05/14/2024, 16.48
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Beam collapses at highway project near Bemmulla halted for lack of funding

by Arundathie Abeysinghe

According to the International Monetary Fund, the costs of building Sri Lanka's highways are exorbitant, about three times the global average. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said construction on the second section of the Central Expressway will be "started jointly with China". In the meantime, residents have lost their rice paddies.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – A 35-metre concrete beam collapsed along the Central Expressway, Sri Lanka's main highway on 5 May, at the 17th-kilometre section, not far from the Bemmulla railway station.

According to the Road Development Authority (RDA), two other beams are at risk, but construction work, which has been stalled for three years, will resume once International Monetary Fund (IMF) releases the next facility.

The collapsed beam had been laid in 2021. Currently, stagnant water lies below the pillars, along with metal parts, sand, crushed stone, rusting steel beams and concrete structures overgrown with weeds.

According to a technical report issued by the International Monetary Fund last year, the costs of building Sri Lanka's highways are exorbitant, about three times the global average.

In a speech regarding the 2024 budget, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the second section of the Central Expressway, from Kadawatha to Mirigama, will be “started jointly with China".

However, the investigative team and RDA technicians who inspected the site raised several doubts about the project, which is negatively impacting local villagers.

Siriyawathie Hettiarachchi, Gunapala Sedara and Sumanasiri Wiiepala live in Bemmulla, where the beam collapsed.

Speaking to AsiaNews they said that officials and contractors had asked them to abandon their rice fields to allow the construction of the highway. In return, they would be paid compensation. Almost four years later after the project began in 2020, residents still have not seen any compensation.

“Approximately, three-quarter acres of the paddy land were vested with the project and they have been unable to cultivate the remaining land since the Chinese contractor diverted water into the canal through drains. The remaining paddy lands are now underwater,” they explained.

According to Hemasiri Jayatissa and Menike Karunawathie, aged 82 and 85 respectively, some villagers whose houses were damaged have not been compensated so as to rebuild, and thus are living under the abandoned structures while the police have tried to arrest them.

“Village boys who go fishing in the culverts are most often dragged away by the police on suspicion of vandalising the abandoned structures, although, workers at the construction site stole metal parts and construction materials once the expressway project was abandoned. Some walls of our houses are also cracked and we live in fear that they might collapse,” the two said.

Some farmers have complained that their rice paddies are flooded when it rains, because the project's builders have obstructed the flow of the canal that brings water to the fields.

“Some farmers get too much water, whereas, others do not get sufficient water. Hence, it is impossible for us to cultivate and earn a living. Compensation should be given to affected people, covering the years of torment they underwent due to the sudden halting of this project,” they added.

For its part, the RDA appointed a three-member expert commission to investigate the collapse of the beam; so far, “information gathered by the two teams was inconclusive.”

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