Galle: Candidates, constituents polls apart on the common good

Common man’s livelihood in ruins as kickback-oriented development dominates mayoral stakes
By Leon Berenger in Galle

This is the story of a Government-ruled Municipal Council that has been rocked with rifts, ever since the administrators were elected five years ago, and had three different mayors from the same party during this period.

Sundaram Moorthy (foreground of the picture) and other cobblers work at a makeshift stall hidden from the public by a wall. Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

It all began at the Galle local government (LG) elections held in 2006, when two candidates from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ended up receiving the same number of votes.
It was then decided that the two candidates, one an educationist and the other a local businessman, share the hot seat alternately, for a period of two years each.

But this was not to be, as the businessman, who took first turn, stayed put for some 30 months, before being ousted, following a string of allegations levelled against him from within his own party. Then the educationist took over, only to face the same dilemma as his predecessor, with some 81 allegations made against him, again from his own party, before being thrown out and replaced by mayor number three, until this council was dissolved last month.

“This is how this council was administered by these so-called UPFA men who concentrated more on personal perks and rakings, than serving the general public,” says main opposition United National Party (UNP) group leader Jilith Nishantha.

He said the rot began with the millions of rupees that poured into the council following the tsunami, as mayor after mayor plundered the funds with no accountability. “There was absolutely no transparency in all the transactions, as they ran the council like dictators. For example, Rs 17.4 million was laid out for the reconstruction of the Council roof, but, when it rains the whole place leaks.

Then another Rs. 6.4 million was spent on the crematorium, but the burners are still in cold storage, while the wall surrounding it is showing cracks. Yet another Rs. 40 million was set aside to develop a local park, but very little work has been done here as the undergrowth indicates,” Mr. Nishantha added.
In the name of town beautification, the traditional pavement hawkers were thrown out from their original places, and dumped behind a wall, out of view of the public, with little or no business for these unfortunate traders, he said.

Road being paved inside the fort

However, some of these individuals, with the right connections to the ruling party, were given alternate space and stalls in the heart of town and it was business as usual. Even in the villages - some traditional strongholds of the UPFA - the people have expressed anger and are seeking a change. We are confident of winning with a large majority at the October 8 polls, he concluded.

“All the UNP needs this time is an average79 votes from each of the 55 polling booths within the district, to win and we are working towards this end,” he elaborated. Having said that, the UPFA on the other hand, is upbeat and already forecasts a clear run at the upcoming elections.

UPFA frontrunner and former mayor, Methsiri de Silva is confident of becoming the next Mayor of Galle, claiming a clean track record and challenges anyone to debate it. He concedes that there were many rifts and misunderstandings during the four-year period, and blames much of it on regional politicians who harboured various agendas to suit their ‘hurrah boys’.

“However, I ignored all this and carried on with my work. It was not necessary to be a lackey or stooge to any particular individual, if one enjoys the support of the masses. The newly constructed mega bus station that is connected to the railway station was my idea from start to finish, and that gives me much satisfaction, ” he said.

He added that beautification of the town is a part of development, and the pavement hawkers had to be evicted in the process. “However, we provided them with alternate space, but they sold it to others and sought to get back to the pavement. This cannot be allowed and will not be tolerated in the future,” he said.

”The pavement hawkers can say what they want, but we provided them with a fair opportunity which they did not respect nor adhere to the required regulations,” Mr. De Silva added. Life has hit a rough patch for 39-year-old Sundaram Moorthy, a cobbler who was removed from his earlier spot on the pavement to a makeshift stall hidden from the town and the public, by a wall.

“People do not know I am here, the wall blocks out everything and business is near zero. Development or beautification, or whatever the authorities call it, is important, but there also should be an element of fair-play when dealing with us. I am prepared to pay rent in return for a suitable place to ply my trade. The authorities should address this issue. I am not alone, there are several others faced with the same fate”, he said.

He added that most of them, faced with the same dilemma, take risks and operate in public, not knowing when the authorities will swoop down on them. But then, life has to go on, and there are mouths to feed at home, he added.

M.K. Sunil, a father of three daughters, ran a lucrative tea kiosk at the former pola, which has now been converted to a football pitch. Today, he is a hired hand of a smalltime bookmaker. “The new location the authorities transferred me to is just 16 square feet, where even a table cannot be fitted in, and even more worse, it is hidden from public view. Where will I find the customers?” he asked.

The people’s fair, with some 160 stalls, was razed to the ground in one day, to make way for the football pitch, and in the process, a part of the bordering stretch of beach was also acquired, affecting the fisher folk operating in the area, lamented 50-year-old Sisira Kumara.

“At present, we have very little space to keep our boats and, at high tide, there is a threat of our vessels being washed out to sea, along with the nets and other fishing gear,” he said.

“No one really needed this playground in the first place, except for those who were after fat commissions such as the municipal councillors. Today, it is an eye sore and a hindrance that has done untold damage to the livelihood of several people and their families,” Kumara, a father of two, lamented.

Traders ‘miss the bus’, at Galle’s new terminal
The newly-constructed mega bus terminal in the heart of Galle town is complete, but in its wake, a controversy is brewing, and the stakeholders to it are regional politicians from the ruling UPFA.

At the moment, there is a mad rush to grab some 11 brand new shops situated on the upper storey of the building, built at a cost of Rs. 40 million, and the frontrunners, the Sunday Times learnt, are regional politicians with powerful connections to the top and ready to disregard regulations.

There are moves to allocate the shops to certain persons handpicked by a senior southern-based politician who is not interested in tender procedures or regulations. However, he could not have his own way, simply because, he was blocked by lower level government politicians. As a result, the shops are currently in limbo and yet to open.

Schoolchildren walk past the closed up shop area on the upper floor of the building
The mega bus terminal
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