Sri Lanka’s choice by 2050: Go live in the sky and release land for agriculture!

Dr Upali Wickremasinghe, formerly Professor of Economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and presently Regional Advisor of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, left his audience with a fine piece of advice when he concluded the 10th Professor Sirisena Tilakaratna Memorial Oration last week in Colombo. Talking on an apt topic on ‘Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Development: Sri Lanka at the Crossroads’, he chose to be a normative economist, the body of economics that tells the world how it should be changed instead of just describing the existing status, and said that Sri Lankans should think of living vertically rather than horizontally if the country is to release the much needed land for sustaining its agriculture and, through that, sustaining its development efforts.    

Leave precious land for agriculture

Upali’s argument was precise and to the point. He said that if Sri Lanka’s population grows at the current rate of 1% per annum in the next 40 years, its population would be around 26 million, an increase of some 30% over what it has today. The food production has to step up dramatically to feed this population and, to make it a reality, more land will have to be allocated for farming paddy, subsidiary food-crops, vegetables and fruits and raising livestock. But the limited availability of land within this tiny island is already overstretched when trying to satisfy the requirements of humans while allocating safe extents of land for other purposes such as supporting wildlife, biodiversity, safe forest cover and healthy environment. Even humans compete for this limited land for their multiple purposes, for houses, for community and commercial buildings, for industry, for recreation and for transportation, just to mention only a few.
Since the land mass cannot be enhanced, Upali implied that it is the better land management that will rescue Sri Lanka in the future. That better land management involves building cities and getting people to live in skyscrapers rather than allowing them to spread across the land mass of the country. He pointed out that if the country can build 30 cities of 1 million people each across the country and get the entire population to live there, then it would be easy to release the land for agriculture and other purposes. Economists call this spatial management and building cities and skyscrapers mean living vertically rather than horizontally. In laymen’s language, go up and live in the sky so that you have enough land for growing foods which is your utmost necessity.
Upali’s rebellious proposition may shock some who have a pro-rural and anti-urban bias.
But Upali is not alone in holding and propagating this type of an idea. For instance, Harvard University Professor Edward Glaeser, an authority on urban economics, too shares Upali’s views.

Edward Glaeser: Cities are Triumphs

In a book which he published this year under the main title “Triumph of the City” and a long sub-title “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener and Happier”, Glaeser has argued that the building of cities as against the building of rural areas would mean greater economic prosperity, because it simply magnifies humanity’s strengths. He has said that “if ideas are the currency of our age, then, building the right homes for those ideas will determine our collective fate”. According to him, cities have four distinctive advantages over villages.
First, they spur innovations by facilitating face to face interactions by people. What he means is that town-folk are in more suited position to organise themselves into clubs, associations and societies that examine the weaknesses of the current system and propose ways to change the same.
Second, cities attract talents and sharpen those talents by subjecting them to strictest competition which one does not have in villages.
Third, cities encourage entrepreneurship, business and industry because that is a necessity of life there. Even in Sri Lanka, if someone traces the history of successful entrepreneurs he could find that they all people who have migrated to cities from rural areas.
Fourth, cities allow for social and economic mobility of people which villages do not provide. In other words, a man living in a city has a greater chance of moving up the ladder to a better social position or economic prosperity than a person who lives in a village which always cherishes tradition and conservatism that frowns on people so moving up.

Build Thirty Cities all across Sri Lanka

Glaeser therefore sees the beauty of neighbourhoods with skyscrapers than acres of land mass over which people have expanded themselves for living. This is exactly what Upali too implied when he proposed the building of 30 odd cities to accommodate the future population of the country. One should, given the hard choice of survival and sustainability, learn to appreciate new living styles over the ones which people have been accustomed to for centuries. This fits Charles Darwin’s argument that it is not the strongest that would survive, but the one who is capable of adapting oneself to the changing environment.
History is abundant with examples of building cities in this manner. Emperor Alexander the Great, the invader of Persia and North India in the 4th century BCE, is reported to have built a new city whenever he conquered a new land and named it Alexandria. These cities were exact models of the cosmopolitan cities one would have found in Greece and Rome at that time playing the role of the centre of a commercial, trading and cultural hub. In ancient Lanka, in the 12th century CE, King Parakramabahu the Great, too is reported to have built the city of Pulasthipura on modern lines with all necessities of life congregated within the city walls but in different sections of the city paying every minute attention to the requirements of a developed trading nation.   
So, cities have been there throughout human history ushering new eras of science, technology and culture – the main components of great civilisations. They have been gateways to a country because they offered all facilities to a visitor – restaurants, hotels, entertainment centres and public utilities. Thus countries were rated mainly by the quality and facilities available in their cities.
Cities and villages depend on each other
Yet, can cities exist alone and in isolation? No, because cities do not produce foods which their populations have to feed on. They may have industries and services, but they do not produce food items on the scale of consumption which city populations consume. Hence, they have to depend on villages for sustenance. Similarly, villages have to depend on cities for economic nourishment. This is an inter-connected economic and social relation which any city or country planner cannot ignore. So, developing cities does not mean that it should be done to the exclusion of villages. Both cities and villages have to play a distinctive role of their own in modern civilisations. Cities nourish villages and in turn get nourished by villages. You remove one from the system, the other would automatically disappear.
What Upali suggested at the Memorial Oration under reference is not a world with only cities in existence. There are cities which would house the majority of population. People, instead of living over the space of the country, would start living in skyscrapers so that the land needed for food production and other economic activities could be released. Those lands should be cultivated intensively and extensively to produce sufficient foods to feed the rising population. If this choice is not made early enough, whatever the economic advancement which Sri Lanka is going to attain in the next decade or so will not be sustainable.

Six advantages of cities to Sri Lanka

What are the advantages of living up in the sky in cities? Many, according to Upali and Harvard economist Edward Glaeser.
 First, when people are scattered throughout its land space, it is not possible for a country to provide all the necessary facilities to them in the required quality and on the required scale. The range of these facilities includes the quality schools, hospitals, pipe borne water, public transport facilities, electricity and markets and communal centres. But if people are congregated to a given number of cities like the 30 city programme suggested by Upali, it is not difficult to supply these services to people without overstretching the abilities of the countries. He mentioned a particular example from Canada. The Canadian authorities as a deliberate policy developed the best educational and medical facilities in cities so that people chose to live in those cities thereby releasing land for vast commercial agricultural enterprises.
Second, when land is released for other numerous economic activities, the environment could be better managed and improved. Contrary to what many believe, environmental conservation has been better attained when cities are better planned with better human habitats, sewerage systems, waste disposal methods and greening and foliage developments. The best example from the region is Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. In both cities, it has been possible for people to go up in the sky to live but at the same time maintain quality environmental standards. When land is released for other purposes, the human – animal conflicts which one may find in many developing countries could be effectively solved.
Third, when the population density is increased by getting people to live in cities, it is not difficult to solve the daily transportation problem which one finds in many countries with badly planned cities and satellite towns attached to them for feeding those cities with workers who have to travel daily to do their jobs in city centres. The elimination of satellite towns makes it unnecessary to provide transport facilities for those workers. The shortened travel distances will reduce energy bills, pollution problems and city congestions. An efficient mass transport system within the city like the one that is available in London or Moscow will permanently solve the transportation problem of masses.
Fourth, the development of cities with facilities will enable the people to live a quality life. Since jobs and other economic and social opportunities are available in cities, there is a preference of people to make an internal migration from rural areas to cities. The development of cities with required facilities will meet with their demand. Then, the question arises whether the rural areas would be abandoned and depopulated. It is not so because the rural areas are now converted to large and commercial agricultural enterprises which are fully mechanised and could be run with a small number of workers. It therefore allows a country to shift the underemployed workforce presently employed in agriculture to other types of more productive economic activities.
Fifth, the development of modern cities in outstations will enable a country like Sri Lanka to attain a more inclusive economic growth. At present, an issue before economic policy planners in Sri Lanka is the uneven economic development in the country with the Western Province contributing nearly a half of the total economic output of the country. Attempts to correct this anomalous development has yielded only marginal improvements: reducing the share of the Western Province in the total output from 51% to 46%. But if modern cities are developed in all the provinces with all economic activities taking place, this issue is automatically solved with a more even contribution being made by all the provinces to the national wealth.
Sixth, specifically in the case of Sri Lanka, the rising population and the consequential issue of feeding that population with food could be solved only by undertaking agriculture on a commercial basis. This is at the centre of Sri Lanka’s development on a sustainable basis. Otherwise, all development efforts made by Sri Lanka and all those past achievements will have to be sacrificed by the country. It therefore appears that the only available choice for the country is to make its population live up in the sky and release land for agriculture and other economic activities.
But then there are social, political and economic issues.

Social Issues

The social issues involve the reluctance of people to change their living styles and prejudices they harbour against cities. Even those who live in cities and enjoy city life tend to condemn cities as mere concrete jungles devoid of eye – soothing greenish landscape which one finds abundantly in rural areas. For them, life in cities is just a mechanical activity not suitable for spiritual development and brings forth with it a load of diseases such as high blood pressure, mental stress and depression and heart diseases. Even Lee Kuan Yew had to face two specific issues when he had to persuade city folk to live in modern skyscrapers. One was the habit of people’s betel chewing and spitting in public places. The other was the reluctance of the Chinese people to live without their livestock, namely, chicken, pigs and ducks. Hence, in the initial period, while they appreciated the modern facilities available in skyscraper high rise buildings, they had dragged those animals to upper floors of those buildings and set up living quarters for them either on corridors or inside kitchens, to the annoy of their neighbours and dismay of building caretakers. But Lee says with a subtle approach and a consistent policy, within a decade or so, Singapore was able to solve both these problems.
The philosopher – novelist and Russian émigré Ayn Rand has a better explanation for people’s condemnation of cities in favour of rural areas. In her 1943 novel The Fountainhead, she says that those who condemn cities while enjoying the facilities offered by cities to them are “man – haters” because they cannot appreciate what man has created in cities. Instead, they hypocritically appreciate what nature has created. This may be true philosophically, but offers poor guidance to policy makers who have to seek ways of persuading people to enjoy city life without condemning the same.

Political Issues

The political issues relate to the difficulty in reaching a consensus in this type of a policy package. An example in point is the resettlement of Mumbai slum dwellers. Every time when one government resettles them in better living places, an opposition political party takes advantage of many fears they have regarding the loss of work opportunities and incomes and capitalise the same for their advantage. The result has been the return of slum dwellers to their original living places to be shifted again by another government. This has become a cycle which cannot be broken easily.

Economic Issues

The economic issues are the most challenging ones. Since it is not a market based resource allocation and has to be accomplished by using human intelligence, strategising, and acumen, it always run into problems when it comes to implementation. One problem is the implementation of an appropriate market based compensation for the loss of property rights of people. Many colonisation projects implemented in Sri Lanka during the British period and immediately after independence have run into this managerial and economic issue. The resettled people could not support themselves without a continuous aid flow coming from the government. Over the years, they became a huge liability for policy makers rather than being an asset that contributes to national wealth.
These issues have to be addressed properly if Sri Lanka is to build 30 odd cities across the country in order to tackle the rising population and ensuring food security. But when one looks at the enormity of the problem, it is also clear that Sri Lanka does not have many choices in that regard.

(W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at ) 

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