be seen as a ploy to undermine the current government just before the elections – people have suggested that even pushing it to the brink of tear-gassing might have been a deliberate act to make the government appear militaristic and brutal.

I wouldn’t be surprised. Sri Lankan universities protest for everything.  So much so that it’s like the boy who cried wolf; nobody really wants to believe in them anymore.  Protesting is practically a form of art. Or, should I say, Arts.

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Old photo. Used here only for visual relevance.

Either way, a university attendance is powered not by need, but by desire.

People need food, water, oxygen. People desire  a degree because it adds to their perceived social worth. There is a choice, then. Nobody’s being held hostage, so the choice is to take the good with the bad or walk away and make a living elsewhere. And if the desire persists, to earn enough money to get that degree.

I honestly believe protesting this is a fantastically stupid idea. Schools require a minimum attendance from students. Offices demand a minimum attendance from their employees. The whole purpose of this is to ensure that work is being done, and that students are not off marching or blocking traffic on Galle Road whenever it strikes their fancy.

Many local university students I’ve talked to pointed out that unlike “private university students”, their families need their help at home. So help; instead of rioting, go home. If your family is starving while you’re here rioting in the name of free education, then something’s very wrong here. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, but address them individually. If the lecturers are stupid, call for better lecturers. If what you are taught in University is easily accessible in Wikipedia, then you don’t need a degree; you need an Internet connection. Buy a dongle and a laptop and stay away from the riot police. But demanding the right to not attend something paid for by the people, something you’ve worked for 20 years, is like demanding the right to not show up to work while still collecting a salary.

Another friend, Chithru De Silva, stands on the other side of the fence. Taking the University of Sabaragamuwa as a case study, she points out that the way the system is setup makes 80% attendance needless torture for many students. There are those who must travel for 6 hours just to get to university, those that support their families by working while scraping through universities, and those that must go home for the harvest. The campus facilities are inadequate, there’s no clean water and the main hospital is nineteen kilometers away. Being less prejudiced than I am, she accepts that compulsory attendance is necessary, but suggests a figure in 60-70% ballpark.

This can go both ways.

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On one hand, it is taxpayer money. In an age when millions of people around the world must take on catastrophic debt just to pay for tuition, demanding more money (Mahapola) and more privileges on top of an already free degree sounds like the height of ungratefulness. The laws guarantee us free education, but in reality the world does not owe us anything.

On the other hand, part of it, especially the Mahapola scenario, is also about holding a government accountable. As my friend Senel Wanniarachchi pointed out, it’s easy to superimpose a beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude because these are  taxpayer handouts, but at the end of the day a democratic society has to offer the right to protest to everyone and anyone.  If it doesn’t, you might as well don the boots, bend the knee and ready the prayer beads.

“Hope,” says the Architect of the Matrix, referring to humanity. “The quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”

I disagree. Democracy, the law that states that every person has a voice: that is the source of our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. A system with checks and balances on the misuse of power also checks and balances the use of power.  Thus it has always been, and probably always will be, until someone pulls out the gun.

THE SAD TRUTH: FREE EDUCATION IS EXPENSIVE

The provision of education has always been tricky. On one extreme, you have America, where students bury themselves in so many student loans that they spend the next ten years paying them off; in Germany, you have tuition-free universities unable to afford more classrooms, more teachers, and more accommodation to deal with the demand. Free education is expensive. So is paid education. The only difference is who signs the cheque. Knowledge is power, and nobody’s giving it away free.

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Sri Lanka orbits an unhappy medium; a system of public universities accepting people through one metric (Z-score) and a system of private universities accepting people through another metric (cash). These systems hate each other. Most of the people in them are very similar, but private university students look over mountains of bank debt and recent public university students for “getting everything free”; public university students grudge private university students for their shiny classrooms, extravagant balls and parental money.

There are very rich people in both systems, very poor people in both systems (the private system punishes these people with heavy exam fees, often paid in Pounds Sterling) and a vast majority of average people everywhere. One group resents the time spent in study, the other resents the time spent in producing wealth.

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One group has certain standards guaranteed to it by the underlying mechanics of business and competition. If your university has bad toilets, you go sign up at the one across the street. Because your university wants your money, they’ll spend on good toilets rather than lose you. The other group doesn’t have that luxury and, therefore, has to go and protest.

This is the Colombo Port City?

Yesterday, I was invited to go on a (guided) tour of the much-discussed Colombo Port City. I, along with a small crowd of twitterati, were taken to look at what’s already built, ask questions, take photos and cross-examine the management of CHEC Port City Colombo Private Limited, the people doing the actual construction. When I told my friends that I’d be at the Port City in the morning, the first thing everyone said was “Don’t get shot”.

inside van

Indeed, I expected people with guns and boards saying “no photography”. It was something of a disappointment: I wasn’t shot at, was never told to put my camera down. We were taken in vans to the actual site, and I did not see a single soldier: instead, my group had David (Li Yue), a very cordial fellow who told me he’d been here for a year and a half and lived near the Beira Lake, towards the temple. He mentioned using Yamu.lk to explore the city and said that liked to get his coffee from Whight and Co on Marine Drive.

David was worried; he referred multiple times to “this pressure”. We were escorted around by the chief engineer of the project (a Sri Lankan, though I did not catch his name). He’s the man on the left in white shirtsleeves in the photo below.

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The only thing even remotely threatening was the scowl on the face of that guy in the black shirt.

I expected the tour to lead us away from the actual building of the land, and in that I was correct. We started at an engineer’s barracks, headed a brief distance to the edge of the marina being constructed, and then were whisked inland to the top of the Pagoda for “a bird’s eye view”. After that, it was off to a boardroom discussion with higher-ranking officials from the project. In short, we didn’t get to set foot on the significant portion of the work. Thankfully, my camera, while not very fancy, can still read numberplates at that distance.

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I don’t tweet often, but those who were tweeting that day were taking a phenomenal amount of flak on Twitter, so let’s start off with a disclaimer:

  • I do not represent any government.
  • I was there in my capacity as a blogger, and not representing any person, organization or group of persons that I work for or have affiliations with. I went on the condition that I would get to ask questions and expect some straight answers.
  • I was not involved in the selection of those who attended, nor am I affiliated with those who presumably did the selecting.
  • I was not paid for this. We were given lunch, a notebook (paper, not electronic) and a pen drive. I can easily afford all three (and I believe this is true for all who were there that day), so I do not take this is a bribe, but rather, a courtesy.
  • All images used in this post are mine, unless otherwise mentioned. Feel free to use them.

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THE NUMBERS

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The tour began from Galle Face Green and into a visual overview of the Colombo Port City. But before I project my opinion, here are the numbers. They’ll make it easier to understand (or visualize) the photos:

  • The Port City will be 223 hectares in area (2.23 square km, or 541 acres).  It’s a huge curving shape that’ll stretch from the tip of the Colombo Port parallel to the Pagoda, curving towards an end in front of the Old Parliament building, and will be protected by a massive breakwater following the curve of the newly-built land. To be crude, we’re not giving land to the Chinese: the Chinese are making land. 
  • The Port City Project is done by CHEC Port City Colombo, a company integrated under Sri Lankan law. It is a local front fully owned and operated by China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC).
  • CCCC is owned by the Chinese government; 10,324.9 million shares, 63.84% of the total capital, is held by the China Communications Construction Group,  controlled by State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASC). They’re listed on the stock exchanges of both Singapore and China ( SEHK1800, SSE: 601800 ).  They’re also on Forbes Global 2000 (# 306), with assets worth $85.6 billion. Here are the reports from Reuters and Bloomberg.
  • As far as I can make out, they’re the third largest port construction company in the world. They built the Macau International Airport (the entire island, not just the airport), the Hong Kong International Airport (which also involved building the land it’s on) and the Gawadar Deepwater Port in Pakistan. In 2009 the World Bank debarred it for fraud in a Philippines road construction project, preventing it from working on any World Bank sanctioned road or bridge projects until January 12, 2017. You can Google these guys; skip past the wave of press releases and find newspaper articles from different countries for the best reading experience.
  • Why is CCCC important? Because CCCC is not an investor of the Port City, but the investor: the entirety of spending for this project is from their coffers (they told us the fund for the Colombo Port City roughly 30% from equity and 70% from loans they’ve obtained, but I have no way of verifying this.) CHECH Port City Colombo simply seems to be the legal intermediary. GoSL spends nothing.
  • Once the Port City is built, the Government of Sri Lanka, according to the contract, gets 125 hectares (308.882 acres) on a freehold basis (meaning you own it forever, and have the right to do what you want with it). CCCC gets 108 hectares (266.874 acres). Of these, 88 hectares are on a 99-year lease: at the end of 99 years, ownership is to be transferred to the GoSl. 20 hectares will be owned by CCCC on a freehold basis.I have not seen this contract, so make of this what you will. When I asked to see a copy of the document, or whether it will be released to the public at any point, I was told that the contract is private and confidential.

MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF SAND

We trudged out to an outpost of sand and rock, but it was only at the Pagoda that I managed to get a clear view of the proceedings:

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Click for full-size image

This is the Port City. Those blue-roofed buildings are where the tour started. That stretch of rubble past the lighthouse (left) were where we were taken to. In its current state, it looks like someone just stumbled across a beach; it would be cute if it weren’t for the scale of the city: this is just 10% of the full thing. The rest of the land reclamation will take another 2 1/2 years.

(Land reclamation, for those not in the know, is the process of excavating sand from the sea and by  dumping massive amounts of it directly onto the seabed. Here it’s done by a process called rainbow dredging: a ship called the dredger collects slurry – sand mixed with water – which then stored on the ship and transported to the site. A dredger can eject the slurry in massive arcs to where it needs to go, like a torrential vomit of several tons of sand and water).

This, apparently, is a dredger. Feel free to verify with someone who knows their ships (I don’t).

Where we stood, it was about 8 metres to the seabed. Out towards the Port City’s planned edges, nearer to the lighthouse, it was around 22 metres.  A breakwater, 5.5 km in length, will run around all of the city.  I was told it would take between 60 and 70 million cubic meters of sand for Phase I and about 4 million cubic meters of rubble, with the rubble being supplied by 10 local suppliers.  The engineers told me that if the suspension was lifted tomorrow, they could have it done in about 30 months. None of this, they insisted, was on schedule any more. Everything that was shown to the public – those high-rise buildings, images of parks and so on – is still far away. Here’s a rough timeline of how all this came to be:

  • 1998: First proposal by a Singaporean Company called CESMA (now Suburna)
  • 2004: Western Megapolis plan submitted by the UNP, with Pettah to be a leisure center with a harbour front (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110918/News/nws_19.html). The project went nowhere.
  • 2011: Beginning of discussions between CCCC and the GoSL Bid submitted to SLFP (they were very adamant that it was submitted to the part and not the government as a whole). Standing cabinet reviews the bid.
  • 2012: Detailed proposal submitted to SLFP
  • 2013:  EIA done by Moratuwa University.
  • 2014: Cabinet approves key terms (January); Approval given to sign the contract (September)

Phase II, where investors  buy land, move in, and turn the whole thing into the new Colombo, is supposed to be 15 years in the future.  We were later shown a map, which we were asked not to photograph because it was not yet finalized. It had residential units marked along the piers and towards the middle, making up about half of the total area.

Towards Colombo were banks of commercial buildings; near the pagoda were areas allocated for a hospital. There were areas for educational institutes, for a convention center, for watersport parks, 3.5 km of beaches, and a marina in front of the Old Parliament where yachts are supposed to be parked. There’s a body of water down the middle. Buildings will be built (by anyone) under both structural and aesthetic guidelines from a massive development  control regulations document.  One of my notes from that meeting reads “It looks like it could be pretty, also pretty self-sufficient.”

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I did not see any submarines or docking stations. If they are coming, they certainly aren’t here yet. The master plan for the City, I was told, was done by Sweco (of Sweden) and audited by Atkins of UK. AECOM  (of the US of A) mapped out infrastructure while CBRE mapped out project feasibility. All of these are massive, international companies, so if anyone can cross-check and verify, that would be excellent.

WHO OWNS US NOW? 

Sri Lanka, as a whole, never saw this contract, and were never told the terms. That, eventually led to the most pressing question for all of us: what law will be applied here? Whose land is this? Is this Sri Lankan or is it Chinese?

I asked this question from the Sri Lankan engineers, from David, and later, from Lian Thow Ming, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of CHEC Port City Colombo. They were adamant that it was Sri Lankan law. Any business setting up shop here would have to comply with the laws and edicts of the government of Sri Lanka. And, just as importantly, jurisdiction of the sea area belongs beyond and around the harbour to Sri Lanka. I assume this means that Sri Lankan police will patrol the streets, preventing crime and creating traffic.

Ming was polite, but irritated. At every stage there was an undercurrent of frustration with the government. I’ll type here what he said:

 “Under the laws of this country, anyone who buys a plot of land owns it. We are not only spending 13 billion dollars for land, but also giving more than half of it to your government to keep for free.  […] But we are not even buying land, we are making land.  […]We own part of this land. We will sell it to investors to come build here, and we will make a profit. Do you think if we were not doing this under the laws of your country, we would suspend this project? No, we would not. If we were doing this illegally we would not stop building. But your government asks us to stop, so we stop and wait for their word.  We are not doing this because we are charitable people, or because we want to occupy part of the country. No company is going to spend 13 billion dollars for nothing. We come for business and profit.

Some people were arguing that there were tax breaks. Of course. To make this project commercially viable there must be some incentive. If you don’t do the project, nobody generates profit, nobody makes anything. If you do the project, people set up businesses here, businesses make profit and that means more tax money.”

That actually makes sense if you look at CCCC as a purely commercial entity rather than an extension of China’s government (a very big if, mind you). Because honestly, there’s enough and more people bitching about how Sri Lanka should hurry up and turn into Singapore already, but pride and culture doesn’t buy development: money and trade does.

Image courtesy of the CHEC

Image courtesy of the CHEC

The next part, though, doesn’t make sense: with regard to the actual plots (of the city)  CCCC / CHEC apparently has “no idea” what parts they’ll be owning. They are getting 108 acres, but which pieces? There is a process with the government, they say. The government hasn’t yet told them what parts it wants. I have no experience in building port cities, nor do I deal with billions of dollars, but I have a great deal of trouble believing that anyone would invest such a huge amount of money and effort and then say “oh, we have no idea what exactly we’re getting.”

WILL THEY MAKE A RACETRACK?

Throughout the whole thing, I asked people what they would do if the project was shut down by the government. What the contingency plans were. Almost everybody said they believed that would not happen, but yes, it turns out the contract apparently has means of reclaiming their investment. What these, and how they could be enforced, they were reluctant to discuss: Lien’s legal aide broke in with mention of a Sri Lanka – China bilateral agreement signed somewhere in the 1970’s that protect them in some form.  China’s had a pretty long history with Sri Lanka: quite a lot of military gear and telecom infrastructure are from Chinese companies. I have no idea what this agreement is, though: if it exists, it doesn’t seem to show up on the web. If anyone knows what it is, do link below.

The environment is the next  most frequent question. I was told that according to the terms of the contract, the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) report was the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka. It was done by the Moratuwa University and was commissioned by the Ports Authority. And that was apparently as far as they were willing to go.

There  is a whole lot of controversy surrounding this report, some of politically generated (see http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2015/02/15/controversy-surrounds-colombo-port-city/) some of it from actual environment activists and lawyers (see http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=business/port-city-has-not-undergone-cea-s-eia-report).  There’s also the question of waste: something this large means, quite literally, a lot of shit. And heat. And all manner of other substances. On that, Ming had no answer: they said they were still figuring it out. “We’re still not going to dump it in the sea – that’s what you do now,” he said.

That makes no sense. If anything, it casts more doubt onto that EIA. How do you assess environmental impact if you have no idea where metric tons of waste will go?

One of the last questions put to me before I went off was what effect all of this would have on the price of commodities – namely, sand and rubble. This question eventually evolved into a discussion on the suppliers. Right now, the Colombo Port City project employs 10 suppliers bringing them rubble. They didn’t disclose the names of the suppliers, but the Lankan engineers were quick to say that they employ ten out of hundreds in the country, so there’s no risk of the market running out, and that they needed that number mostly because logistics of running 500 trucks a day deemed it necessary. The sand they deemed irrelevant to the market: building construction needed river sand, they pointed out, not sea sand. They were fantastically proud of the Port City, they said, and of their part in it.

As for the land value increasing of Colombo increasing? That’s actually inevitable, but it works out well for CCCC: higher land values in Colombo also mean more people will be inclined to buy land on the Port City. Cue higher profits.

And the racetrack? “We have no plans as of yet to build an F1 racetrack,” said Ming cautiously. “I come from Singapore, where we turn the Marina Bay roads into a street circuit for night races (note to self: aha, now we know where that idea comes from). The quality of tar required is different. Our roads will be good, but maybe we will not have an F1 here just yet.”  

WHAT BUGS ME ABOUT THE WHOLE THING

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  • The politicians and the String of Pearls
    The Colombo Port City is as much a symbol of political and cultural power as anything else. Politicians use it as ammunition for their causes; conservatives roar about casinos and brothels and the slow death of Lankan culture; Ceylon Today is using it to generate lots of web traffic; India seems to fear it; the US is wriggling. The former two are idiots, but look up the String of Pearls hypothesis and you’ll see why the superpowers are getting their underwear in a twist.
  • The mystique 
    “Is this piece of land Sri Lankan or Chinese?” is not a question any citizen should have to ask  inside Sri Lanka. The government should have made these things clear. Instead of actual data, one sees the “sovereignty” tossed around by every Tom, Dick and Kotalawala.  Why the draconian security? If this was such a simple, commercial deal, why all the mystique? When I asked, Ming stated that they were aware that they should have “tried to reach out more to the public, and done it better, which is why you are here.”Even so, why a random collection of twitter personages? As fascinating as the Sri Lankan twitter community is,  a bunch of people taking selfies left, right and center and a blogger (me) is hardly a replacement for having actual journalists from the mainstream Sri Lankan media attending.
  • The plans “not being finalized”
    I don’t believe that.
  • Environmental impact was definitely not sorted out.
    If it’s the government’s responsibility to look into it, it should be looked into immediately. Right now it’s the equivalent of buying a commode without knowing where the bathroom is.
  • The contract.
    At every turn, this contract is referenced, but as far as I know the government has not made a single statement about it. At the very least, a list of the key points should be published. We are, as a nation, engaged in a giant political tug of war between China, India and the US. One of which has helped us massively in the past (China), one of which has funded terrorists and poached our fish (India) and one of which has a history of colossal arrogance and international war at the drop of a drop of oil.

I personally have no doubt that economically, this is going to be a huge thing. People will live here. There’ll be 3.5 kilometers of public beaches. Actual malls will set up shop, and not just micromalls like Majestic City and Crescat. International companies will set up offices here – retail spaces are enough; it’s the offices that will really drive change. Sri Lanka has a skilled IT / BPO industry; that will probably blossom.  Sri Lanka badly needs this kind of investment if it’s to become anything like the massively important hub of the world every full-blooded Sri Lankan seems to think it is. We don’t have the money ourselves, and nobody is willing to give it to us.

I was honestly reassured by how utterly profit-oriented the CHEC people seemed to be: between businessmen and politicians, it’s the latter that have problems with honesty. However, make no mistake: China is building this port. They’re say they’re not here to settle, but they have the right to; there’s plenty of space in there for everyone. And I don’t know what’s in that contract, but I don’t think Sri Lanka pulling out will be a painless process.  I also don’t think that everyone is playing with a straight bat.

For better or the worse, Chinese influence is coming. Whether we end up turning into Singapore or into Hong Kong remains to be seen.

This is Colombo: I Am But A Stranger Here..

Someone wanted me to write about Colombo, so I did. I discovered this post many weeks later, when both that someone and I had forgotten this ever happened. Anyway, here goes.

Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, is a pretty small city. In fact, seen from above, it’s not so much a city as thirteen different towns stuck together, neatly numbered: they spread out from Colombo Forts (aka Colombo 01) to the carefully maintained urban sidewalks of Colombo 03, 04 and 07, where land is at a premium and studded with everything from expensive hotels to nightclubs to coffeeshops to late-night kottu stands. The roads twist every which way – into the dry expanse of Maradana, for instance, or the maze of schools and apartment buildings that forms the Havelock town area.

All of this fits in an area that’s just 37 kilometers square. Can you hear New York chuckling?

Colombo 01 is the living, beating heart of Colombo. Some 2000 years ago, Colombo was the crux of East-West trade, a natural harbor which became a nexus of trade. Today, Colombo 01 plies that same function. Ships rumble into the port, long since extended past its natural roots. Cargo is unloaded, containers shipped back and forth: a stone’s throw away, Galle Face, a sea of green grass ringed with hotels, looks out over the sea. Around them, just out of sight, sit pubs, restaurant, bars – you name it. Often, this is the first thing that any tourist sees.

But the best time to hit this part of the city is during the evening. That’s when the sunset casts its golden glamour on this part of the island, and the lights come alive, and people loosen their ties and either go home or go have some fun: that’s when bars and restaurants shake off the shackles of sleep and welcome their clientele with open arms.

3-Colombo's sky line

 

Instead, I start off at a slightly unorthodox place:  the Independence Square.

This is a large strip of turf at Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo. When I say strip of turf, I mean a sizeable chunk of well-maintained grass and trees for shade. It fronts Sri Lanka’s monument to the declaration of independence and has some of the best walking paths around: it’s positively riddled with them. Often you find other walkers – some formidably brisk and active, others clearly in need of their morning coffee. It’s quiet here – and shady, and above all, welcoming: it’s the sort of place where you can run as long as you want with your headphones in your ears and nobody will look askance.

From here, it’s a straight shot down Independence Avenue – past the curve of the road, past the Lion statues,  made more enjoyable by the rambling paths that take you all the way to the curving patch known as the Torrington walking path. Cut across this and you end up in Racecourse Avenue, which makes for a strangely picturesque contrast: old colonial buildings and old, towering trees ringing the road, circled by the hue and cry modern traffic – a motley mix of Indian three-wheelers side by side with Korean SUVs and German luxury cars.  A McDonalds – thankfully, one of the better-maintained Mickey D’s anywhere – makes for a great place to sit and sip a cup of hot chocolate while watching the traffic pour through Rajakeeya Mawatha, past the brick-and-white sprawl of Royal College, depositing their daily doses of white-clad schoolboys at the school gates.  One can almost image a quieter age fitting in here, with horses supplanting the BMWs, Mercedes and the Toyotas passing by.

Follow Rajakeeya Mw, follow the curve, and you come to the place where Royal College melds into Thurstan, its ancient rival in the annual school wars. Then Thurstan gives way to the University of Colombo.

I personally love Queen’s Road, just a little further down this place. This strip starts from the Colombo campus and takes you past a couple of really nice houses that I wouldn’t mind owning (someday – hopefully). There’s a beggar on the pavement here who spends his time writing in a notebook: I don’t know what he writes – perhaps a more elaborate version of my ramblings here? After all, he’s had years to perfect his art. I am just a gawker here, tripping along these streets with my music in my ears.

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