de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). The Slow Road to Development. LMD. December 2005. Page 188. Volume 12, Issue 05, ISSN 1391-135X.
Lobbying for better roads and more highways that will fast-track the development of our economy and tourism.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne finds tourism and economic development in a road jam

The importance of roads for economic development needs no further explanation. So why don’t we have better roads? Perhaps the need and urgency is not driven home. Sometimes, it is only after something better comes along, people wonder how they managed before. With highways, if we don’t get them any sooner, we will get left behind even more in the race for economic development.

In the first few weeks of October I was at Corbett Tiger Reserve with Pavan Puri of Tigerland Safaris. He was recounting the era before successive national governments in India decided a north-south and an east-west highway across India was a critical priority. “A trip to Delhi from Ramnagar was not just a six hour drive” he told me. “It was a journey planned in advance. We would double check the train timetables to ensure we were not held up at railway crossings, phone up and check the conditions of the roads on certain sections and plan well ahead. Now we just get into the car and drive off”. What was a day’s journey for Tiger viewing is now down to half a day. “How lucky we are” I thought. “We can leave after breakfast and be at a hotel near Minneriya National Park in about four and a half hours drive, in time for a late lunch”. This is still relatively long for a journey of around 200 km. In the UK, where I lived in Surrey, I would connect to the motorways and cover this kind of distance in just over two hours, whilst staying within the speed limits. If I found myself at a loose end on a weekend, it was not a big deal to drive down to Dungeness to look for sea birds and waders. Or perhaps the same distance to the Isle of Sheppey to watch skeins of Brent Geese arriving from Scandinavia.

‘Distances are short’ metaphorically speaking in the UK. Actually, distances remain the same wherever in the world you are. It is to state the obvious to say a kilometer in Europe is the same as kilometer in Sri Lanka. Therefore 200 kilometers in Europe and 200 kilometers in the Sri Lanka should be the same. Not quite, because distance is only one part of the equation. Travel time is the other.

With tourism, it is not so much distance but travel time that matters. This is why our roads will become such a critical factor in the development of tourism, both domestic and foreign.

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka the island just got bigger. Not in terms of distances or the land area, but in terms of travel time. After my return from India, in October I set off to catch the tail end of The Gathering. I soon realized Minneriya was no longer four and a half hours away. An average of 45 kilometers an hour or 28 miles per hour. It is now more like a six hour journey averaging 33 kilometers an hour or 20 miles per hour. In Europe, most city centers will tolerate speed limits higher than this.

The change had come about with good motives in mind. Speeding bus drivers were causing road casualties and efforts were stepped up to enforce speed limits. But as one person complained to me, the police no longer stop buses for fear of strikes or anger from passengers. They stop anything else they can to meet their quotas of traffic violations for the day. A commission on road fines is a handy bonus to motivate the officers. Not for one moment will anyone with a conscience condone speeding or reckless driving which places lives in jeopardy. But there are consequences which arise for economic development, through tourism or otherwise, which needs to be addressed. No country can develop if journey times average 20 miles per hour. Speed limits should be enforced, but at the same time highways where speeds can be higher need to be developed.

Highways through which commuting times can be drastically reduced are critical. There is one simple way we can impress this upon our politicians. They should be made to endure the same travel times. How many times have we been overtaken by a motorcade travelling at high speed. Half a dozen armed special forces wave me and other vehicles off the road from a Land Rover. If the politician is important enough, another vehicle of frantically waving people will follow. The convoy zips past at dangerously high speeds. It is a drama and a comedy and a parody of a backward nation. If the rule of law is to apply equally, force the politicians also travel at an average of 33 kilometers an hour to understand why the country’s development hinges on the need for highways.

But is it a good use of the time of our ministers to be crawling on roads when that time can be more gainfully used? There is little evidence of elected politicians using their time gainfully. If all politicians had to submit time sheets to account for their time, we will see that too little time is spent driving the development agenda. Too much time is spent being the chief guest at school prize givings, sports meets or guest of honour at myriad conferences.

Over the years a colossal amount of aid money has been wasted. Probably enough has been wasted to give us a network of highways that would have paid for itself by stimulating the local economy. A Colombo businessman would now think twice before expanding to Kandy. The 120 kilometer journey will take at least four hours. A visit to Kandy and back takes a whole day. With a highway, the journey will be one and a half hours each way. Neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore have invested heavily in their highways, roadways to development. Our economy falters along at the same speed as the average speed on our clogged roads.

Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist on wildlife & tourism issues. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.