As a wordsmith, I have often wondered if what one writes makes any difference at all. The stories one tells — do they need to be told? And the books  one writes — are they really worth reading?

Two years ago, I got the opportunity to tell the story of an innovative initiative in Sri Lanka. Called the Lunawa Environment Improvement and Community Development Project (LEI&CDP), it is  an inspiring  model for infrastructure projects in the developing world. It is especially relevant for densely populated urban areas where significant relocation of population is likely. The  LEI&CDP is the first instance of an infrastructure project operationalising Sri Lanka’s National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP) in letter and spirit. This landmark policy, adopted in 2001, paved the way for the Lunawa model which validates strategies used to combine the twin objectives of environmental improvement and  community revitalization. This was achieved by using community consultation  tools in the preparatory phase,  before the start of construction as well as right through the implementation phase.The LEI&CDP  brought together, for the first time, three key institutions – the Government of Sri Lanka, UN-HABITAT and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)1 with the common aim of building on the achievements of Greater Colombo Flood Control and Environmental Improvement Project (GCFC&EIP ) — Colombo’s  first large-scale relocation experience, and points to future directions.

Activities related to community development were not part of the original project design but since work started more than five years ago, the project team has proved that the supplementary component — uplifting  the living conditions of the people living in the Lunawa catchment area through participatory resettlement and upgradation of under-served sites — is as much of a priority as improving  the storm water drainage of the area and Lunawa Lake’s eco system. The two-pronged approach has fostered a win-win situation, benefiting the project-affected-persons (PAPs) as well as local governments and the project authorities, as beneficiaries with a stake in the project, protest less and are  willing to take ownersip of the canals and other structures after the construction work is over. The  Project broke new ground in many significant ways. The fundamental difference between LEI&CDP and other infrastructure  projects lies in its treatment of PAPs as key stakeholders who participate in the decision-making process. Such an approach involved challenging development orthodoxies and prevailing mindsets among communities living on the margins. Many among those living on the edge said they were used to unfulfilled promises. But with growing trust and goodwill towards the Project team, the barriers were overturned, at times to the seeming surprise of the beneficiaries. Indeed, if protests against LEI&CDP have been mild and few, as compared to many other projects, it is because the Project anticipated to some extent the time investment that would be necessary to implement such a participatory approach. In hind sight, it was prudent to have spent considerable time during the preparatory, building goodwill and trust among the impacted populace, before any construction work started

Last week, I got an e-mail from the  a man who hired me.  He wrote:  ” The impact of the Lunawa Project is growing. I just found out that after more than 30 years the Land Acquistion act was changed last year to incorporate the approaches advocated by the Lunawa Project. The compensation packages used by the Project have served as models for the compensation requirements incorporated in the land acquisition law.”….I am thrilled at the news and would be even happier if my own country, India, could take elements from the Lunawa model as it  grapples  with contentious issues of  development and displacement.

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