Sri Lanka's recovery: Are new roads the way forward?


Better, faster, smoother roads have been a central part of the government's efforts to rebuild Sri Lanka after a long and brutal civil war and the 2004 tsunami. The BBC's Jasmine Coleman takes a trip along some of these roads to see whether the distances between places - and people - have been bridged.

The road north of Trincomalee takes you past hollowed-out homes - bare concrete stumps between here and the beach.

"Sri Lanka is a peace place now," our driver Tharindu says as he drives us in air-conditioned comfort.

We are travelling through an area badly affected by the civil war with Tamil separatists. It was also hit hard by the tsunami that devastated the country in 2004 and left some 40,000 people dead.

The fighting ended more than five years ago now but craters are still visible between the palm trees.

We pass temporary housing for refugees, the buildings covered in the logos of Japanese cement companies. A rubbish collection truck on the road is sponsored by Unicef. A new church is built by Americans.

Each has a sign to say who paid.

Red earth, blue road

As we head from Trinco, as it's known, to Negombo - east coast to west - we glide onto smooth, clean tarmac.

The road is wide, that bluish colour, with white toothpaste lines separating us from the rusty red earth.

This is just part of the hundreds of miles of new and improved highways that cut across the country.

Every corner seems to bring more troops of orange-clad workmen; more discussions about which route is better, faster, after all the changes.

It is hard not to notice all the new tarmac. The one thing that is not so obvious is who is paying for it all.

Chinese pearls?

China has become Sri Lanka's biggest investor since the war. Its loans and grants fund a portfolio of infrastructure projects that includes a power station, city docks and an airport.

Over a third of Chinese money - a total of $5.2bn (£3.25bn) last year - goes on road projects, according to Sri Lanka's ministry of finance and planning.

Last year, five schemes to regenerate roads were being undertaken with Chinese funds worth $1.7bn (£1bn), while a further $2.6bn (£1.6bn) was secured in Chinese loans.

China has denied accusations it is creating a "string of pearls" - a circle of influence to challenge India's position in the region.

But President Xi Jinping described the island as "a splendid pearl" before a visit just last month.

Image caption,
In the last year, projects have been under way to improve 8,400 miles (1,400km) of road

Tharindu seems pleased with the developments.

He chomps on a chocolate biscuit and tells me how he prefers to work as a driver than work his normal job in a bakery. He gets to see more of his country, he says, and he earns more money.

As he talks, we pass stalls laden with papaya, custard apples and melons.

Beauty salons, electrical stores and furniture shops line up along the road. Women with long black plaits and brightly coloured skirts hold umbrellas against the sun, their hands full with shopping and children.

The government says Sri Lanka needs to build the roads, and then people will be able to rebuild their lives around them.

Image caption,
Elephants must cross the new roads to get to water tanks

Travelling through the middle of Sri Lanka and into the dry zone brings you miles of flat, thorny scrubland and bamboo forest.

Tharindu brakes sharply as we come almost bumper to trunk with some of the country's more unusual road users.

A family of wild elephants - yellow eyes and pink tongues - pass in front of us.

They are on their way to one of the island's ancient man-made lakes.

The reservoirs, or tanks as they are known, were built by the island's Sinhalese kings from about 1,700 years ago to provide much needed irrigation.

Further along the road, we pass another feat of ancient infrastructure - Sigiriya, a medieval castle city perched on the top of a huge outcrop of rock.

Image caption,
Sigiriya rock is surrounded by the remnants of pleasure gardens and ponds

The hydraulic systems that once fed ponds and pleasure gardens here are so remarkable that, even today, there are fountains that spout plumes of water after heavy rain.

Human distance

Big building projects in Sri Lanka are nothing new but it is clear that not everyone is moving forward so quickly.

Dirty exhaust fumes spill from rickety old buses, made in India. Passengers peer from blackened windows as they queue behind the latest stretch of roadworks.

While the new roads undoubtedly cut travel times for the country's mobile and wealthy, many others are still waiting to feel the benefits of all this development.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a development economist, says the roads reduce the "physical distance between places".

But more needs to be done to reduce the "human distance between peoples".

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Most of Sri Lanka's Tamil population live in the north and east of the island

"The roads re-built, refurbished, or newly built in the former conflict-affected districts have had very limited impact on the local populations in terms of new investments, markets, and jobs," he says.

"Of course, the travel times have been significantly reduced and journeys have been more comfortable for people and producers but transaction costs in terms of time and money have not come down."

He says the country now needs an efficient public transport system, the re-establishment of the rule of law, and "sound governance".

Sri Lanka's opposition have raised concerns about the roads, talking of dizzying interest rates on Chinese loans, failed projects and corruption.

They highlight the people in the former conflict-affected areas still living in temporary housing - and those still waiting for the wounds of war to heal.

In August, President Mahinda Rajapaksa stopped three UN investigators visiting Sri Lanka as part of a report into allegations of war crimes committed by government troops and rebels in the closing months of the civil war.

Image caption,
The effects of the tsunami can still be seen along the Trincomalee coast

One UN-backed report has estimated that 40,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the 26-year conflict, mostly by government shelling. The Sri Lankan authorities deny this.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International says the authorities continue to crackdown on dissent with the aim of "intimidating and punishing those who attempt to communicate concerns about human rights violations".

Sri Lanka's government has just called presidential elections for January - two years early, and two months before the planned publication of the UN's human rights report.

The roads are likely to win President Rajapaksa votes. But the way ahead still looks rocky.

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