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Should Sri Lanka's Colombo be preserved as it is?
06 Oct, 2014 06:43:10
By Rohan Samarajiva
Oct 06, 2014 (LBO) - "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it." – Niccolo Machiavelli

Sometimes, I get the sense that some people want the city of Colombo preserved in aspic. It’s difficult to believe, given the city had degenerated so much by 2010 when the regeneration work started.

Some people protested the relocation of commercial plant sellers from Vihara Maha Devi Park (opposite the old Nomads ground, now NelumPokuna) to what is now Diyatha Uyana. During the 2011 local government election, specific requests were made that they be brought back.

But three-four years later, is anyone unhappy? Plant sellers? Customers? Now there will be protests if they are relocated from DiyathaUyana.

Relocating the plant vendors was absolutely right. It was the righting of one of the many wrongs that had been done to Colombo’s premier park. One part of the park had been given over for a display of traffic signs; another corner had been given to commercial plant sellers; the Public Library had been built on the park itself. All these actions had eaten away the few green spaces the city had.

The commercial entities that had used the public park to sell their wares could have been simply ejected. But the government found them an alternative location. Yet, at the moment the change was effected, there was unhappiness.

Any change is troubling. The task of public policy is to make changes, while minimizing the negative effects. The ideal that we strive for is to make no one worse off, but that is rarely achievable. Machiavelli, in the quote above, tells us why. Negative effects are what people perceive them to be. With the future, there is no limit to the effects people can imagine. They know the past; they do not know the future.

Now, four years later, almost everyone knows that the change was good. The future was not bad as was imagined.

But the naysayers do not learn. To every new thing being done in Colombo, they say nay. The laundry people who occupied prime land by the Beira should not have been relocated. The ugly congested shops that blocked the Bastian Mavatha in Pettah should not have been moved.

The latest unhappiness is about the book sellers in Wijewardene Mavatha. At least, take the trouble to look at previous relocations. Ask the affected people what the outcome has been.

Does this mean that I defend any and all change? No. Not all change is good. Not all change is managed well. Even if managed well, some changes impose costs on some people.

Take the case of Galle Road repairs. It was essential to repair the ancient sewers that periodically produced sink holes. But while the work was being done, the shops by the road lost business, suffered from dust and noise, etc.

Government officials must make best efforts to minimize such costs. Public-spirited individuals and organizations must communicate the concerns of the affected parties to government. Make representations, negotiate and even go to court if necessary.

But always keep in mind that the city has to be improved; made more livable for all.The sewer repairs may have caused short-term pain, but the pain of no sewers or sink holes is far greater. It is in no one’s interest, least of all the poor, to preserve the ugly, dysfunctional city of the recent past.

Constructive engagement is what we need in our city; not this endless and predictable naysaying.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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