Colombo Development

A roof over your head or a castle in the sky?

Untitled design (1).png

In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

By Dhananath Fernando

As Sri Lankans, we are conditioned to have 4 priorities in life: 

  1. Get a degree 

  2. Build a house

  3. Buy a car

  4. Be a good citizen.

While this is the mantra of every teacher and every parent, the system in which we live and work in is filled with barriers. Let’s take the first goal for example. Before you get a degree, the first step is getting into school. Entering grade 1 is a painful and tedious process and even if you succeed, only about 7% [1] of school leavers will have the opportunity to enter a state university. What happens to the remaining 93%? The rest are dependent on external degrees, vocational training and private education institutes for their tertiary education.

Every dream we are conditioned to hustle for does not come easy. What is truly terrible is that the system also prevents you from realising your dream through hard work. Let’s analyse the case of owning a house. 

Is the dream of owning your own home a realistic one?

I recall a recent conversation with my retired parents. “After pouring all of our EPF/ ETF, gratuity and housing loans and spending every cent kept we had saved for medical treatments, we still could not finish the ceiling and the light fittings of this house”.

My parents’ house was hardly anything fancy. It was a simple, single story, 1500 sq ft structure with basic amenities. This is the most common form of most Sri Lankan houses, even after pouring years of money and energy into building them.

The statistics by the Ministry of Housing and Construction [2]  shows that more than 250,000 families live in temporary houses and more than 400,000 families live in houses with roofs with galvanized sheets. Another 386,000 families live in partly constructed houses; either the floor is not cemented, or the walls are not plastered. Isn’t it a very poor performance for a country categorized as Upper Middle Income by the World Bank? 

Why is this so challenging?

The challenges of building a house are numerous and varied, from settling land disputes to finding a good contractor, the list continues on. A major factor that is often not included in this list of woes are the taxes on building and construction material that results in exorbitant raw material prices. The prices of these items are high, but we rarely question why.

Here is a breakdown of border taxes of a few raw materials:

  • Wall tiles and floor tiles: 107%

  • Construction steel: 90%

  • Sanitary ware (Commodes, squatting pans): 62%

Graph by JB Securities

Graph by JB Securities

If you have ever attempted to build a 100 square foot basic toilet you may have realized how expensive material and labour can be. My focus is on basic sanitary facilities and not a 5-star grade bathroom with a bathtub and expensive fittings. How can a population afford to build a basic bathroom when their steel is taxed at 90% and their wall tiles and floor tiles are taxed at 107%?

The consequences of the tax create a chain reaction where individuals spend nearly two times greater than the actual price for steel in your basic construction. The reason why most of the houses are incomplete and most of the people becoming house builders for a lifetime is that they spend money for basics like steel, wall tiles and many other basic units double the actual cost and then inevitably run short on cash for the completion.

Why do these high taxes persist?

The purpose of high tariffs is to discourage the importation of construction material which is already available for a very reasonable price with higher quality in the global market. The excuse subsequent governments provide is that this is done to protect the local manufactures, but what is the rationale behind this kind of protectionism? Tariff protection is often provided for local manufactures, to give them breathing space in which to grow, and innovate up to the point that they catch up with global competition. However, this industry has been protected for a few decades and the lobbying gets stronger every year for more protectionism.

Is it fair to keep half of our population in temporary and incomplete houses as a result of tariff rates as high as 107% on basic material required for construction? Additionally, the purpose of this tax is to discourage some else who produces efficiently and effectively, in favour of more inefficient local production. In economic terms this is called a rent and the businesses who gain from this are the rent seekers – something Sri Lanka has many of. Most of the self-proclaimed successful businessmen are not the ones who have done better than the competition but have minted money from taxpayers by hiding behind government protectionism.

High taxes at what price?

The market contraction as a result of the unfair tariff policy goes beyond what can be seen at surface level. High taxes have an unseen dire impact on other supporting industries connected to construction. For instance, once you spend all your money for steel, tiles and electric materials you will be forced to cut your expenses on furniture, curtains, and other items which are also supplied by local businesses. Most Sri Lankans build a house on a housing loan. In addition to paying off a loan with interest, we also have to pay the rent of 107% on construction material - how justifiable is this? 

This was simply a common man’s perspective. Even when considering industrial and commercial buildings, the situation is no different. For an instant if you are investing on a property in the leisure industry as a result of incurring a greater expense on construction material, one would  have to consider the higher interest rates on loans and recovery of the capital. That higher recovery rate will create higher room rates, making the property almost uncompetitive in the market.

The dream of buying a car and dream of getting a degree is no different from building a house.  Unfortunately, what former Indian president said about dreams is perfectly applicable to Sri Lankan’s dreams of building a house.

“Dream is not that which you see while sleeping it is something that does not let you sleep”. And yes, for the majority of Sri Lankans it’s a dream that doesn’t not let us sleep, keeping us up with worry till the last day and the last hour of our lives.

[1] University Grants Commission. 2018. Handbook of Statistics-2018.

[2] Ministry of Housing and Construction, Housing Needs Assessment and Data Survey, 2016.

[3] Calculation by Advocata, using 2019 Tariff Guides 

Lotus Tower and the failure of governance

Untitled design (1).png

In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The President’s announcement at the opening of the iconic Colombo Lotus Tower, stating that approximately Rs. 2 billion is missing, caused a great deal of consternation. From its inception, the Lotus Tower has been a point of debate, with critics of the tower arguing that it is essentially an expensive political vanity project, which should not have been a priority given the ever-growing debt burden that the country has to bear. However, leaving the politics aside, a better question is why is everyone talking about missing money after the project was completed?

What are the checks and balances on the Govt. and enterprises it runs?

Apart from the accountability that can be exerted by citizens, the Auditor General’s (AG) Department, Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), and Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) are three key entities that provide some measure of accountability to the Government, especially in cases where the Government is running an enterprise.

COPA focuses on the managerial efficiency and financial discipline of the Government, its ministries, departments, provincial councils, and local authorities by examining the sums voted by Parliament [1]. On the other hand, COPE ensures financial discipline in public corporations and other semi-governmental bodies in which the Government has a financial stake. The accounts of these organisations are audited by the AG’s Department, and are often the backbone of COPE investigations [2]. The AG’s reports provide an independent review of public sector institutions and reports to Parliament, with emphasis on both compliance with statutory and other regulatory requirements as well as an evaluation of the economy, and efficiency and effectiveness of Government operations [3].

It is clear that there is a fairly robust accountability mechanism in place, although there is still room for reform. The question that remains is was this mechanism in play during the construction of the Lotus Tower?

We need to start listening to the AG’s Department

As early as 2015, the AG’s Department had identified that there were irregularities in the construction of the Lotus Tower. The 2015 Annual Report of the AG [4] highlighted three main points of concern. The first is that the construction contract was awarded to two Chinese companies whose business areas did not include the construction of multi-transmission towers or even large-scale construction. Secondly, even though the work should have been completed by 12 May 2015, the contract period was extended by two years to October 2017, without Cabinet approval. Finally, the borrowing and insurance cost of the project was grossly understated by Rs. 265 million and Rs. 682 million, respectively.

The 2017 Annual Report reiterated these concerns [5]. There was an additional delay of over 200 days as work was not completed even at 31 May 2018. With the tower being declared open only in September 2019, we are all aware that the delay was even greater. The demurrage of $ 10.43 million for this said delay had not been recovered at the point of publication of the Annual Report. Additionally, Cabinet approval had not been obtained to lease the Lotus Tower to a property management company or to construct a vehicle car park with an investment of Rs. 4 billion.

The Special Audit Report

In addition to the accounts included in their annual reports, the AG’s Department completed a special audit of Colombo Lotus Tower [6].

To give you a few of the key highlights; the issues brought up in the annual reports were expounded on in hair-raising detail, but there were also other major points of concern. For the sake of brevity, some of the key conclusions drawn in the Special Audit Report are listed below.

  • There was no feasibility study done for this project, and a project proposal was unavailable

  • The non-transferral of land from the Urban Development Authority and delays in construction has cost the Government an estimated Rs. 5.4 billion in revenue

  • A 200-day contractual limit on the recovery of liquidated damages from the contractor means that it is unlikely that costs incurred due to delays will ever be recovered

How do we action these reports?

It is clear that the accountability mechanisms in government are able to adequately assess and evaluate government spending in its various forms. The issue lies in that there does not seem to be any follow-up action. For instance, in 2016, COPE raised issue with the lack of an internal audit of the Lotus Tower, and a directive was given for the Chief Accounting Officer to present a report on this, which never materialised [7].

Opening COPE and COPA to the media brought with it greater public scrutiny and accountability. Increased publicity to the reports published by the AG’s Department could be a starting point. Should there be a stronger link between the AG, COPE, COPA, and entities which can hold the Government to account, possibly the Bribery Commission and the AG’s Office?

Lotus Tower

[1] Committee on Public Accounts, Parliament of Sri Lanka. (accessed 24 September 2019)

[2] Committee on Public Enterprises, Parliament of Sri Lanka (accessed 24 September 2019)

[3[ Roles and responsibilities, Auditor General’s Department (accessed 24 September 2019)

[4] Government of Sri Lanka, Auditor General’s Department, Annual Report 2015/2016 (accessed 25 September 2019)

[5] Government of Sri Lanka, Auditor General’s Department, Annual Report 2017/2018 (accessed 24 September 2019)

[6] Government of Sri Lanka, Auditor General’s Office, Special Report of the Auditor General in connection with the construction of the Lotus Tower – Colombo (accessed 24 September 2019)

Colombo's traffic: can solving the problem of schools help?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Children hit the books; adults hit the brakes. Back to school for them, back to the gridlock for everyone.

Travelling in Colombo is now a test of patience, traffic having reached an impossible level.

For motorists, disorderly flows of vehicles, people and animals make the roads a nightmare to navigate. Toxic fumes poison pedestrians and residents alike, leaving an unsightly haze visible from the city’s high-rise buildings. Travel forums for tourists include discussions on ‘rush hour in Colombo’ and ‘the best time to miss traffic’.

Even if one gets through the traffic, parking is almost as big a hassle. School vans permanently occupy some streets, while rows of trishaws hog other parking spaces. Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, some obvious, some hidden, on businesses and individuals. At the most basic level, increasing congestion means longer travel times for passengers and higher operating costs for vehicle operators.

University of Moratuwa civil engineering and transport expert Professor Amal S. Kumarage estimates that Sri Lanka incurs an economic loss of around Rs. 40 billion annually due to road traffic congestion and air pollution.

Solving the larger traffic problem requires a proper public transport system, but one of the most peculiar aspects of Colombo’s problem is school traffic. The world over, school traffic creates some problems, but for policymakers elsewhere school-related traffic congestion is confined to the overcrowding and blocking of streets on or near school property. The problem with Colombo is that school traffic extends from one end of the city to the other. During peak school hours, some areas of the city are impassable. The reasons peculiar to Colombo include a clustering of popular schools in central Colombo and adjacent areas, growth in student numbers over the years, and an increasing tendency for students to commute daily from outside the city to schools within the city.

Growth in school rolls within the city has far outgrown the capacity it was designed for, and excessive centralisation of economic activity around the Western province in general and the city in particular, which draws in large numbers of commuters. In 2001, the floating population was estimated to be 400,000; today, it is thought to be 1.5 million.

Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, on businesses and individuals

A century ago, colonial rulers encountered a similar problem with congestion in the city. The Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance No. 19 of 1915 was introduced to check “the uncontrolled and irregular building spread” in the city. “These regulations attempted to control the size, orientation, spacing, height and spatial arrangement of buildings to permit sufficient direct sunlight to the buildings and maximise ventilation. The chief features of the bill were its preventive and remedial measures. These were four-fold:

  1. No building was to be erected unless roads existed to serve them.

  2. No building was to exceed in height the width of the street on which it was situated.

  3. Rooms were to be provided with sufficient space, ventilation and light.

  4. Open spaces were to be provided in the rear of the buildings as a common channel of ventilation behind continuous rows of houses.

Following this, the Geddes plan of 1921 set the boundaries of the city and designed it to make it “The Garden City of the East”. The tree-lined streets (Bauddhaloka Mawatha) and the grid system of roads in Cinnamon Gardens are legacies of that plan. The Abercrombie Plan of 1948 noted the high concentration of economic, trade and port-related activities in the city and emphasised the decentralisation of the city’s activities to the suburban areas of Ragama, Homagama and Ratmalana as satellite towns. The plan included a ring road to link these towns and the shifting of central administrative functions to Ratmalana. This plan was not implemented and neither was anything else. Despite subsequent plans in 1978, 1985 and later, nothing was enforced. The city grew organically, in an increasingly unruly manner that paid no heed to infrastructure, land or even safety constraints. The most recent spate of building apartment complexes and hotels threatens to overwhelm the water, sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, what some now term a ‘cancerous’ development. Development, but of a malignant kind, that can eventually choke and poison the city.

Can schools be one place to start fixing things?

It is absurd that people should have to send their children halfway across the country to attend school. To the author’s knowledge, school vans routinely travel from as far as Embiliptiya and Hikkaduwa. This is a colossal waste of fuel and bad for children who are giving up family time or extracurricular activities in exchange for commute time. Parents are lured into these insane commutes by another insane system: the perception that job, marriage and all future prospects are tied to the school one attends, regardless of the actual quality of education. Previously, parents aspired to send children to central colleges within their district that provided excellent facilities, education and the opportunity to enter university.

One of the aims of expanding the system of central colleges in 1943 (when 11 were established) was to check the shift of the rural population to urban areas. The colleges, modelled after Royal College with properly equipped with science labs, libraries, playgrounds, etc, catered to students within a six-mile radius. The number was expanded to 23, and by 1944, there were a total of 54, on the basis of one per electorate.

The schools had good teachers and the principals were selected on merit (by the Public Service Commission), making them immune to political pressure and enabling them to discharge their duties without fear or favour.

“The selection of teaching and other staff was done according to a pre-designed specific cadre. The all-round educational needs of the children were reckoned as the all-important factor, and more than not, the principal was consulted in the matter of appointments. Sometimes he was invited to serve on the selection board. There was also the assumption that teachers selected to central colleges had to be necessarily proficient in some extracurricular activity and be willing to assist in the afternoons at no extra remuneration” – CTM Fernando

The purpose of the Grade 5 scholarship exam was not to send even more children to schools in Colombo, but to gain admission to the closest central college. In its heyday, the quality of the products of the central colleges was not questioned, and that “all central colleges without exception served the purpose for which they were established is borne out by the fact that a vast majority of our professionals and other governmental and non-governmental executives are the products of these central colleges” (Fernando).

The decline of colleges was due to short-sighted politics. People were clamouring for more central colleges and the MPs responded by simply renaming small schools as “central colleges,” lacking the facilities and teaching staff. The politicisation of teacher selection meant appointments of central college principals were taken over by the ministry. “This new breed of politically appointed principals were often accommodated to ‘look after the duties of the principal’, as they lacked the requisite qualification and the experience, not to mention personality, to be one. When some of them lacked any competence in English, it was argued that English was not needed in the “Swabhasha system”.

Their knowledge of education and educational administration was woefully pathetic; but none dared to comment” (Fernando).

The recent spate of building complexities can be termed a ‘cancerous’ development

Can this system be recreated? Central colleges lack ‘cachet’, so we can never return to that and, depending on the politicians who destroyed an existing system, to recreate one is far too optimistic; but could affordable private schools, teaching in English, restore the system of education in the provinces?

If the government has no money to spend building schools, the logical step would be to allow the popular Colombo schools to build branches outstation. Several smaller ‘international’ schools such as Lyceum already have branches outstation. Initial funding could come from investors, either local or foreign, but on the basis that fees would be charged, which is the case at international schools. That parents pay heavily in ‘donations’ to get into popular schools is well known. Paying for extra tuition is widespread. Add to this the cost of paying for long distance school transport. If the right model can be found, paying proper fees for a decent education, close to home, would be an attractive option for parents and ease some of the chronic congestion in the city.

The government would need to implement proper planning regulations to check the growth of schools in congested areas while encouraging them to set up in key locations elsewhere. Perhaps the buildings and facilities of the old central colleges could be upgraded and rebranded to attract students from the area. Instead of the proposed purchase of Mi17 helicopters (apparently for use in UN missions), the government should spend this money on school infrastructure. Volunteer teachers from overseas and teacher training programmes could help fill in the gaps for teaching staff.

These are only suggestions, but policymakers need to start thinking outside the box; even dusting off colonial era plans would be an improvement.

Assessing Colombo’s urban redevelopment projects

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

There has been some controversy about the urban redevelopment that took place at break-neck speed in Colombo under previous regime. Visitors and casual observers were struck by the changes to the city; Colombo was looking a lot cleaner and smarter.

The criticism has focused on the human aspects: the plight of evicted residents, the loss of a certain way of life or the change in the character of the city. Little attempt seems to have been made to assess the financial costs and benefits, chiefly because the full costs remain unknown.

The World Bank funded a part of the project and has borne the brunt of the criticism, but many of the projects were carried out independently by the UDA, the military and other state agencies.

The World Bank provided a loan of US$213m of which US$148m was allocated to finance flood and drainage management, US$ 51m for infrastructure rehabilitation (mainly streets and drainage) and US$10m for implementation support.

According to the project brief, the World Bank funding is in two components; the first addresses the problem of urban flooding, which regularly affects economic activities of Colombo. The second aims to support local authorities to rehabilitate and manage their drainage infrastructure and improve the systematic collection of solid waste. 

What the World Bank has been funding is basic infrastructure, something that was sorely lacking. Some observers have conflated this with the high profile redevelopments such as The Dutch Hospital, Colombo Racecourse, Floating Market, and Independence Arcade which seem to have been done independently by various state agencies. The confusion is understandable, given the lack of information.

The most controversial projects involving the rehousing of the urban poor seem to have been carried out mainly by state agencies, with the World Bank involvement being limited to one project at St Sebastian's Canal.

For a proper assessment citizens should know all the facts but the costs of the projects were deliberately shrouded in secrecy. In the interests of transparency the Government should collate and publish the total cost of the regeneration projects and the means by which they were financed. Since some of the projects are largely commercial in nature it is also necessary to know the income earned and the costs of operation.

Pending the availability of hard financial data, we can look at some of the broad philosophical arguments for urban regeneration.

There are many positive things that can come from urban renewal, depending on what drives the programme. The earliest projects were carried out in Victorian London to provide social housing to the poor, replacing the terrible slums that they lived in. A similar justification was used in the case of some of Colombo's new projects but one must note two critical points: the terrible conditions in London at the time, and the underlying purpose of the exercise : to improve the lives of the poor by providing cheap housing for the poor.

In Colombo the impetus seems to be more modern, one of stimulating economic growth through urban regeneration. This is something that has also worked (with varying degrees of success) in many different places but success is dependent on the right policy and governance framework.

If the economy booms, consistently over a few years people will have money to spend and there will be demand for land: for shops, for business premises, for entertainment.

When the demand materialises it makes sense to redevelop older or decaying parts of the city, to improve land usage or ease congestion. If the economy were booming then the Town and Urban Councils would be flush with cash (from trade based taxes) and there would be less need to borrow money to redevelop. It would also be possible to get the private sector involved in the redevelopment process, minimising the need for debt funding.

Urban regeneration needs to go hand in hand with the right policy and good governance because this is what ultimately drives growth. Ideally these should precede the regeneration effort and will help overall growth and the building of confidence. Getting this right policy costs little money but requires enlightened leadership. Once in place, growth will take place overall and attention may be turned towards the more neglected or decaying parts of the city.

Unfortunately what appears to have happened is debt funded beautification for which there is scant demand. According to news reports the floating market in Pettah is deserted. The Racecourse and Independence Arcade fare somewhat better, but store owners have complained that traffic is limited. It is a nice place to wander around in but few people actually seem to buy anything, as indicated by a recent news report that the Ceylon Tea Board shop at the Racecourse is running at a monthly loss of Rs.1m.

The problem seems partly to be in the mix of the shops in the malls. The shops were not allocated on general commercial principles or through a transparent process. Most crucially the malls seem to lack a proper ‘anchor’ tenant. Typical shopping malls incorporate one or more anchor stores and a variety of smaller stores, an anchor tenant being the largest retail outlet in the mall, chosen on the basis of its potential to attract customers to the shopping centre in general.

Naturally, these are commercial decisions and are best taken by businesses, not the Government.

What the Government should have done with these prime locations is to have tendered for proposals for redevelopment and handed over the entire project to a commercial developer. The property would have been developed, the treasury would have earned some revenue, the Government would be less burdened with debt and citizens need not be concerned with the commercial risks and rewards of the restaurant and retail trade.

What was the final cost to the taxpayer and could the money could have been better spent elsewhere? These are fundamentals question which must be answered and it is imperative that all the relevant information be made public as soon as possible.

The townsmen and visitors may be delighted by the external appearance of the city, but let us just hope that we are not walking on streets paved with gold, as in the folk tale of Dick Whittington.