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Learn from the past to develop the future

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Speech made by Investment Promotion Minister Navin Dissanayake at the National Forum on City Cluster Economic Development on July 17 at Galle Face Hotel.

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When one talks about City Cluster Economic Development, one cannot simply disregard the growth and development of such ancient cities like Damascus in Syria, Athens in Greece, Rome in Italy, Pataliputra in India, Jerusalem in Israel. If we take a serious look at these cities and study their evolution from birth to the present day status, one wonders as to how these cities stand as living monuments to man's capacity for exquisite planning, his ambition to excel, and his inexhaustible desire to improve on his creations.

I am not here to give you a lesson in ancient history, for I am not qualified to do so, but I am more than willing and able to profess the enormous potential that the present cities carry with them. In the ancient world the administrative capital as well as the financial/economic capital was the one and same. But in modern times it is quite different.

Let's take for instance the three regions that Asian Development Bank has chosen for study and analyses.


The Colombo city

They are Delhi metropolitan region in India, Metropolitan Dhaka and Metropolitan Colombo. New Delhi is the admin capital of India, but her commercial capital is Mumbai; Dhaka is the admin capital of Bangladesh, but the commercial capital is Chittagong and Colombo enjoys the status of being the commercial capital of Sri Lanka while its admin capital is Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte. I have not studied in depth the development and the current status of Delhi and Dhaka, but I possess a fair knowledge of our own Colombo city and its suburbs.

What is the status of our city region? Can we be content with our city's development pace, are we tackling the day-to-day problems of our city, leave alone the large scale economic/socio progress of our city and its dwellers? I am sure, some of these questions will be asked in these sessions and you will ponder as to how these issues can be best addressed in the overall context of the geopolitical picture. Delhi and Dhaka are very large cities not only in terms of physical size, but also in terms of their respective populations.

The very large populations that these two cities, Delhi and Dhaka have are a major contributory factor to the challenges that these cities have to grapple with. The city of Colombo pales in comparison to the size of Delhi and Dhaka. But the problems of all three city-regions are similar in nature; traffic congestion, air pollution, over-crowdedness, slow pace at which infrastructure is developing, lack of jobs, hooliganism and underground mafias; these in a sense are really not the disease, but symptoms of a much deeper and more acute malady.

We try to treat the symptoms forgetting that the major illness does not cure by suppressing one single symptom by way of a pill or a band-aid. Therefore, it is imperative that we adopt a very unconventional and unique approach. Looking at the whole and adopting a macro approach to the resolution of the issues will definitely help us in this venture. It is in this context that, what this program, cluster city development initiative is doing, becomes very significant and vital.

For instance, I ask you a very legitimate and bold question. Can you be content with our present status of our city region? Everywhere you look, you see, if not deposits of debris, at least room for improvement.

That is only in the sector of infrastructure needs. Some illegal structure is coming up on a daily basis; some new dump yard is being created for lack of organized and well-planned trash collection and disposal, buildings are coming up with no proper provision for parking, and callous indiscipline in traffic is causing havoc in the city. Let me be very candid, I am not happy with this status, in fact, I am very disappointed with the status quo.

Take for example the way the construction of buildings is taking place in the city. Individual plans are approved by the authorities, but there is no attempt to see if these buildings will fit into a cohesive macro plan of the city. One has to look at the cities in the United States, large or small.

Every street runs north-south and every avenue runs east-west and so forth. Such meticulous planning is not only vital; it is the essential ingredient in the recipe of meaningful development. So, taking into consideration this entire scenario, how can you plan and achieve your objective?

The Asian Development Bank has appointed Strategic Planning Management Services Ltd. of Australia to lead a research project to develop a framework to support innovative interventions for clustered cities development in South Asian cities and three national partners have been incorporated to undertake this venture. Our neighbours India and Bangladesh are the other partners. I am sure the contribution that this National Forum would render will be invaluable. I take this opportunity of commending them for the tireless efforts they have lent to this project.

You will remember, at the very outset of my address I mentioned the city of Damascus as one of the ancient cities and considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited metropolises. In fact, Damascus was one of the 10 cities that formed the famous Decapolis of the ancient world.

The Decapolis was a group or a cluster of 10 cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. The 10 cities were not an official league or political unit, but they were grouped together because of their language, culture, location, and political status. The Decapolis cities were centers of Greek and Roman culture. With the exception of Damascus, the "Region of the Decapolis" was located in modern-day Jordan. And Damascus is still continuing as a major metropolis in the world. It may not be a waste of time if you examine the significant features of this city that made it last such a long time.

In order to achieve the objectives of your project one must look at those centres that lasted so long a time without any break. Surly, the economic characteristics of the cities you have chosen for study, namely Delhi, Dhaka and Colombo, and the study of major challenges in city cluster development for sustainable urban development in this region will help you find the solution that you seek to attain the objectives of your program.

My Ministry plays a very vital role in the national development effort. As a matter of fact, it is the single most important Ministry that brings foreign investment to this country, by way of offering various benefits and privileges to the investors to attract them to invest. These investments will not only make profits for the investors, but it will also introduce new ways and means of manufacturing, new modes of marketing, and new avenues of employment. There is a very compelling need for a program such as yours in the current context.

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