Infrastructure: Back to basics?

Apr.13 (LBO) – In the famous five classes that the JVP used for recruitment in the years before the first insurrection of 1971, a story was told about tea. It was mostly false, but it was a simple, good and persuasive story.

The story was that the imperialists forcibly displaced upcountry Sinhala villagers to make room for the commercial cultivation of tea.

How was Nuwara Eliya and the tea industry created? Governor Barnes built a road and a sanatorium and hoped wealth-creating entrepreneurs would come.

A few years later they came.

Nuwara Eliya became the center of the plantation economy.

The foreign plant caused erosion.

The rivers ran brown with eroded soil which filled up the reservoirs in the ancient Raja Rata and ruined native agriculture.

The foreigners who were imported to work on the plantations are the agents of Indian expansionism.

The solution to all our problems was to uproot the tea and grow manioc (in some versions, forests).

The fate of the agents of Indian expansionism who would be rendered unemployed was not a concern.

Barnes and the road to Nuwara Eliya

In actual fact, the main tea area of Nuwara Eliya was unpopulated jungle.

Many negative things happened when the land was opened up: thousands of elephants were slaughtered; many seasonal workers coming to work on the coffee plantations died on the annual trek from and to South India; erosion happened, but not to the extent of silting up the ancient reservoirs (which were ruins incapable of holding water before the British under Governor Ward started restoring them in 1860).

But we have all been living off the earnings of the tea plantations that were thus created.

How was Nuwara Eliya and the tea industry created?

Governor Barnes built a road and a sanatorium and hoped wealth-creating entrepreneurs would come.

A few years later they came.

Nuwara Eliya became the center of the plantation economy.

Infrastructure came before industry.

The government created the infrastructure; the entrepreneurs created the wealth; the government taxed the exports and recovered what it spent on the infrastructure (and more).

What do we do now?

Government redistributes whatever revenues it can muster (or even hopes to raise).

Nothing is left for infrastructure–building new infrastructure or even maintaining what exists.

All that is left to foreign loans or grants.

In the heyday of the tea industry, the tea moved down to Colombo and the world by rail.Now the tea is hauled on the roads that Barnes and his fellow colonialists built because the trains are too unreliable.In a few years, the time taken to get to Colombo will approach the time taken for the bullock carts that traversed the roads that Barnes and his compatriots built.

And politicians don’t even have the guts to clear the traces so the roads can actually be built.

No new wealth creation opportunities are created; even existing opportunities are constrained because of the poor state of infrastructure.

The atrocious roads and the unreliable electricity cause businesses to concentrate in the Colombo and Gampaha districts.

The Western Province generates 48 percent of the country’s GDP.

Young people in the rest of the country curse the system: Kolombata kiri; apata kekiri.

Post-independence record

Sri Lanka now has less railroad kilometers than it had under the British.

The main line to Jaffna now stops at Vavuniya; the Kelani Valley line to Opanayaka now stops at Avissawella.

The railways carry no freight other than petroleum products and cement.

Passengers pretend to pay for the services they receive.

The railway pretends to provide services.

The Raja Mawatha from Kataragama, the Mahiyangana-Manampitiya Road, the Ella-Wellawaya Road.

Post-independence governments have built a few new roads.

Not one new highway worth its name, but a few roads.

None of the roads, new or old, are maintained properly.

New roads can be used to win votes, but not maintenance.

In the heyday of the tea industry, the tea moved down to Colombo and the world by rail.

Now the tea is hauled on the roads that Barnes and his fellow colonialists built because the trains are too unreliable.

In a few years, the time taken to get to Colombo will approach the time taken for the bullock carts that traversed the roads that Barnes and his compatriots built.

Back to Barnes

It’s unfashionable to say we can learn anything from our former colonial masters.

But what if we adopted the Barnes method of doing business: put government resources into infrastructure; let entrepreneurs create wealth; tax that for building more infrastructure including a decent educational system?

We might to able to get around at a speed a little higher than that of a bullock cart in Barnes’ time.

And young people in the regions would have a few more options than the garment factories that were built in the Premadasa era.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 -Rohan Samarajiva: samarajiva@lirne.net