Activists / Researchers / The Sunday Times / Writers

Sharni Jayawardena and CEPA: Chronicling the Human Cost of Development


The hullabaloo that greeted the opening of the E01 in late 2011 may have been somewhat out of proportion to what one might expect a mere expressway would warrant – but while they’re common enough elsewhere, this was a first for Sri Lanka. The 128km of winding concrete ribbon made travelling from Kottawa in the Western Province to Galle in the Southern Province a matter of an hour’s drive. Dining out in Unawatuna was suddenly a convenient option. The highway was immediately put to use – it served 6,000 vehicles in its first 18 hours, collecting Rs.1.5 million in tolls. Now, an estimated 8,000 cars traverse its length every day.


Cruising along at 100kmph you have plenty of time to appreciate the incredible beauty lying just beyond the metal barricades and netting; the lush greens of the foliage, paddy fields and plantations, the sight of a villager striding toward some errand, a small house tucked away in a grove of coconut trees. These are reminders, and most of us need one, that the road now lies over what was once someone’s house, someone’s business, someone’s farm.


A home potentially affected by bridge construction (above) and (below) new houses taking shape


This week marked the launch of ‘Right of Way: A Journey of Resettlement’. Written by photographer and filmmaker Sharni Jayawardena, the book is based entirely on a study conducted by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) which began in 2006 and stretched into 2011. In that time, CEPA would survey a stratified random sample of 400 households out of the estimated 5000 affected; attend more than 30 group discussions made up of these individuals and conduct over 450 individual interviews with residents, experts, local government officials and donors.


They also pored over RDA files, met with the other agencies involved and employed a process of triangulation to come at a single problem from many different sources. They would look past the girders and the gravel to gauge among other things, how well the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Committees (LARC) functioned, how vulnerable groups fared, how environmental stresses taxed those whose homes bordered the construction sites, what the RDA did right and what factors affected how quickly people got back on their feet post resettlement.


In 2006, when CEPA took on the role of an external monitoring body on the Southern Transport Development Project at the behest of the Asian Development Bank, it became the newest actor in a long running skirmish. The single largest road project ever undertaken in Sri Lanka had been in the works since 1999. The implementers of the project, in particular the RDA were struggling to handle the acquisition of land and the resettlement of those displaced.


“I don’t think a road in Sri Lanka has ever displaced as many as this one did,” says Nilakshi De Silva, a senior professional at CEPA who was involved in the study. Along the length of the road lay families of every stripe. Some the RDA would identify as ‘vulnerable’ and in need of more support – households which were made up of elderly couples, were headed by women, had disabled members, incomes below the poverty line or who possessed less than an acre of land. For them relocation was a process fraught with complication. ‘In fact, the project had not anticipated the extent of the vulnerability that resulted from, or worsened because of, people’s relocation,’ writes Sharni.


“These were not really people who were used to moving around,” Nilakshi says. “They had lived for generations in the same village, sometimes in the same house.” When forced to vacate ancestral homes, many chose to remain in the vicinity.


Karen Fernando, a senior professional at CEPA who also worked on the project, shares her observation that most of those who did so, didn’t really know what a disruption such a large scale project would involve. A table included in the book logs complaints related to vibrations, flooding and water logging as well as dust that enveloped what was once the very picture of a rural idyll. “There are some places where the road is actually going above where people live. If you look up you can see it.” Today, they live in a hectic, noisy environment inconceivably different from what they were used to, a far cry from the more ‘normal’ road some expected, one with room along its edges for little kades.


Author Sharni Jayawardena (right) makes a point while CEPA’s Priyanthi Fernando and Nilakshi De Silva look on at the book launch. Pic by Mangala Weeresekera


Even for those who chose to move to the new well-appointed resettlement sites, the period of transition was a difficult one, as their quality of life dipped to its lowest point. Babies had to be born, exams had to be written, marriages made and the conditions made everything harder. Temporary housing was often incredibly basic – though the RDA had provided six months of rent money, families chose to sink that and any other savings they could muster into the building of their new houses.


While this took away money from businesses and daily expenditure, for many the new homes were a dramatic improvement on their previous residences, particularly in the case of poor households. ‘95% of those who had previously lived in wattle and daub houses before the project now live in brick houses,’ writes Sharni, recording impressive gains in families’ access to electricity and water as well.


Sharni notes that nearly a fifth of those who were displaced were squatters on state land and the improvement in their circumstances was perhaps most remarkable with most receiving compensation and alternate plots. That the compensation process couldn’t leave everyone satisfied is unfortunately inevitable. Some farmers were upset by what they considered poor compensation for their paddy fields, others lost livelihoods that could not be easily regained or had to give up home gardens that had fed their families for years. Still others who had enjoyed a particular status in their village now found the playing field levelled.


“The first thing people always ask is ‘Were they compensated?’ They were, but I don’t think that’s always the issue. Some of the things people lost can’t be compensated for by money,” says Priyanthi Fernando, Executive Director of CEPA. These intangibles are the most difficult to factor in and in another sense, to honour, but the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Committees (LARC) seem to have given it their best shot.


Under LARC, additional costs such as renting a house and replacing utilities were factored into compensation packages. Perhaps even more crucially, it acted as a forum in which the people affected could speak their minds and hearts to the government officials who were making all the plans for their future. Though there were issues regarding unclear documentation and poor communication, Priyanthi clearly sees great value in the LARC process but is concerned that it might be set aside or that heavily curtailed versions might be adopted next time.


“The LARC process helped the STDP [Southern Transport Development Project] actually become relatively equitable…it shouldn’t be diluted in future projects because it was too hard or too time consuming, expensive or complicated.”


That it was all these things is undeniable. The RDA clearly wasn’t as well prepared as they needed to be. Confessing that their initial approach wasn’t “well designed”, Secretary to the Prime Minister Sirisena Amarasekara pointed out that the resettlement was mostly managed by RDA engineers and not by sociologists, and that they had still done an admirable job. It’s encouraging that the RDA chose to voluntarily embrace what Nilakshi dubs a “self-reflection process” – “it showed that this was a big, catalytic programme for them and that there is a lot to learn from it and that there is a need to communicate that knowledge to the other projects.”


The aim of ‘Right of Way’ is then not only to document and value the individual sacrifices that were demanded so that the project could reach completion but also to catalogue the successes and failures of those managing it. “One thing I have come to realise more recently and rather forcefully is the loss of a huge amount of experience and knowledge – for one simple reason: the lack of documentation. We do not learn enough from our work – and not enough people know about the work we do – and that translates into a considerable waste of both financial and human resources,” said Sharni emphatically. Now, as we gear up for other large infrastructure development efforts such as the Outer Circular Road, The National Highways Project, the Moragakhanda reservoir project and the Kukuleganga hydropower project, these lessons on the very real human cost of development are too valuable to simply forget.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on February 5, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy CEPA.


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