Isipathana and Unawatuna: A Tale of Two Roads

For about a year now workmen have been busy on Isipathana Road, a secondary road off Havelock Road, in the region of Colombo 5. Isipathana Road which is roughly about half-a-kilometre in length connects to both Fife Road and Chitra Lane which are access roads to the townships of Thimbirigasyaya and Narahenpita. As far as I am aware, Isipathana is not a bus-route, nor is it used by heavy vehicles or commercial traffic in notable numbers, although like everywhere else in Colombo there is an increasing use of the road by the heavy vehicles now. However the bulk of the traffic on the road are the motor cars (and of course taxis) of the residents of the area and the through traffic. The most important landmarks on this road would be the Isipathana College whose boundary occupies about half the length of the road, the Isipathana Temple, Havelocks - the famous Rugby Club, and Cool Planet - the popular department store. The rest of the road is predominantly residential and obviously middle, if not upper-middle class. One of the reasons why the road is not preferred by the heavy vehicles is probably its narrowness. It is impossible for a heavy vehicle to turn around or even park along the road without causing traffic congestion. When large-scale road works commenced on this secondary road of only mid-level importance, many a user was left confused. What is happening? Is the road being widened, some underground pipes or a new layer of bitumen being laid perhaps? But when they learnt that the work is mainly to lay raised sidewalks (pavements) there was a sense of exasperation among them. A narrow road on which hardly two vehicles could cross is being made narrower with a wide pavement (on both sides of the road). Where previously vehicles could park freely along the Isipathana College wall, this development has drastically reduced the parking slots to a few vehicles. Today there are very few students walking to school, the vast majority commuting in vehicles. If a survey of the area was conducted it would have shown how few pedestrians use the road on a given day. But there is a wide pavement for them on either side now, while for the many thousand motor cars, the road is narrower and parking facilities minimal! The hopelessness of this development becomes apparent at the school closing hour. There is absolute mayhem with at least hundred vehicles competing for the drastically reduced parking. It is the same when there is a sporting event at the Havelocks or even the Colts Grounds. On such days the road is virtually blocked with parked vehicles. A lot of money has been invested to create a road very difficult for vehicles to move on, while building wide pavements for a handful of pedestrians. Isipathana Road connects to Chitra Lane which has a large settlement of lower-middle class housing. As to be expected, down this lane we see many roadside kiosks selling cigarettes, fruits, vegetables etc. There are bicycles and three wheelers aplenty. Children play cricket on the side of the road. And, it is a much wider road than Isipathana Road. This is a road (Chitra Lane) where wider pavements are badly needed concentrated in a few hands and there is no transparency in the exercise thereof, it is to the rumours and gossip that the people look for answer to the what and the why of such public projects. These rumours have a kingly quality, taking us back to a by-gone era of absolutism. Apparently one fine day the long convoy of a very powerful man in the Rajapaksa regime, with total power over anything to do with cities and roads in Sri Lanka, whose every wish or idea was a royal edict, was whizzing down Isipathana Road. There were some vehicles parked on the side of the road. The convoy had to slow down because of these parked vehicles. The man pulled out his state-of-the-art mobile phone and barked down some orders. Almost the very next day, the workers arrived at Isipathana Road to commence work. No resident was consulted, no surveys done, no prioritizing of projects, no consideration of the return on the investment - just do it, it is a royal edict. At least, that is what the rumours suggest. Meanwhile, about seventy miles from the hustle and bustle of Colombo, five or so kilomeres from the beautiful port town of Galle is the world famous Unawatuna beach. This is one of the most beautiful beaches in the country and a very popular tourist attraction. From the main road to the Unawatuna beach is an extremely narrow and winding road of about two kilometres which ends at the beach, a dead-end. Going down this road is an education on the positive economic impact of tourism. Nearly every property down the road has been converted into either, lodging or a tourist inclined service such as a restaurant, diving equipment, motor cycle hire etc. The locals I spoke to looked reasonably well-off, a dollar income always being more preferable, confident and enjoying the opportunity to work in a service industry where quality and initiative pays dividends. Unlike in most local eateries, even the smallest restaurant in Unawatuna looked clean and well maintained. I did not observe any flies, mosquitoes or even stray dogs. There were no visible piles of garbage or unkempt gardens. It was obvious that the industry had pulled the standards of the residents up. Even in pricing, a notorious area when dealing with a foreigner, I noticed a self-regulated discipline. In the long run, there is more to be gained from a system which has integrity. They even had sharper assessment and better judgment. A white man was not a mere "sudda", they could discern a German from an Englishman, a Chinese from a Korean. Some of their characterizations ran true to common caricature, the budget-conscious Indian, the Chinese with no respect for the rules, the rough and ready Russians, the fussy English, the firm but fair German. Two vehicles cannot cross on the Unawatuna road, without one having to stop and even then only after maneuvering. It could be said that the narrow winding road through gently swaying palm trees adds to the allure of the place. But the area has moved on, it is now heavily built up with tourist establishments. The traffic is far too heavy on this narrow road for two-way traffic. It is imperative that somehow the road is connected back to the main road at some point so that it could be turned into a one way street. I was told that on December 31, with celebrations in full swing, the traffic on this road got so tangled that it took until the next morning to clear it. A major fire at one of the hotels, a sudden sickness or any other emergency could easily end in tragedy simply because the road is too narrow for two-way traffic. Any panic situation could easily precipitate into a disaster. A tale of two roads, Isipathana, millions being thrown at a secondary road in Colombo on a moments pique, while in Unawatuna, neglecting a strategically vital road for Sri Lanka's tourism, the areas' full potential left unrealised. This tale perhaps points to a larger theme, where the choice is between bungling action or passivity and inaction. A theme that could well be the tale of our times? Daily News -

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