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
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
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
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
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
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
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.