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Development while preserving local heritage and historical landmarks

By M.Sooriasegaram

( May 23, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) The proposed Nallur Hotel in Jaffna by the Mercantile Bank of Sri Lanka has sparked off a debate at a public consultation meeting organized by the Mayor of Jaffna on 10 May 2010. Minister Douglas Devananda, instead of precipitating a rushed decision at a small and non-representative meeting, announced that the Mayor will make a final decision on this matter of great public interest and sensitivity only after extensive research and further public consultation. I welcome this cautious and statesmanlike decision.

It is essential that we must make this debate a healthy one by educating and informing the public of all the likely positive and negative consequences of such a development. Only then the public can make an informed decision. Democracy means people independently making informed decisions. It is the duty of the Mayor to ensure that the public are adequately informed so that they can give their verdict objectively rather than blindly based on pre-conceived notions, emotions, political pressures or pure ignorance. It must be noted that the small number of people, estimated to be around 250, who attended this meeting are largely polarized into different political parties. Therefore objective decision making was not possible. Very few young people and women were present although they in fact are the majority in the community and the older men were quite happy to highjack this meeting to speak on behalf of them. The older men who spoke on behalf of the absent youth had the audacity to accuse our youth of being susceptible to all sorts of mischief after consuming alcohol from this hotel, which does not even have the provision for a public bar according to the plans displayed. What a damning judgement of our youth by a minority of old hypocritic and self opinionated men, who are so out of touch with young people and the problems they face. The approach of old men in our society towards the young is unacceptably condescending, insulting and ultimatistic. I hope that young people will attend such public forums and challenge this unacceptable behaviour by the older people. We should learn to respect our youth and pass on our knowledge and experience (not prejudices) in a more constructive manner and also be prepared to listen and learn from them.

In the post war period we are in an era of development, which our people desperately need to recover from the ravages of war, death and destruction. We must clinch this opportunity to give a decent life to our people while paying due attention to preserving local heritage and historical landmarks. This will set the trend for all future developments in this area.

An environmental impact analysis (EIA) is the only scientific means to decide the appropriateness or otherwise of any scheme. This analysis needs the input of historians, archeologists, planners, architects and engineers. EIA will consider, among other things, the following matters:

Preservation of local heritage and historical landmarks:

A team of historians, archeologists and planners must be engaged to offer information and advice. The input of experienced engineers and architects, similar to the caliber of late Geoffry Bawa can produce creative and innovative designs to address heritage issues. Readers would remember the design of Kandalama Hotel in Sigiria, built on a site which was declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO. I have seen this master piece, which is not only classed as one of the best 4 hotels in the world but is also the only ecological hotel in the world as far as I know. Everything in this hotel is recycled. The beauty of Sigiria is not marred but in fact enhanced. People flock to see this hotel as much as the wonderful historic site of Sigiria.

Pollution, noise, parking and traffic issues

Experienced engineers can iron out all these issues through innovative designs. These are easily solvable problems although they appear insurmountable to lay people.

Any nuisance to local neighbourhood and adverse effect on the character of the neighbourhood

These problems can easily be designed out by architects and engineers. There are numerous international examples to demonstrate this. The Architects and Designers can be made to design to our strict requirements. When the leaning Tower of Pisa was continuing to lean more and more to the point of collapse it was closed to visitors for several years. The Italian government stipulated the condition that the lean must remain the same (neither reduced nor increased) and called for Engineering Consultants throughout the world to take part in a design competition to rescue this structure, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Professor Burland from Imperial College, an international expert in Soil Mechanics, won this design competition and under his engineering supervision this world famous iconic heritage structure was saved from collapse. The engineering community from all over the world was closely watching this ingenious rescue operation with astonishment. So anything is possible today with the very advanced state of science, engineering, architecture and preservation techniques of heritage structures.

Economic regeneration

Economic regeneration is necessary even in areas of heritage importance.

People in Rome, which is undoubtedly a world heritage city as well as a sacred city, earn their livelihood and survive economically because of the tourists from all over the world visiting the area by the billions. There are hotels all over Rome to make this possible.

Likewise in Pisa, where there are a lot of hotels to attract people to visit the leaning tower of Pisa, one of the seven wonders of the world. Likewise there are a lot of hotels in Florence, which is the Art city of Europe.

Likewise in Egypt one finds numerous hotels around historic temples and pyramids, also recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In India, which ever sacred or heritage city you go, there is no shortage of hotels. It is the people who stay in such hotels who give livelihood to the numerous craftsmen and craftswomen. All such cities survive because of the visitors staying in hotels. These visitors buy the local goods and services and give a boom to local economy. It is unwise to turn away such good opportunities to connect Jaffna to the national and international economy.

Many more such examples can be sited in London, Paris and so on. Hotels in all these sites of historical and heritage importance have not reduced the value and importance of such cities. On the contrary they have given income and economic viability to the workers, who sustain such cities.

Jaffna is at present economically unviable unless whatever little attractions it has are exploited to the economic advantage of its people, who are subjected to the misery of poverty and unemployment. Even the little art and craft industry in Jaffna are virtually dead. What we have now all around our famous temples, including Nallur, are fake plastic ornaments and other cheap goods. Art in this part of the world is in a very pathetic state. I am wondering what our King, Sankilian, did to promote art and culture in Jaffna during his reign apart from murdering and persecuting Catholics. I am not defending the introduction of Christianity at the point of gun by the Portugese but murdering human beings just because they are Catholics is nothing but barbarism. If we compare the intellectual, philosophical, cultural, artistic and architectural achievements of Emperors like Akbar and Asoka, Sankilian will look pathetically ordinary. Preserving Sankilian’s foot prints is necessary from a historical and archeological perspective but let us not over play the glory of Sankilian. We should also tell our people about the dark side of Sankilian’s history so that they can have a balanced view of his reign.

We have to make sure that our people are not left behind permanently as economic destitutes, needing to go to the west as refugees through our own negligent and unwise choices.

Employment opportunities

We cannot underestimate the need to create employment opportunities in Jaffna when we know clearly our limitations on agriculture with our limited water resources. Fishery has unexploited potential and certainly needs to be developed. But overall the economic deficit to sustain our people cannot be questioned. Therefore we have no choice but to exploit all local resources as well as be a part of the southern and eastern economies of Sri Lanka for our survival. This is one of the main reasons apart from my cherished democratic political beliefs why I never supported the totally unviable Eelam Separatist Cry. An objective and balanced decision regarding development of the economy of Jaffna is a must for the survival of our people. If we go for any other line of thinking we will be guilty of driving our people to poverty, unemployment and misery. Those with education, land, wealth and foreign lucrative connections, who can survive under any circumstances, must not be allowed to make decisions at the expense of the have-nots and the disadvantaged and marginalized communities, who will suffer as a result of such decisions. Therefore active participation in such decision making by all, especially the downtrodden and marginalized communities, cannot be overemphasized. If we do not learn the lessons of the past 30 years, the sons and daughters from these communities and like wise the sons and daughters of the poorest communities in the south will become the cannon fodder in future conflicts and wars.

It is reported that 47% of students have failed in their GCE “O” level this year. What solution the old wise men, who condemned and belittled our youth at Monday’s meeting, have for these youth? They are going to be the unemployed of tomorrow as if there is not enough already! Stay at home unemployed and become a “Sathu” is possibly their solution.

It is time we address the horror of unemployment and the misery and degradation that follow. If these old men think for a moment that these unemployed youth are their own children, what I am saying will become very meaningful.

Added essential facilities to the area and encouragement for further investment in the area

If the Municipal Council and the Mayor uses the globally practiced “planning gains” concept to the advantage of the local people by imposing a number of enforceable conditions we can turn this hotel into an asset for Jaffna and its people – I mean gains such as a concert hall, a public gym and a swimming pool, treatment of sanitary effluent to high potable water quality, avoidance of noise pollution, high level of food hygiene, lovely gardens all around, recycling facility to make this also an ecological hotel like Kandalama etc. and it may be even possible to negotiate with the developer as part of the planning deal to restore one of the heritage sites (currently being allowed to perish) to its original glory. Incidentally there is not even a single swimming pool within the Jaffna Municipality. Sankilian did build one for himself at Sankilian Thoppu but he never cared to build one for his beloved citizens! The attempted swimming pool at Central College is now simply a disgraceful hole in the ground. I understand that the contractor had swindled the money and walked away half way through the project. The community has a right to know what happened to this government initiated project and what is the future of this hole in the grounds of a national school in Jaffna.

Such gains in essential facilities and restoration of heritage sites will set a new trend in Jaffna, where we have at present shameful levels of service, sanitary facilities, rubbish collection and disposal and food hygiene in nearly all our hotels and food outlets and also shameful neglect of our heritage sites.

Promotion of ethnic and religious understanding and harmony as a new approach to solving conflicts in Sri Lanka instead of a confrontational approach.

Nallur is the place in Jaffna, where large numbers of Tamils and Sinhalese come on pilgrimage and to worship. What better place than Nallur to begin the task of national reconciliation and conflict resolution. The first place the Presidential candidates, Presidents and Prime Ministers visit when they come to Jaffna is the historic Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Nallur, which would be a focal point for this noble task. So Nallur definitely needs a world class hotel for the devotees as well as others. The proposed site for Nallur Hotel is 800m from the Nallur Temple. It is far enough not to interfere with the sacredness of this temple and close enough for the devotees and visitors to walk to this temple from the hotel. So proximity wise it is almost ideal. If there are no hotels the visitors come in large numbers and stay in poorly converted houses as hostels all over Jaffna, stay in cramped conditions causing a great deal of nuisance to the public, causing parking, sanitary and noise pollution problems. This will certainly not promote inter-racial harmony. Hotels are the way forward, as long as they are sensitively designed, built and maintained under strict municipal guidelines.

I have heard from some Tamil Nationalist Extremists, which regrettably included a few Tamil Government Officers in very high positions, public utterances against large numbers of poor Sinhalese families visiting Jaffna. Although such objectors represent a tiny minority they are capable of poisoning the minds of many Tamils. I am reminded here of white racists in Europe propagandizing that the black and Asian immigrants are the cause of all evils, unemployment, threat to white European culture (cultural pollution) etc. To cover up their racist motivations these Tamil Nationalist Extremists attribute their objections to a lack of hotel and infrastructure facilities in Jaffna. If this is so they should be demanding for more hotels and infrastructure building rather than turning against the Sinhalese people. Strangely these objectors never objected to the coming of upper class Sinhalese people – Dudly, JR, Cyril Mathews, Chandrika, Ranil , Sarath and Mahinda, even though some of them got involved in the burning down of our public library in Jaffna. It is worth reminding in this connection that Cyril and Ranil were in the cabinet of JR’s government, under whose auspices this despicable incident took place.

I therefore like to respond to these racist utterances by warmly welcoming all Sinhalese and Muslim visitors to Jaffna and at the same time demanding that the Jaffna Municipal Council and the Government provide decent hotels, accommodation and improved infrastructure facilities in Jaffna. Each provincial capital should consider providing Welcome and Advise Centres with tri-lingual speakers for advising visitors. At present the Sinhalese visitors to Jaffna do not have the opportunity for any social/cultural intercourse with the Tamil community because of a lack of appropriate facilities and arrangements. So they rely purely on assistance from the army and the police, which defeats the whole point of the exercise. If anything it reinforces and exacerbates the existing conflict.

I am convinced that this approach is the correct one to rebuild trust between communities, to improve community relations and to build national unity in Sri Lanka.

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