Whose Right Of Way?

By Abdul

When travelling along the stunningly picturesque Colombo-Matara expressway, Sri Lanka’s first toll-operated highway, it is easy to forget the toll that this project took on the surrounding communities. In the course of construction, thousands of families, and their livelihoods, would be changed forever. This feature, containing photographs by field staff of the Centre for Poverty Analysis provides a unique insight into those who gave up their ‘right of way’ over this land – their right to use it as a home, a business, a cultivation – so that others would be afforded the right to travel on an expressway.
Agricultural lands suffered the most from the acquisition. The total compensation given for 70% of the agricultural land (paddy) was less than Rs. 100,000; the compensation for paddy lands was in the range of Rs. 750 to Rs. 1,250 per perch. Paddy lands (in the affected wet zone) were mostly farmed for consumption purposes and had a cultural and lifestyle value rather than a profit value attached to it, which was not taken in to account for compensation.
Many of the farmers were also elderly, and the effort of restarting their livelihood in a new location was not something they could do easily. Additionally, plots of paddy land were not easily available in close proximity to their homes. As a result none of the affected paddy lands were replaced by the owners, and the loss resulted in increased expenditure on food and a reduction in their wellbeing and lifestyle. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, December 2007)
While the compensation for commercial crops such as tea, cinnamon and rubber were only slightly higher than what was paid to the paddy lands, their recovery was slow but progressive. Before land acquisition (prior to 2006), agriculture, which includes paddy and cash crops, was a stable supplementary income source for 59% of the population. This reduced drastically to 12% in 2006 and increased to 33% by 2008. This means that the cash crops were recovering slowly but overall the productivity and quality of the crops were affected by the lack of care given during the transition period and the disruption due to construction activities of the highway. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, December 2007)
Resettlement management of the Southern Expressway gets credit for providing a negotiated participatory process (where possible) to decide some important aspects of resettlement such as compensation and relocation options. The Land Acquisition and Reclamation Committee (LARC) provided a platform to discuss all compensation-related grievances and decided the compensation at replacement cost taking in to consideration the location, type and usage of the land. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, March 2006)
LARC was held at the Divisional Secretariat (DS) level and it was attended by the resettlement officer, valuer, surveyor and the DS officer. LARC had almost 100% participation by the affected people and was instrumental in increasing their compensation. The Grievance Redress Committee addressed all the non compensation related grievances such as construction hazards. However, implementation of its decisions needed greater coordination among the multiple institutions involved. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, July 2006)
Construction of the expressway began in 2006, and was officially opened to the public in December 2011. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, May 2006)
The construction of the expressway was prolonged for more than six years, leaving the houses and productive land alongside the trace filled with constant construction hazards. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, April 2006)
In addition to further land acquisition, construction impacts resulted in flooding, water logging, bad water quality, dust, noise pollution and much more. These resulted in reducing the living conditions of people living by the expressway and affected the productivity of agricultural lands. The compensation procedure for construction impacts was neither timely nor adequate. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, January 2006)
Displacement is a physically and emotionally difficult experience, which needs to be purposefully avoided in large development projects. In that light it is important to recognise and compensate affected parties adequately even though it is impossible to fully replace the resources and lifestyle they enjoyed prior to displacement. (Photograph by Centre for Poverty Analysis, 2005)
When we take to the expressway, perhaps we should spare a thought for those who gave up their rights over this land – their right to use it as a home, a business, a cultivation – to allow others the right to travel on an expressway. The publication on which this feature is based, ‘Right of Way’ by Sharni Jayawardene, can be downloaded via http://cepa.lk/index.php?option=com_publications&view=publication&id=63. A brief photo documentary summarizing the findings of the study can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvUmFiQlugo.
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