Op Ed: Let’s Get Real about Sri Lanka’s Urbanization!

On 12 November 2015, Daily Mirror broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka published my op-ed essay on the need to take a new look at urbanization in Sri Lanka.

It is reproduced here in full:

Let’s Get Real about Sri Lanka’s Urbanization!

By Nalaka Gunawardene

The level of urbanization is an indicator of a country’s economic development and the living standards of its people.

Some purists might disagree, but it is universally agreed that urban areas – cities and towns of various size and shape – offer better facilities and opportunities for their residents.

So how urbanized is Sri Lanka? Many among us keep repeating a notion that ‘we are predominantly rural’, but is it really so?

The 2012 Census of Population and Housing categorised only 18.2% of the Lankan population as being urban. However, that figure is highly misleading because we currently use a narrow definition.

Currently, only those living in Municipal Council (MC) or Urban Council (UC) areas are considered urban. However, some Pradeshiya Sabha areas (the next local government unit) are just as urbanised.

Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka speaks at LBO-LBR Infrastructure Summit 2015 (Image courtesy LBO)

Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka speaks at LBO-LBR Infrastructure Summit 2015 (Image courtesy LBO)

At the recent LBR/LBO Infrastructure Summit 2015 held in Colombo in early November, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka took on this myth head on. He argued that Sri Lanka’s urban population share is probably as high as 48% — which is two and a half times higher than the current figure.

He mentioned as examples Pradeshiya Sabha areas like Homagama, Beruwala and Weligama that are administratively classified as ‘rural’ despite having many urban characteristics.

His concern: misconceptions such as this distort the country’s policy decisions on infrastructure planning and urban development.

The World Bank’s global lead for urban development strategies, Sumila Gulyani, who spoke during the opening session, agreed with the Minister’s contention of nearly half of Sri Lanka’s population having already become urban.

The Bank’s own estimates are roughly the same, she said. “The official statistics of urban population in Sri Lanka is from 14% to 18% — but if you look at the agglomeration, it is (actually) around 47%”.

World Bank's Sumila Gulyani speaks in Colombo, 3 Nov 2015. (Image courtesy LBO)

World Bank’s Sumila Gulyani speaks in Colombo, 3 Nov 2015. (Image courtesy LBO)

She added: “All South Asia countries under-state their urbanization level relative to, say, Latin America. In India it’s the same story. The reason has traditionally been that the rural areas got more national subsidy programmes — and no administration wanted to be called urban!”

Taking South Asia as a whole, 30% of its combined population now lives in cities. A massive rise in this urban share is expected in the coming decades. Sri Lanka cannot buck this trend.

Despite this, old myths linger on for years. The problem, as Gulyani highlighted, is in the mismatch of capabilities: “If the (local government) council that is managing an urban area is a rural council, you are not going to see the kind of planning and urban management you need to see for productive urban growth.”

 Hidden Urbanization

Copy of Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia - new World Bank ReportMeanwhile, a new World Bank report on urban trends in South Asia reminds us that Sri Lanka’s share of the population officially classified as living in urban areas actually fell slightly between 2000 and 2010.

“These official statistics, however, miss considerable ‘hidden’ urbanization,” says the report, titled Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability (September 2015).

The report suggests that as much as one-third of Sri Lanka’s population may be living in areas that, while not officially classified as urban, “nevertheless possess strong urban characteristics”.

This report tries to overcome our region’s data deficiencies by drawing on some unconventional data sources — such as nighttime lights and other forms of remotely sensed earth observation data.

Analysis of night lights has also revealed a more general growth of multi-city agglomerations – continuously lit belts of urbanization containing two or more sizeable cities – across South Asia. Their number has risen from 37 in 1999 to 45 in 2010.

In Sri Lanka, the report says, such ‘ribbon development’ radiates out from Colombo along major transport arteries to link it with both Kandy and Galle/Matara, revealing a dynamic urbanization process.

A general conclusion of the report is that South Asian countries urgent need to increase higher quality and more comprehensive data on urban trends and conditions.

South Asia at night - composite satellite image taken in April & Oct 2012 (Image courtesy NASA)

South Asia at night – composite satellite image taken in April & Oct 2012 (Image courtesy NASA)

Anomaly of 1987

 In Sri Lanka, the low figure for urban population is the direct result of an administrative decision to count all Pradeshiya Sabha areas as being rural. This has long been critiqued by experts such as town planner Prof Ashley L S Perera of the University of Moratuwa.

When the new local government unit was created in 1987 for political expediency, their demarcations totally ignored the existing ground realities, he says. That has led to much confusion about ‘urban areas’ in Sri Lanka for the past quarter century.

Statisticians in Sri Lanka’s government are also well aware of this. Analysing the key findings of the 2012 head count, the Department of Census and Statistics says that the country’s urban percentage “would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved”.

In its Census of Population and Housing 2012: Key Findings, the Department notes: “Areas coming under all Municipal Coun­cils (MC) and Urban Councils (UC) are currently considered as urban sector in Sri Lanka. Prior to 1987, Town Councils were also included in the definition of urban areas. With the setting up of Provincial Councils in 1987, these Town Councils were absorbed into Pradeshiya Sabhas which fall into the rural sector since then.”

After 1987, some towns lost their urban status and overnight became ‘officially rural’. The Department acknowledges that there are many areas outside MCs and UCs that “have urban outlook but still classified as rural”.

This leads to underestimation of the degree of urban­ization and comparison becomes difficult over the years, it says.

The Department highlights the need to “introduce a realistic definition of urban areas taking into account of the characteristics of the population rather than based on pure administrative considerations.”

It says that Sri Lanka’s urban percentage “would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved”.

At the time of the 2012 Census, Sri Lanka had a total of 23 MCs and 41 UCs. According to the Census findings, the country’s eight largest cities – Colombo, Kaduwela, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Negombo, Kotte, Kesbewa and Maharagama – made up nearly half (48%) of what is officially considered the ‘urban’ population. All these are located in the Western Province.

The balance 56 urban areas include 26 small cities with population below 25,000. “This shows the uneven distribution of the urbanization” says the Department.

The Census found that in the Colombo district, three out of four people (77.6%) already live in urban ar­eas. Batticaloa (28.7%), Ampara (23.6%), Trincomalee (22.4%) districts in Eastern province and Mannar (24.5%), Vavuniya (20.2%), Jaffna (20.1%) districts in Northern province all have urbaniza­tion levels higher than the current national average of 18.2%.

Misleading the world

Adopting a more pragmatic and realistic definition of ‘urban’ is thus a policy priority for Sri Lanka. That can help better planning of our rapidly urbanising human habitats.

Such a move can, hopefully, also awaken those Lankans who insist about their ‘very rural island’ contrary to what the evidence suggests.

It would also stop international organisations and researchers from mistakenly labelling Sri Lanka as a country with only a small urban population.

World Urbanization Prospects 2014For example, World Urbanization Prospects 2014, a global overview published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, has listed Sri Lanka as one of 16 countries worldwide that “still have low levels of urbanization, i.e. below 20 per cent”. (As an inter-governmental body, the UN goes by national governmental data.)

The largest (by population) among these ‘low urbanized countries’, were listed as Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, South Sudan, Uganda, Nepal and Sri Lanka. “By 2050, all of these countries are expected to become significantly more urbanized, with as much as twice their respective proportions urban in 2014,” the UN report noted.

However, as minister Ranawaka just publicly declared, that doubling has already happened in Sri Lanka! Now if only official data custodians can change definitions, we can finally move away from the illusion of being a rural country…

Census of Population and Housing 2012: Key Findings can be accessed online at: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?publications=12333

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene writes regularly on science, development and media issues. He blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com

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Solar Eclipse 15 Jan 2010: New media slowly eclipsing MSM in Sri Lanka?



The Annular Solar Eclipse, best seen from northern Sri Lanka and southern India on 15 January 2010, was not only a rare celestial event; it also marked a turning point in how the mainstream media (MSM) and new media cover a wide-spread news event (albeit a highly predictable one).

Where the island of Sri Lanka was concerned, it was the first solar eclipse of the broadband internet era — and that showed.

The last solar eclipse seen in Sri Lanka was two generations ago, on 20 June 1955. That was almost pre-historic in mass media terms. The newly independent Ceylon had a single, state-owned radio station and a handful of newspapers. There was no television, and the internet was not even conceived.

Yet, paradoxically, the media’s influence over the 8 million people then living on the island seem to have been greater at the time. As astronomer Dr Kavan Ratnatunga recalled: “A quack physician cum astrologer, recommended that women wanting to become fair and lovely should drink a decoction of which the main ingredient was “Vada Kaha” (Sweet Flag or Acorus Calamus) at the time of the total eclipse, preferably unseen by others. Many who took his advice ended up in hospital.”

Solar eclipse on 15 Jan 2010 seen in Anuradhapura, north-central Sri Lanka - photos by Reuters

In contrast, in 21st Century Sri Lanka, the January 15 eclipse was not much of a news story. I don’t claim to have done a systematic analysis, but my impressions are drawn from scanning the major newspaper websites in English and Sinhala, and surfing the dozen or more terrestrial (free-to-air, not cable) TV channels that were on the air during the three hours or so of the eclipse. (Sorry: I missed out radio, and I’m not proficient in Tamil.)

Broadcast television was my biggest disappointment. Solar eclipses are a visual spectacular, and literally heaven-sent for live television. Yet, not a single Lankan TV channel carried a live broadcast of the event, either from northern Sri Lanka where it was best seen (in its annular form, with ‘ring of fire’ effect), or from elsewhere on the island as a partial eclipse.

It seemed as if the Colombo-based media were completely preoccupied with the intense build-up to the presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010 — a case of politics eclipsing the solar eclipse?

Jaffna school children view the solar eclipse - Photo courtesy Virakesari


But there were a couple of honourable exceptions – and thank heavens for that! One was the leading Tamil daily Virakesari, which sponsored an expedition to Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, by a group of professional and amateur astronomers from SkyLk.com. According to one member of this expedition, Thilina Heenatigala, this newspaper provided the widest and most uptodate coverage of the annular eclipse from Jaffna.

SkyLk.com collaborated with the Hindu College in Jaffna, whose playground was converted into an open air observation camp. Thilina says over 2,000 people – including school children and adults – had converged to witness the event. A large screen was set up on to which the live image from a telescope was projected.

Not far from there, a group of engineering students and teachers from the University of Moratuwa was doing a more scientific observation. Later that day, team leader Dr Rohan Munasinghe reported in an email: “We have recorded the solar eclipse from Kayts (lat 9d,37m N, Long 79d,58 E), the biggest island off Jaffna Sri Lanka. We have timestamped the video with GPS (Garmin 18) accuracy.”

University of Moratuwa team observing the clipse - photo courtesy Dr Rohan Munasinghe

The Sinhala Sunday newspaper Rivira was part of this university expedition. Its science editor Tharaka Gamage, himself an astronomy enthusiast, reported from the eclipse’s ground zero for his readers.

Elsewhere across the island of Sri Lanka, there was plenty of interest among the people from all walks of life — as seen from the thousands who stepped out during mid-day to take a peek at the celestial phenomenon. Not all of them followed the safety precautions to prevent eye damage, disseminating which the media had done a good job in the preceding days.

Clearly, this high level of public interest was not reflected in how the rest of Lankan mainstream media covered the eclipse. But if the mainstream media’s gaze was firmly fixed on the gathering election storm on the ground, the new media created opportunities for others to step into that void. Citizen scientists joined hands with citizen journalists to capture and share the eclipse with each other — and the world. These unpaid enthusiasts used commonly available digital tools and online platforms for this purpose.

Some of them uploaded dozens of photos for public viewing on image sharing sites like Flickr. A good example is what Shehal Joseph and Romayne Anthony did. There were many others.

SkyLk.com group was more ambitious: they actually webcast the eclipse live online from their public observation camp at Hindu College grounds. Stuck in Colombo with its sub-optimal viewing conditions for this eclipse, this was the best chance for people like myself to catch the annular part of the phenomenon.

“We were struggling with bandwidth limitations most of the time,” Thilina Heenatigala says. “We used a Dialog HSPA modem to connect to the web, and line speeds kept fluctuating. We were not the only ones uploading still photos or video to the web from different locations in northern Sri Lanka — and apparently all of us were slowing down each other.”

Being the tech-savvy planner he is, Thilina had alerted Dialog telecom company about the likely peaking of bandwidth demand. But he is not sure if any temporary enhancing was done, even though Dialog currently claims to be the ‘first and best’ to offer telecom coverage in the north. Certainly, the live eclipse webcast was not of uniform quality — it’s a small miracle it happened at all: until a few months ago, this was part of the theatre of war in northern Sri Lanka.

In fact, SkyLk.com had used the web to build up public awareness and interest using video trailers on YouTube. Here is one of several simulations they had up from December, thus one for Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (simulation):



In the end, however, SkyLk.com became a victim of its own success. The live webcast was followed by hundreds, and then thousands of online visitors from different parts of the world. This apparently overshot the usual allocations provided by the offshore hosting company (in the US), which suspended the account. Right now SkyLk.com website is not accessible (as at 16 January 2010, 15:00 UTC/GMT).

Within hours of the eclipse, several individuals and groups also uploaded highlights of their eclipse videos on to the YouTube. Here are the most striking ones I came across in a quick search:

Solar Eclipse 2010 Sri Lanka Scientific Record – by University of Moratuwa
Scientific recording of the annular solar eclipse on 15 January 2010 was carried out from the Island Kayts (Lat +09d 37m North and Long +79d 58m East) of Sri Lanka.

Orion Video’s coverage from Nallur, Jaffna:

Not in the same league as the above two videos, this was Nishan Perera’s personal observations from Ratnapura, south-western Sri Lanka:

It’s too early to draw firm conclusions from this random evidence, but in all likelihood, we passed thresholds in both citizen journalism and citizen science with this eclipse. Clearly, the mainstream media’s monopoly/domination over reporting of such an event has been shattered: their indifference will no longer stand in the way of information and images being disseminated.

Perhaps just as important, it is no longer possible for a couple of self-appointed ‘public astronomers’ to dominate the public information channels on an occasion like this, mostly for shameless self-promotion. As Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, President of the Sri Lanka Astronomical Association, noted in an article: “I am amazed as to how many who have never even seen a Solar Eclipse, will gladly talk about it to an equally ignorant journalist, resulting in some totally misleading and sometimes hilarious information being published in both the English and Sinhala media. In a nation which believes in pseudo astrology, I am sure it is just a matter of time before quacks start using it to predict influence on local events and politics. However, there is absolutely no influence on any person by any of these celestial events.”

At the end of the day, however, astronomy aficionados are emphatic that no amount of media coverage can really substitute the experience of being there and experiencing it ourselves. As Kavan says: “A solar Eclipse is event which must be experience and observed. No video can do justice to that experience. It can also become addictive. In the modern age when the Internet and TV can bring events to your home, one may wonder why some Eclipse chasers travel round the world to see an Eclipse of the Sun.”

The next solar eclipse visible from Sri Lanka will be on 26 December 2019. I wonder what kind of media and ICT landscape would cover that event…