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Saturday, 17 September 2011






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Government Gazette

Facing Colombo's issues

The hustings have commenced for 17 Municipal Councils, one Urban Council and five Pradeshiya Sabhas. However, although Sri Lankans are traditionally avid aficionados of politics, there is not much fervour displayed at the moment.

Perhaps it is electoral fatigue. This the third stage of local authority elections, with the last stage - that of the mine-infested Mullaitivu district due in the future. Voters may be feeling rather stale from over-exposure to electoral rhetoric.

Then again, there is a great deal of scepticism about the ability of the candidates to deliver. Voters may be becoming cynical about the aspirations and intentions of their potential representatives.

Given all that, the greatest single obstacle to an interesting and entertaining battle appears to be the complete lack of gumption on the part of the opposition.

The contrast with the local government elections of 1991 could not be greater. Then, the United National Party had been in power uninterruptedly for 14 years. The government had a firm grip on the news media and the opposition had only its meetings at which to put across its policies.

Yet the latter carried out a spirited campaign and made tremendous gains, capturing local authorities all over the country - most notably in Kotte, Kaduwela and Maharagama, the three local councils of the capital.

UPFA candidate for Mayor of Colombo, Milinda Moragoda

The opposition adopted a posture which stood on two legs: addressing local problems on the one hand and national issues on the other. Its outlook was very positive and very practical - it set out clearly what it would do.

It was the enthusiasm of that campaign, carried on through Pada Yatra and other protest campaigns, to the Provincial Council elections, which set the stage for the final overthrow of the UNP regime in 1994.

This time around, it is the UNP which is in opposition. It has not had the executive for 17 years but it did hold the legislature less than a decade past. And it only lost its hold on many local authorities only a few years ago.

The press is not muzzled, as it was in President Premadasa's time. The opposition has the luxury of radio and TV stations which articulate its point of view freely. And yet it is not taking the offensive as one would expect it to. It seems tongue-tied or, when it does express itself, it manages to convey the supine essence of its defensive posture.

This shambolic behaviour was exemplified by two interviews the UNP's Colombo mayoral candidate AJM Muzammil gave to the English language press. His subdued reaction to the Sunday Observer's queries was perhaps understandable, but he did no better with the Sunday Leader, either.

His responses to practical questions on how to deal with problems faced by the Colombo Municipal Council were bland. For the most part they could be boiled down to 'we will have to look into that'.

Now, this is the reply you expect from a bureaucrat who is avoiding giving a direct answer. It is certainly not what one expects from a politician on the campaign trail! It appears from Muzamil's responses that he is, essentially, reacting from the parochial perspective of a city father, on the ward level and with no holistic thinking.

For example, when asked what he would do about the problem of flooding in the city, he replied that they would 'look at external agencies and get foreign assistance to get a complete new drainage system for Colombo'. On the other hand, the governing United People's Freedom Alliance candidate for Mayor of Colombo, Milinda Moragoda has a more gung-ho attitude and, at the same time a broader overview of the nature of the problems facing the city.

As a former Cabinet Minister, he brings with him a comprehension of the wider ramifications of the issues at hand. At the same time, as a former Member of Parliament from the area, he appreciates the difficulties of the denizens.

Moragoda has noted that there is no proper mechanism to co-ordinate with the central government and the Western Provincial Council. Accordingly, he has proposed a committee, to function under the mayor, to do just that. In days of yore, the Colombo municipal limits defined what Colombo was. It may have been Colombo's largest city, but it remained small as metropolises go.

Its problems were relatively few and simple, easily solved by the Municipal Council.

Today Colombo is no longer defined by its city limits. It is a megalopolis, stretching from Negombo in the North to Panadura in the South, from the Kali Kovil in Mutwal to the Pattini Devale at Navagamuwa.

The population of the conurbation is about 3 million in total (compared with about 700,000 from the Colombo municipality). This doubles during the daytime, as people commute from outside to work, shop or visit within the bounds of the Greater Colombo area. Transport to and within the city is a huge problem and requires a wider-scale solution.

The water needs of the area are now being met by a scheme that utilises the waters of the Kelani River, miles and miles away from the city centre.

Even the disposal of municipal solid waste requires a greater effort than can be provided by the Colombo Municipal Council - the result of the labours of which could be observed in the huge mountain of rubbish in Bloemendhal.

And as for flood-prevention, it requires measures that extend not only outside the municipal area, but even outside the limits of the Western provincial Council.

The main problem with the opposition appears to be that it has no grasp of the enormity of the problems facing modern local authorities. Before it can govern, it must learn how these issues can be addressed practically in the 21st century.


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