The Southern Highway (Southern Expressway) is a 126 km long highway running from Colombo to Matara and is the major part of the 130.9 km Southern Transport Development Project.
The project was initially estimated to cost $348.75 million, but escalated to $741.1 million. After several changes in the original project, construction started in 2003. The project was supposed to be completed by 2010 but delayed to 2011 due to financial problems and public protests. The highway was completed and officially inaugurated in November 2011. The Southern Transport Development Project was financed by Japan Bank for International Corporation (JBIC), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) .
The expressway crosses 4 major rivers in the South Western – Southern part of Sri Lanka (Kalu Ganga, Bentara Ganga, Gin Ganga and Polwatta Ganga) and many other wetlands. It also passes through many villages, for this at least 1,200 houses have been demolished.
The project faced several controversy among the affected communities and the implementing agency since the design stage. The main controversies concerned the weak public participation/consultation process, inadequate information disclosure, inadequate resettlement, changes in project design, lack of alternate options assessment and faulty evaluations, weak environmental standards and adverse social impacts. In 1992 the project started without any EIA; a local NGO (Environmental Foundation Limited) wrote to the Road Development Authority on the violation of the local laws so the project was stopped. In 1994 project was started again but was stopped once more by Environmental Foundation which have threatened a lawsuit if the EIA process was not followed. Finally in 1999 the EIA has been opened to the public for a 30 day commenting period.
Lack of involvement in decision processes of local community led to people empowerment to fight against the wrong decisions. Democratic space has been improved for some communities thanks to the involvement of local and international NGOs. Until 1996 there was not any united movement among the affected people. Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL), Organization for the Safeguard of Life and Environment (OSLEN) and the Green movement of Sri Lanka(GMSL) got engaged in the issue and informed the affected people on the impacts and possible actions. As a result, in 1998, the involved NGOs succeeded in organizing a solidarity movement of the affected local communities. Firstly, village level committees has been organized. Already established committees and the new committees then joined together and formed a mass movement. This movement periodically organized campaigns along the road way and in the major cities to protest against the expressway, to educate politicians and the bureaucrats on the impacts and to get media publicity. When the EIA has been opened for public comments the movement was at its highest. Affected people and the NGOs involved jointly attended the public hearings and the environmental organizations succeeded in educating the public on the EIA and the negative impacts. This helped to improve the public commenting. As a result, Road Development Agency organized a meeting to explain the compensation package and the road design. After this meeting the road design was changed in some sectors but new people become affected.
A mass demonstration was held in front of the Asian Development Bank resident mission in 2001.
The affected people also have filed human rights cases and an inspection to the ADB committee, stating that Resettlement Policy and Information Policy of ADB have been violated, but in 2002 Inspection cases were rejected.
Moreover, in 2002 the affected communities have filed three cases to the Supreme Court whom, in appeal, ordered a Rs.75,000 reimbursement to be paid to each of the petitioners in addition to the amount due under the Land Acquisition Act.
Although there was several meetings after this, no major changes have taken place .
The conflict on the Southern Expressway shows how government agencies and International Financing Institutions abuse power in decision making. In this case Civil Societies movements' concerns are especially directed to the Asian Development Bank that as Bello and Guttal explain on their report of the ADB's 34th Annual General Meeting (AGM) is 'an institution that imposed tremendous sufferings on the peoples of the Asia-Pacific. In the name of development, its projects and programs have destroyed the livelihoods of people, brought about the disintegration of local and indigenous communities, promoted the sharp rise of inequality, deepens poverty, and destabilized the environment' .