Ruwanpura: RDA pushes ahead without EIA report

CEA sources critical of process as being ‘inside out’

The Road Development Authority (RDA) has started acquiring land for the US$ 1.8 billion (Rs. 275 billion) Ruwanpura Expressway even before a mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA) and an economic feasibility study are completed, prompting Central Environment Authority (CEA) sources to denounce the process as ‘inside out’.

Tens of families have been issued notices under the Land Acquisition Act’s controversial Section 38(a) which allows for immediate takeover of land on grounds of “urgency” with compensation to be paid in the unspecified future. It is not clear what the urgency is as neither the EIA nor feasibility study is ready. And there is still no budget to pay landowners for the properties they will forfeit.

The RDA has already advanced Rs 314 million to a consultancy firm for the feasibility study which was initially given out for 32 weeks but is still not final, details obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act revealed. The job was assigned more than two years ago, in November 2014, to Maga Neguma Consultancy and Project Management Services (Pvt) Ltd which subcontracted it to Skills International. A penalty was not imposed for the delay. The agreement was merely extended.

Meanwhile, the EIA–which is crucial as the expressway will traverse environmentally sensitive areas–is yet to be presented to the public for comment. “We have to see it first to gauge whether it is suitable enough to open out for public comment,” a CEA official said, on condition of anonymity. Several areas along the proposed trace, running 73.9km from Kahathuduwa to Pelmadulla via Horana, are prone to disaster.

Eighteen percent of land acquisition is now finished in the 26.3km stretch from Kahathuduwa to Ingiriya while 40 percent of preliminary design work is also done. “The RDA is violating every step in the book in its rush to push this through,” the official pointed out. “What will they do if the EIA is rejected or there is a call for the trace to be changed? Or if the feasibility study deems the project to be economically unviable?”

The Auditor General’s Department has also queried the process, the Sunday Times learns. Civil works contractors have not yet been selected. It has not been decided whether to request proposals from a nominated contractor for the first section or to go for a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) option, project officers said in response to the RTI application.

However, a Cabinet memorandum dated August 2016, obtained under RTI, states that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) decided in July last year that the project should be divided into four sections. “…and technical and civil works of each section of the Expressway should be invited from one of the four companies identified for that particular section which were recommended by the Chinese Government,” it states.

This is no different to the much-vilified unsolicited proposals process that was followed by the previous administration which led to allegations of cost inflation and corruption. The Cabinet memorandum clearly states that the “single proposal” option will be chosen, in violation of a declared Government policy of open, transparent bidding.

The memo reveals that the first section from Kahathuduwa to Ingiriya was to be parcelled out to China National Technical Import & Export Corporation; the second 21km section from Ingiriya to Kahengama to China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Corporation; the 12.7km stretch from Kahengama to Bela to Hunan Construction Engineering Group Corporation; and the final 13.9km section from Bela to Pelmadulla to China Harbour Engineering Corporation.

Meanwhile, the National Physical Planning Department (NPPD) of the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development has already voiced strong concern about the expressway saying it cuts through “central fragile areas” that are crucial to conservation of the country’s water sources. It previously sent letters to this effect to the RDA, CEA and others.

The Draft National Physical Plan– expected to be approved by the National Physical Planning Council headed by President Maithripala Sirisena next month–questions the requirement for both the Ruwanpura and Central Expressways. It strongly flags the sensitivities and fragile nature of these areas.

“If one wants to develop more than that, we will have to forget the beauty, salubrity and heritage and increase carrying capacities, investing huge sums on artificial infrastructure,” said Jagath Nandana Munasinghe, NPPD Director General. “This is the same in Ratnapura and the fragile area of the Sabaragamuwa province.”

The NPPD has pointed out that four urban metro regions–other than the Western Megapolis–are proposed to be developed in Trincomalee-Polonnaruwa-Dambulla; Jaffna-Kilinochchi; Hambantota; and Batticaloa-Ampara. This will attract a major share of the country’s future population.

“Such attraction will result in depopulation trends in the study region within the next 30 years, and thereby cause a decrease in travel demand within the study area,” it states, referring to the regions the Ruwanpura Expressway will cut across. “The growth factors used in the feasibility study to forecast travel demand could have considered such trends.”

Instead of expressways, Dr Munasinghe said, the NPP promotes railway improvements between Colombo and Kandy and Colombo and Hambantota via Ratnapura. “That is less costly, environment friendly and therefore more feasible,” he pointed out.

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