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8th March 1998

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Green light for Expressway

By Tharuka Dissanaike

The controversial express way to the Airport has finally received environmental clearance. In a public announcement on February 23, the Central Environmental Authority claimed that the CKE (Colombo - Katunayake Expressway) has been given the green light subject to certain conditions.

For the Road Development Authority the approval came none too soon. For several long years their plans to get the new highway going were thwarted by environmentalists and social lobbies. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was submitted to the CEA last June. Approval came after months of deliberation, technical committee sittings and public hearings.

But even as it came, concerns mounted as to the financing of the road. Earlier Malaysian investors had shown interest in the project and pledged finances on a BOT ( Build Own Transfer ) basis. But as their own economy faced crisis these investors pulled out, leaving the RDA grappling in search of ways to fund the Rs. 5 billion project. But last week, the government came forward offering to finance the first phase of the road - an estimated cost of Rs. 1.3 billion.

So the Expressway goes ahead. After years of deliberation over the route and shape of the road, actual work is expected to begin very soon.

Construction of the embankment will consist of the first phase, General Manager, RDA, P.B.L. Cooray said. Since the road traverses nearly 70 percent of its 25 kilometre route through the Muthurajawela marsh, the base for the expressway needs to be prepared on the soft, peaty ground. River sand will be used during the trials to fill the marsh and extract water from the soil. "The marsh consists of something like 60-70 percent water. We will use a technology called vertical drains to wring out excess water," Cooray said.

The approved expressway will run from Peliyagoda to Katunayake, and meet the existing Airport road. It will be a four lane expressway, running first on the east side of the Colombo- Negombo highway and will cross over to the marsh at Mabole. At this juncture the expressway will go under the present road and into Muthurajawela. From here on it will take a marshy, sparsely populated route, skirting the Negombo lagoon and joining the existing highway again at Katunayake.

There were two major concerns over the route that was chosen by the RDA. One was that immediately after Peliyagoda, it was running into highly populated suburbs surrounding Wattala town and therefore questions of evacuation arose and protests were heard from residents whose houses and lands were acquired by the RDA. Another sticky point was that a large part of the Muthurajawela was declared a sanctuary under the Wild Life Department and deemed protected under law. The initial traced route cut across some parts of the sanctuary and lagoon, which is protected for its fishing potential. The first trace went over the Muthurajawela Visitor Centre, which was established under the Dutch- funded Wetland Conservation Project. The approved trace avoids all contact with the sanctuary and sticks to the unprotected areas of the marsh. The approval stipulates that the Visitor Centre is spared and the expressway will de-route through the Wahatiygama village instead.

Many alternatives were offered by organisations and individuals, claiming that the chosen route was not the best. Among these were improvements to the existing railway to the Airport, an elevated expressway over the railway and an elevated expressway over the Colombo- Negombo road.

"We considered all the alternatives. The route agreed upon would be best in economic and environmental terms," an official of the Central Environmental Authority said.

At Rs. 5 billion, the expressway is the most expensive road project undertaken by the government. Cooray said, "We will have to find outside funding for the second Phase- either private sector or government grant or soft loan. It will be a toll road, in the end."

Meanwhile the Japan- Sri Lanka Friendship Bridge over the Kelani will be expanded to a four lane bridge by removing the old steel bridge. Work is expected to begin within the next three months. A new bridge will be constructed over the mouth of the Kelani river at Mattakkuliya, linking Colombo with Wattala via Uswetakeiyawa. There will be road from this bridge linking up with the expressway, Cooray said.

Land aquisition is underway. Some 250 families will be evacuated from the project area. According to Cooray, the number was increased by the decision to route the road through Wahatiyagama, but that was a condition in the approval of the CKE. Compensation, to the tune of Rs. 600 million, will be paid to householders who are losing their property to the expressway. "We are trying to obtain Cabinet approval to pay 25 percent more than the present market value of a house," Cooray said.

In the opinion of the RDA the expressway is already late. The necessity for a second road to the Airport was felt in the early eighties, when the then GCEC mooted the idea of a north-south expressway.

The Japanese government expressed interest in the project and funded feasibility studies through the Japanese OECF (Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund). But that was the infamous route which cut across populated Ragama and the public outcry and the social issues involved snowballed into a strong lobby against the expressway and soon the plans were withdrawn.

Traffic making way to the North, North Western and North Central provinces all use the present highway, Cooray said. It is obvious that in the long term a new road is essential.

He said that the narrow stretch of road from Katunayake to Kochchikade is now being widened to facilitate the increased traffic flow. When it is built, the expressway will have three entry points along the route, one at Ja-ela, another at Wattala where the proposed road from the Mattakkuliya bridge meets the expressway and the third at Peliyagoda.

In their statement of approval, the CEA strongly advocates measures to minimise effects to the sanctuary and lagoon. It categorically states that the trace will not traverse within the Muthurajawela Sanctuary. It also requires that a bridge be built over the Madabokke area of the Negombo lagoon to aviod damaging important aquatic nursery grounds and recommends that loss of mangroves and seagrasses be compensated by replanting elsewhere in the lagoon environs.

Addressing social concerns, the report says that families whose livelihood is adversely affected, i.e. vegetable cultivators, fishermen and boutique keepers should be paid additional compensation to establish new income sources, and if a substantial number of fisherfolk are to be affected, that they be rehabilitated so that they will not have to resort to environmentally unsound practices for the sake of living.

The CEA claims the right to monitor the project right throughout. If the RDA or their contractors should consider altering present routes or plans, fresh approval will have to be obtained.

And so bound to rigid control, the Colombo -Katunayake Expressway finally gets off the ground. There are no deadlines for it. There are still problems of financing the billion rupee project. There will certainly be technical problems arising of constructing the road mostly on marsh. But certainly the recent environmental go- ahead has been a step forward in bringing the expressway closer to reality.

Tragedy and bravery

"We were all asked to take shelter. Suddenly I was hit on the left ear. Within minutes my sight blurred and I collapsed. I knew I had to get hold of a life jacket. I crawled towards the back of the ship then realised that it was sinking."

By Shelani de Silva

There were emotional scenes at the Navy Headquarters last week as parents and relatives of the four Navy men who survived an LTTE attack and were miraculously rescued on the high seas, greeted their heroes.

The four Navy personnel from the vessel 'Valampuri' survived by keeping afloat for more than twenty hours till they were rescued by Indian fishermen. They returned to Sri Lanka on Tuesday, to tell a tale not only of tragedy but also of bravery.

The 'Valampuri' which was heading towards Jaffna Sunday, February 2 with twenty sailors and five crewmen along with a convoy of vessels escorted by the Navy was ambushed by an LTTE boat laden with explosives, north east of Point Pedro. All four survivors from the ''Valampuri'' rescued by Tamil Nadu fishermen were later taken to the South Indian coastal town of Nagapatnam.

On their return to Sri Lanka, the four were directly taken to the Navy Hospital for a full medical checkup.

Pushpakumara with his wifeThe most senior of the four W L A Pushpakumara was returning after a two week vacation at his home in Galle when the attack took place He had brought with him family albums to show his colleagues pictures of his two year old daughter.

Recalling the attack he said that from around 7.00 p m they had heard gun shots from a distance, but the fighting had started around 7.50 p m.

'We were all asked to take shelter. Suddenly I was hit on the left ear. Within minutes my sight blurred and I collapsed. I knew I had to get hold of a life jacket. I crawled towards the back of the ship then realised that it was sinking. I came out on to the deck through a cabin window. Many sailors were screaming and jumping off the ship. I followed them," he said.

Pushpakumara says that while all of them were swimming four boats had approached the sailors, flashing torches and calling out in Sinhala 'Enda, Enda'. Thinking these were Navy boats coming to rescue them many had swum close, only to be shot point blank by the LTTE.

'I swam towards the sea as I knew if I went back towards land I was sure to be shot. For the first few hours I swam fast but then realised my strength was failing. Although it was pitch dark I knew I had swum to the deep sea. I spent the whole night just clinging to the life jacket. It was icy cold and I was so relieved to see the sun rise," he said.

Once it was sunny Pushpakumara had spotted a flash of orange and swum towards it. To his relief, he saw one of his colleagues Wasantha Wijebandara waving and swimming towards him.

"We just clung to each other and stayed like that for a few minutes just to let the pain and nightmare fade. We then decided to swim further out to sea and after a few hours met Indika."

Although the sea had not been rough the night before, by afternoon the tide was rising and a fierce wind was developing. So the three tied their life jackets to each other. By this time they had no strength to swim, but allowed themselves to be swept by the tide.

By afternoon with the heat unbearable, their hopes were diminishing when they heard the sound of a boat. Suddenly they were possessed by a new kind of strength. Seeing the boats at a distance, they screamed and waved but to their dismay the boats ignoring them, swept away.

"At this point I gave up all hope, but I did not want to show it. So I kept telling the others that they would come for us. I myself found it difficult to believe. By late afternoon we were dehydrated and nearly passing out."

It is then they saw another boat heading towards them. "We waved but the boat sped away. But this time it went a few miles and turned back towards us. It was an Indian fishing boat and once we explained the incident, they helped us on board. We were starving. They gave us rice and peanuts. But we were not taken back immediately as they had another day of fishing to complete. We were asked to sleep out on the deck but later we were given the beds inside. They treated us well and were very kind, " Pushpakumara said

Back home his wife Mala was visiting all Navy camps, desperate for news of her husband. After two days came the news which she was dreading to hear.

"His name was in the missing list. I did not know what to do. I was like a mad woman. Then the same evening I got a call from the Navy saying that my husband was in India, but still I did not believe it. I thought that a family member was trying to console me. Only when Pushpakumara phoned me from India did I know he was safe," she said.

Pushpakumara still had the family albums which he took with him when he left the Valampuri. "In the rush I put the albums into the pockets. It's strange because I did not have any idea whether I would be saved but maybe I wanted to have my daughter and wife close to me come what may," he said.

Wasantha: broke open a window tp escape the sinking shipWasantha Wijebandara broke open a window to escape the sinking ship.

His left ear is injured, but the worst nightmare he has is of seeing his best friend struggling for life.

"He had been shot several times but he was able to talk to me. I insisted that I would not leave the ship without him. I even tried to carry him aboard but he refused and asked me to go before the ship sank," Wijebandara said

Once in the water he witnessed the most horrifying scene of many colleagues being shot.

"I had to go under water for two minutes in order to avoid being shot," he said.

Lakmai: saved by a tin of red lacquerL K D Lakmal also had an amazing story to tell. After struggling to get off the boat a whole tin of red lacquer had spilled over him. Thus he was able to remain in the water even when the LTTE boats were hovering around them.

While other three were fortunate to meet each other in the vast ocean, this 21-year-old was all alone till he was rescued by the fishermen.

Indika being embraced by his uncle

Indika Samarakoon, 23, who had not been able to even put on a life jacket properly had a tough time being under water whenever the LTTE boats came in search of any survivors .

"I nearly gave up before I met the other two. It was Pushpakumara who kept encouraging us, even using harsh words just to keep us going," he said.

For these brave men their harrowing ordeal will definitely make a great impact on their lives, but most of all the trauma and anguish their families experienced will never be erased.

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