Export Credit

Power or environment?

Dilrukshi Handunnetti
The Sunday Leader
April 13, 2003

The controversial 150 mega watt Upper Kotmale Hydro Power Project (UKHP) to generate 550 GWh still remains the country’s most contentious issue of development vs. environment, with a balance between ecological concerns and the increasing demand for power, yet to reach an amicable settlement.

While Power and Energy Minister Karu Jayasuriya is determined to push the project through, an equally determined Environment and Natural Resources Minister, Rukman Senanayake urges that environmental safeguards be met if the final green light is to be
given by the Ministry. Despite the raging controversy and condemnation by environmentalists, cabinet sanctioned the project in 2002, though an inter ministerial committee is obliged to ensure environmental safeguards are taken. Jayasuriya has two principle arguments: the country has not yet overcome the power crisis though the power cuts are over, and that this merits urgent action. On the issue of displacement, he assures “profitable resettlement packages.” In short, he wants the project to immediately take off ground. Despite Minister Senanayake’s whimpers of protest about withdrawing support unless a fresh watershed management plan is proposed, the government is ready to move ahead, irrespective of the trail of destruction to the ecology, aesthetics and displacement of over 480 families. Leader, Green Party and an environmental activist, Piyal Parakrama questions as to why Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are conducted if an inter-ministerial committee and a cabinet could decide on matters of such magnitude. “Why have experts and technicians, if a few politicians can decide the fate of a nation?” queries Parakrama. Here is a project, twice rejected by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). The first rejection did not result in the addressing of its glaring lapses, but
additional information was provided by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), eager to have the UKHP initiated. By 1997, the US$260 million loan had been fully consumed, and there was no turning back. Opposition to the project rose from within the government, with Leader,Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) and cabinet ranker Arumugam Thondaman pledging trade union action if the project was not halted. Accusing the
government of overlooking environmental, aesthetic and resettlement concerns, Thondaman came up with his own report on the project, ensuing a silent battle between two powerful ministers. Kotmale is an area covered with lush mountains, with acres of paddy and tea. It is a hub of agricultural pursuits and is fabled for its beauty and history. It is here a fleeing Prince Dutugemunu who later united Sri Lanka sought refuge, and where the Sacred Tooth Relic was hidden during invasions.
Thirty years ago, Kotmale made news headlines when it was selected for the country’s largest irrigation cum hydropower scheme, the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme.


It brings us to the immediate issue of resettling 480 families. “It is a terrible world.
Some of us came here when the Mahaweli Development Scheme was launched. So, this is the second relocation. How many more times should we leave our homes?” wails Sellamma, an angry tea plucker from Thalawakelle. As Executive Director, Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), Hemantha Withanage queries: “the opinion of the immediately affected does not seem to matter. Projects of this nature often disregard local concerns and opinions, and stem from central decision-making. When so-called development is thrust upon people, they have to silently accept that,” says Withanage. An angry Arumugam Thondaman told The Sunday Leader that he would never support the project in this form. The affected 480 families live in his pocket borough, Thalawakelle where the population is largely plantation sector Tamils. “This is well beyond politics.
This is about their right to their homes and uninterrupted livelihoods,” asserts Thondaman.

Categories: Export Credit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s