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Leave Galle Face Alone

By Gamini Weerakoon

(May 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When the pageant of history is moving with rapidity in this particular avenue of time, the hoi polloi lining the streets can only help but cheer and cannot be blamed for missing a few exhibits in the passing parade. In recent times we’ve had harbours, airports, massive highways straddling the island, rivers being diverted across valleys, bridges coming up overnight and pledges of enough power being generated to not only light up this land but even a part of Mother India.

Thus we commentators/ reporters and those of the same ilk should be forgiven for having missed or rather not commented on one of the biggest historic projects announced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on May Day.

Mahinda Rajapaksa in his post-victory upbeat mood, it was reported, had declared that he was ‘redrawing the map of Sri Lanka’ and one of the projects included was the reclamation of 500 acres of land from the sea off the coast of Colombo overlooking Galle Face. Two years from now, May Day celebrations will be held at Galle Face Green, overlooking the reclaimed land, he had said.

Fowzie’s proposal

It has to be said that reclaiming another Galle Face from the adjoining sea was not an original idea of Mahinda Rajapaksa. A.H.M. Fowzie as a cabinet minister some years ago forwarded such a proposal. However, there was also an addendum attached: the massive cost of this project was to be met with the sale of Galle Face Green as real estate!

At that time this writer was an editor of another newspaper and we opposed this proposal tooth and nail. Recovery of a massive area of land from the sea was a pipe dream, we said, and called for intensive studies such as on coastal currents, erosion of the beach and land which was in proximity to the land that would be recovered. It would require heavy investment and if Galle Face Green was to be parcelled and sold off as commercial property and if this proposed park failed to materialise, the people of Colombo would be deprived of the only public park available to them.

We are not aware of the plans envisaged by President Rajapaksa and if he indeed intends to go ahead with such a project. It would be vital for these plans to be disclosed to the public for objections and debate before any moves that could be considered detrimental to the public are made. It is encouraging to note that Rajapaksa has not expressed any intention of selling the green.

Land brokers and power brokers

With the acute scarcity of land in Colombo, Galle Face Green is being increasingly subject to covetous eyes of property brokers and power brokers. Sometime after Fowzie’s proposal, we noticed loud speakers being surreptitiously introduced and repulsive pop music coming over them as early as 6.30 am. Later it was revealed that a TV channel was making a play for the Green to stage their ‘Sangeetha Pradrashanayas’ (variety entertainment).

Civic minded citizens moved the Supreme Court to prevent the use of Galle Face Green for any commercial purpose, pointing out that the green and promenade were built by the British Governor Sir Henry Ward (that wicked imperialist) for the enjoyment of the children and ladies of Colombo!

Why another Galle Face?

A question that would intrigue the public is the reason behind this urge to build another Galle Face Green which would cost the tax payer billions of dollars. What will be the cost of filling up more than 500 acres of sea bed and other ancillary costs? Where is the soil or whatever material that is required to fill the sea bed to be found? At present Sri Lanka cannot even find sufficient river sand to build homes and proposals are being made to import sand!

Readers would have seen on TV and read about the hare-brained scheme of Dubai’s ruler Sheik Mohamed bin Raschid al Maktoum to build himself a global transport hub and the most modern real estate in the world as the ‘ home to the world’s biggest and flashiest’. Dubai’s master planners developed a dream world in this desert kingdom with 300 man made islands spread out in the sea in the shape of the map of the world. Each island required 3000 tons of coral to build — the archipelago of islands stretching six miles. The 2684 foot skyscraper was the highest in the world and the 18 hole golf course in the middle of the desert gobbled millions of gallons of water a day
Dubai’s real estate market collapsed with world markets in last year’s financial crisis and investors lured in with tax-free concessions ran away from the free market resort.

This in turn left developers struggling to finish projects and pay suppliers while locals and some expatriates were left with unfinished houses. Dubai’s debt reached 100 per cent of the GDP but was fortunate enough to be bailed out by its oil rich brother Abu Dhabi.

Lanka no Dubai

Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly will not and cannot emulate Dubai but there should be deep introspection about such fancy proposals such as building artificial islands in the sea right now. The poor may have voted for the Rajapaksa government to defeat terrorism but what they want now are food and jobs – not fancy projects
If the Galle Face Green is not big enough for the expanding population, the other option should be to expand the green, removing the Army Headquarters elsewhere now that the war is over. These and other constructions in the vicinity were built on the original green well over half a century ago .

Galle Face is just one public park north of Colombo. Since the British left there has been no public park of note that has come up. The Waters Edge was ordered to be returned by the Supreme Court for the use of the public but a poor boy or girl has yet to step on to the well manicured green. Colombo and its suburbs are burgeoning with people and public parks for recreation. Mahinda Rajapaksa should pay more attention to building public parks for children to play, not cricket stadiums meant for a select few. The poor kids have nowhere to play except the roads. Meanwhile leave Galle Face Green only for the general public. Let it be open for the children to play.

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