Review of ‘Right of Way: A journey of resettlement’

I was delighted when asked to review Right of Way: A journey of resettlement by Sharni Jayawardena and published by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA). Sharni’s skill in photography is enviable, and was the co-creator of Walkabout: Slave Island, supported by Groundviews. At the time of review, the publication was not in the public domain, and given what I had seen of Sharni’s previous work, I expected it to be a largely photographic record, in a coffee table book format, of the human displacement that occurred as a result of the E01, Sri Lanka’s first highway. And yet the book features few photos. 72 pages long, the book has just 8 photos included in it. I’ll come back to why I think this makes for a less compelling way of grappling with what the book sets out to do.

Thousands, since E01 opened late last year, have taken the highway to Galle from Kottawa. The focus when on the road, particularly if one is driving, is on safety at 100kmp/h. In its early days, the highway was a high-speed slalom of road kill and stray dogs. Today, even a driver is more at ease to take in, especially if driving around sun-rise, the spectacular beauty of the countryside the E01 snakes through, without the visual pollution of billboards.  Few if any would have given even passing thought to the issue this book deals with – the displacement of thousands to make way for the highway. The book’s aims are three-fold. One, it “is an attempt to document what happened to the people who had to move, and the different impacts the project had on their lives. It is based on a structured monitoring process carried out over four years, that involved a survey of 400 households, more than 30 group discussions with affected households, and over 450 individual interviews with residents, experts, local government officials and donors” (page v). Two, it attempts to show how “the Road Development Authority, comprising engineers whose primary task was supervising the road building, also implemented the project’s social programmes, often under difficult and contentious circumstances, working with a diverse group of people who, as in any real-life situation, acted and reacted in diverse ways” (page v). Finally, “it attempts to visualise the place and circumstances as it used to be, before the road came” (page vi). The first and second aims are achieved far more than the third.

Sharni’s style is easy to grasp, avoids jargon, convoluted sentences or arcane references.  Right of Way is very readable, well researched and insightful. It sees the E01 through the perspectives of those who are affected by its development – the families forced to relocate and in some cases, live close to a highway on which traffic volume will continue to grow with little or no benefit to those passed by at 100kmph. Sharni quotes the statistics, but what the book does is to go beyond the numbers and through personal narratives, humanise these vexed issues. The statistics alone are revealing. As the book notes,

“An estimated 1,338 families were displaced by the Southern Transport Development Project (STDP), of which 509 families obtained land in 32 sites provided and developed by the Road Development Authority (RDA). This figure would have been much higher if the project had not made a deliberate attempt to avoid highly populated areas, sometimes though at considerable cost to the environment as well as to agriculture. Much of the land acquired was agricultural; consisting of paddy, tea, rubber and cinnamon cultivation, and close to 4,000 households were affected due to loss of their landholdings. In addition, about 550 households were indirectly affected.” (Page 3)

Even approximately, the number of those affected in some way by the development of the E01 is mind-boggling. At a conservative 4 members per family, around 5,300 children, women and men were displaced. Another 4,000 had their incomes disrupted, and their livelihoods placed at risk. It’s currently 400 rupees one-way from Kottawa to Galle or back on the E01. Few of us give a second thought to paying that amount. Sharni’s research highlights the hidden costs of E01’s development, where to date, families that had for generations lived where they did, had stable income, well-established business and fecund land were forced to give it all up. It’s a humbling, vital narrative. Sharni deals with the history of how the E01 came about, but the process and politics of compensation, relocation are the book’s most important contribution to public record. It is unclear, as the book itself notes at the end, how much of what was employed during the construction of the E01 to deal with displacement feeds into current and future mega-development projects. Recording and sharing failures as much as lessons learnt is vital, but it’s also quite obvious that neither is done well in Sri Lanka. And yet, the book flags what was done well, and the innovation – not just in terms of mechanical engineering but also in terms of compensation and responsiveness to human displacement – seen during the construction of the highway. As it notes,

“The project’s Resettlement Implementation Plan (RIP) took a radical departure from Sri Lankan law on land acquisition, compensation and resettlement and the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Committee (LARC) could be considered its most important mechanism. LARC was notably different from the instrument the State usually turns to when it wants to acquire private land for public purposes – the Land Acquisition Act (LAA) No. 9 of 1950. A key difference is that the LAA does not deal with the broader issues of restoring livelihoods or living standards of the displaced people.” (Page 9)

The book goes into great detail about LARC, and the legal aspects aside, it’s interesting to take-away from this example how, if government authorities set their mind to it, they can choose to be more citizen-centric and less heavy-handed in their approaches. The research brings out some notable facts with broader implications. For example, in negotiating compensation, the report notes that the LARC process “especially benefited two contrasting groups: households seen by the Committee to be particularly vulnerable and households with well-informed family members who were able to convincingly argue their cases.” This has implications for Right to Information legislation for example, where vulnerable people through access to information are better able to negotiate with higher authorities, and all communities stand to benefit from more accessible information on governance. Perhaps more expensive for government in the long run, but the fear of heightened public spending over compensation is its own potent mechanism for better developmental planning and strategies. Sharni deals with the complex process of compensation and appeals, particularly for those displaced, extremely comprehensively. Particularly with regard to the exact sum of compensation, there is great scope when reading through the book for the development of decision support systems that aid both government and citizens, on the lines of Smartsettle.com for example. Sharni examines in detail the constitution, efficiency and effectiveness of bodies like the Grievance Redress Committees (GRCs) and the so-called Super LARC, a process of appeal. On page 17 there is a very interesting breakdown of the type of households that fed into the sample that the report is based on. More could have been done with this data. For example, there’s no comparison between the compensation first offered to and subsequently agreed upon by male and female headed households, the working assumption being that a male headed household would have a higher median than a female headed household. The report itself flags this,

“But there were some instances where female householders perceived that they were not taken seriously simply because they were women. “My husband was abroad when the acquisition took place and I had to deal with it until he came down. I think they paid us less compensation because I am a woman.” (Householder, female, age 39, 2006)” (Page 21)

There is however no further study of this in the report, which is a gap. I could also find no explanation as to how and who exactly, for the E01 project, defined what was an ‘extremely vulnerable household’. The term is often used by never clearly explained. There are other shortcomings. A trivial one is the strange inclusion of a Sinhala phrase (Honda sahayogayak dunna) in the excerpt of two female householders on page 22, when the entire book is in English, even though the responses would have been largely if not all in Sinhala. Not clear why Sharni thought it fit to keep this one phrase in. More seriously, gaps emerge in comparative analysis. On page 22 the book notes,

“About 60% of the displaced householders opted to move into other plots they owned or to buy a new plot. The project also provided 32 resettlement sites, which was the preferred choice for relocation of the balance 40% of displaced householders, who did not have a viable alternative or could not afford to purchase land.”

There is however no study into whether the resettlement sites identified and offered by the RDA where better (infrastructure facilities, quality of construction) than the plots and areas selected by the affected families, that on their behalf, the RDA negotiated the purchase of. Again, Sharni deals with what appears to be significant variance in passing, noting on page 33 that,

“The infrastructure facilities at resettlement sites are generally well developed, even if this development did not always take place at a consistent pace. However, there seems to be some differences in the quality of the infrastructure provided both within and across sites, often due to factors that could not be immediately dealt with by the project.”

Highlighting the nuanced interplay, the study of caste, gender, profession, skill, neighbours and a sense of home by Sharni make the book more interesting than just a cold survey of numbers and statistics. Yet we don’t find the voices of youth and children. From memory, the youngest voice reflected in the book is 30. How the youth feel about development and displacement is vital to how the E01 will be perceived and used in the years to come, and arguably more important to record than the opinion of a septuagenarian farmer. Through the book, graphs underscore points Sharni flags in the text, but on page 36, there is an illustration with smiley faces that is impossible to fathom. Some of the smiley faces are truncated, it is not clear what the two stick figures holding hands represent or what the unit of measurement is for a smiley face that is whole. It is noted in the book that there is a definite drop in productivity related to all crops as a consequence of relocation. This is a major economic and existential challenge, and yet the book doesn’t explain, how, if to any degree, local chambers of commerce and industry have stepped into help and support SMEs and farmers during and after the construction of the E01.

Sharni notes that during the 10+ years it took to build the E01, “People had to live for an extended period of time with severe air and noise pollution, and vibrations caused by blasting, compaction, pilling, and heavy vehicle movement.” Driving down it now, you don’t even think of this. But the scale of this air, noise and visual pollution is many times more than the ruckus and fuss we create when there’s a pavement been made, or a road re-tarred in our own neighbourhoods. It’s hard to imagine how it must have been for those close to and living in this maddening environment for so long. The last chapter deals with how the best features of dealing with resettlement, relocation, displacement, compensation and grievance mechanisms around the E01 can and must be more broader applied. It is unclear whether author or publisher intend to follow up on the E01 development beyond Galle, and revisit this study and the sample base say 10 years hence, to ascertain to what degree lives, livelihoods and perceptions had changed.

Right of Way is a genuinely useful contribution to the sadly sparse debate on balancing infrastructure development with human development, and how the former is often ill-secured by an insensitive, centrist, obdurate approach to the latter. I do wish however the book played to Sharni’s strengths as photographer more, or as much as her skill in writing. CEPA itself has the model. As Kannan Arunasalam notes, “CEPA’s photography ‘policy’, an informal understanding which came about as a reaction to the way ‘poor people’ are generally photographed by photojournalists and development organisations, taken without thinking of their rights to privacy and profiting from the use of their ‘faces’, was another challenge that we needed to creatively work around.” Kannan went on to create To Escape or Maximise: The estate worker’s dilemma, CEPA’s first audio visual ‘think piece’, aiming to communicate the findings of its substantial research on the plantation sectors of Sri Lanka to a wider audience. It is a compelling presentation of a complex issue through photography. I wonder why a similar model wasn’t used for this book. CEPA and Sharni could have also gone beyond, and given those affected their own (cheap) cameras to document, through their own eyes and process of selection, the change in their lives brought about by the construction of the E01. Juxtaposed and curated, this could have been a marvellous photographic essay and collection, mediated not through Sharni’s occasional visits and eye, but by those at the heart of the issue the book deals with. Such an approach would have made it far more effective in the book’s avowed goal of being a visual record of the E01’s development.

Yet warts and all, Sharni through this book brings to light a distressing world beyond the dotted lines usually followed on the E01, and the blur of lush green. Sharni ends the book by noting that,

“When we take to the expressway, perhaps we should spare a thought for the many who gave up their rights over this land – their right to use it as a home, a business a cultivation – to allow others the right to travel on an expressway.”

I couldn’t help but think after I read Right of Way cover to cover that it’s not really our right to travel on the E01, but more a privilege we enjoy only because of the real, incredibly hard and on-going sacrifices of those who lands we traverse in our vehicles.

Let they not be forgotten.