By Namini Wijedasa
The Highways Ministry has sought Cabinet approval to hire consultants for Ruwanpura expressway’s Section 1 which is expected to be awarded on a single proposal — without competitive bidding — to a Chinese firm.
The company identified for the 26.3 km stretch from Kahathuduwa to Ingiriya is China National Technical Import and Export Corporation (CNTIC).
The Cabinet paper dated February 20, 2017, was presented by Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella. It sought approval to set up a Cabinet Appointed Consultancy Procurement Committee (CACPC) to select and employ a consultant for Ruwanpura Section I.
It also wanted permission for the Treasury, the Highways Ministry and the Road Development Authority “to take necessary action to obtain the required financing for the implementation of the consultancy contracts from a local bank/Exim Bank of China subject to taking note of observations of the Ministry of Finance in this regard and pursuing actions accordingly”.
The same Cabinet paper identifies three other Chinese companies for the remaining sections. They are China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Corporation (CATIC-ENG) for Section II from Ingiriya to Kahangama; Hunan Construction Engineering Group Corporation (HCEGC) for Section III from Kahangama to Dela; and China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) for Section IV from Dela to Pelmadulla.
The move to award all four sections of the Ruwanpura expressway from Kahathuduwa to Pelmadulla on single bids to pre-selected Chinese companies was first approved by Cabinet as early as August 2016. But it was subsequently decided to go ahead only with Section I with a Chinese loan.
“Please note that ERD would be able to arrange concessional funding only for the first section of the Ruwanpura Expressway Project at the initial stage,” says a letter from R M P Rathnayake, Director General of the Ministry of Finance’s External Resources Department (ERD), to the Highways Ministry Secretary. “Accordingly, the implementation of the other sections needs to be sequenced based on the availability of funding, progress of land acquisition and the project readiness.”
The Government recently said that, due to lack of funds, it would implement mega road projects solely on the basis of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) or Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) projects. It was not immediately clear whether this would affect Stage I of the Ruwanpura Expressway; and whether the Highways Ministry has altogether shelved plans to secure funding from the Exim Bank of China for the remaining sections.
Project officials said they were uncertain of the current status of Section I. “The preliminary work is being done,” one said. “But how we proceed with the contract is not sure. At the same time, we have not taken a firm decision to alter the basis of the project from single proposal to BOT. But this could change, considering the current situation.”
Land acquisition on the Kahathuduwa to Ingiriya stretch has been expedited. Properties are being identified, boundaries have been marked and notices will soon be published under the Land Acquisition Act. The source said they would expand this to other areas later. However, the agreement between the RDA and CNTIC is yet to be signed. The relevant documents are currently being prepared by the project committee to be handed over to a Cabinet-Appointed Negotiating Committee.
Highways Ministry Secretary D C Dissanayake said “around 99 percent” of the feasibility study had been done by a local company. He could not immediately say whether the Central Environmental Authority had approved an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
The Highways Ministry is proceeding with plans for the Ruwanpura Expressway amidst serious concerns regarding its feasibility and environmental impact. “As far as I know, there is no design, no completed feasibility study, no approval by the National Physical Planning Department, no approved EIA, no modelling, and nothing done,” said one senior official, requesting anonymity.
The National Physical Plan (NPP), first prepared in 2007, is now being updated by the Department of National Physical Planning. This policy document lists out possible development activities in relation to the available land — whether or not there are buildings thereon — with the objective of securing proper infrastructure, amenities and conveniences while conserving the natural and built environment.
“The plan does not indicate an expressway to Ratnapura,” a road expert said, also asking not to be named. “Maybe the priorities have changed later on. But even so, you have to take into account how this project came into being and its justification.”
Alarmingly, the NPP identifies a fragile area which Ratnapura, the Central Province, some parts of Moneragala and some parts of Kegalle. “This is critical because the central fragile area is catchment for many water bodies, so it shall not be disturbed as water is a crucial element of sustainable development,” he warned. “If we disturb that, we will have to import water like petroleum.”
A key concern is that, in building an expressway, many other lands will be exposed for development. Construction Section I from Kahathuduwa to Ingiriya will not pose too many issues because these were low highlands without sensitive areas. But beyond Ingiriya were sensitive areas like Kiriella, Ratnapura, Kuruwita and Balangoda. “You will create a channel for sensitive areas to be exposed to vulnerability,” the expert said.
If it was connectivity the Government wanted, there is a proposal in the NPP for a railway line, he continued. “It is less damaging to the environment and connects specific towns and locations,” he said. “The Railway Department also has a proposal in its National Development Plan to connect Kelani Valley to Hambantota.”
Even if the Government were to go ahead with building the Ruwanpura Expressway, the measures necessary to mitigate disasters such as landslides and flooding would be so costly that the economic viability of the road would be negated. “You will spend lot of money to prevent all these disasters and achieve nothing in the end,” he said.