TamilWeek, Nov 27 - Dec 2, 2005
The People get their
Galle Face Green Back

by D.B.S.Jeyaraj

In what may very well turn out to be a
landmark judgement the Supreme
Court of Sri Lanka on Nov 28th
reiterated firmly that Galle Face
Green is for the people of this
Country and for the people  alone.
The bench comprising Chief Justice
Sarath N. Silva PC and Justices N.K.
Udalagama and Nimal Dissanayake
ruled that the "Galle Face Green"
should be maintained as a public
utility and  that the Government
should make available necessary
resources for the purpose.

" The Galle Face Green should be
maintained as a public utility, in
continuance of the dedication made
by Sir Henry Ward. The necessary
resources for this purpose, should be
made available by the government of
Sri Lanka, the successor to the
colonial governor,
Picture by Dushiyanthini
Kanagasabapathipillai
[Click for Pictures of WOMAD-SriLanka]
who made the dedication referred to," the Supreme Court  said in a judgement.

The case related to the management agreement or the lease entered into on
February 15, 2003, by the UDA and the EAP Network Private Limited, whereby it
was sought to hand over the management and control of the 14-acre seaside
promenade of Colombo, the Galle Face Green to E.A.P.

The court said that, the purported agreement, entered into between the Urban
Development Authority and the EAP Limited is ultra vires and of no purpose or
avail in law.

Consequent to  fundamental rights violation plea being supported on February 13,
2004, leave to proceed was granted by the SC. An  Interim Order directed the
UDA to refrain from putting into operation, any lease or agreement, to effect the
use, occupation and or the management of the Galle Face Green.

The judgement also said that the UDA denied the right to information of the
petitioner, The Environmental Foundation Limited, and subjected the petitioner to
unequal treatment.The UDA was directed to pay the EFL, Rs. 50,000/- as costs.

Miss Ruana Rajapakse, appeared with Miss Pamoda Rajakeeya for the petitioner.
Romesh de Silva PC, appeared with Sugath Caldera, for the UDA.S.
Parathalingam PC, with N. R. Sivendran and S. Cooray appeared for the EAP
Group.The judgement was by the Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva with Justice N. K.
Udalagama and Justice N. E. Dissanayake agreeing.

Chief Justice Sarath Silva may appear controversial to some in certain aspects.
But as far as environmental rights justice is concerned the CJ has a very positive
and progressive outlook  like   for instance the decisions on mechanised
sandbank mining of rivers. There are signs that Mr. Sarath Silva could help
pioneer a new area in contemporary jurisprudence like former Indian chief Justice
Bhagwathi in public interest litigation. It is up to organizations like Environmental
Foundation limited to avail themselves of a benevolent Supreme Court under the
present chief justice and initiate progressive litigation.

The Galle Face Green lease case was another example of a deteriorating trend in
Sri Lanka where the history, culture and natural heritage of the Country is sold out
to a rapacious business class out to make a fast buck and nothing else. Some
Entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats of  the Country thought nothing of
literally selling out the birthright of the people to crass commercialism. People of
this mindset are willing to sell out or commercially exploit anything from Sigiriya to
the wetlands of Muthurajawela, from the waterfalls of Upper kotmale to the Dutch
museum of Pettah.Only groups of concerned citizens stand opposed to this
monstrous phenomenon.

The success of the Galle face green is in a sense a modern version of a David
versus Goliath battle. Here the latter day Davids were armed only with the
slingshot of legal recourse. Thanks to a supreme court capable of appreciating
the finer points of life and a chief justice who recognizes the "value and not price"
of some  issues that matter this  battle was won. Crude attempts to lease the
Green out commercially have been firmly overthrown. The people have got their
Galle Face Green back thanks to the Chief Justice ,  Supreme Court and of
course the environmental foundation and its lawyers Ruana Rajapakse and
Pamoda Rajakeeya.

Galle Face Green adjacent  to the Indian Ocean along the Colombo coast has
been a public promenade since early British colonial times. One end of it is in the
Fort area and the other in Kollupitiya. The green as we know it now was much
larger earlier and so too was  the stretch of Galle Road running through it. A  
swathe of land however was taken away from the Green in the sixties for
commercial expansion. A few colonial heritage type buildings on the land side
were also demolished. This happened when protection of environment and
heritage had not become a major concern of public life.

Despite the shrinkage Galle Face Green remained an important part of life in
Colombo. The public has had free and unimpeded access to it since before
independence. It is the most popular recreation ground in Colombo and said to be
one of its major "lungs", affording the populace an open space in a densely built-
up area. It provides fresh air and space for exercise and leisure of the young and
old and is a regular venue for popular recreational activities. People from all walks
and all ages of life gather there. It was a must see place for all visitors from the
outstations as well as tourists.

There is always  some commerce going on of a minor nature at Galle face  from
the gram seller to the Ice cream van and now the various food stalls. These are
part and parcel of Galle Face and add to its attraction.The comercial activity
however took a subsidiary role. Galle Face did not exist for commerce but for the
use of the people, for their pleasure and leisure. But the current crisis was that of
attempting to commercialise GFG on a mass scale. Human beings were to be
reduced to "consumers" and "customers" as insignificant  cogs in a mercantile
machine churning out and sucking in rupees and cents.

It all began in late  2003  when Sri Lankan the press reported that the EAP Group
had been granted a lease on Galle Face Green by the Urban Development
Authority. According to these reports, the EAP Group was to pay the UDA Rs 9
million as lease rental for a two year period. In exchange, all revenues hitherto
received by the UDA from Galle Face Green would henceforth be paid to the EAP
Group, while the UDA would continue to bear the cost of maintaining the Green.
The EAP Group was reportedly planning to convert it to a carnival park, complete
with "food courts" and "˜hawker streets" Planned activities were reported to include
"theme nights", film shows, musical shows, and fashion shows.

On the 4th of January 2004, the UDA, together with the Ministry of Western
Region Development, placed a half-page advertisement in several newspapers,
headed "More Transparent Than Glass", in which several claims regarding this
projects were made. In this advertisement it was admitted that Galle Face Green is
public property, to which free access has always been given to members of the
public for their exercise and leisure activities. It was then that the Environmental
Foundation Limited made an intervention.

While this advertisement made certain claims regarding the continuance of the
traditional amenities of the Green for the benefit of the public, EFL   pointed out
that it was  not possible to verify these claims without seeing the lease agreement.
EFL  also pointed out that Section 18 of the Urban Development Authority Law No.
41 of 1978 prescribes certain mandatory conditions which must be included in
every lease of land by the UDA, and it was  impossible to know whether such
conditions have been included without seeing the lease agreement. Furthermore,
the right of the UDA to deal with this property depends on there being a valid
vesting order in terms of section 15 of this same law.

As a non profit-making organisation dedicated to the protection of the
environment in the public interest, and which is registered with the Central
Environmental Authority as a National level NGO engaged in activities in the field
of environment, EFL required these documents in order to  adequately discharge
its monitoring duties. Accordingly, on 6th January 2004 EFL, wrote under
registered cover to the UDA and to the Chairperson of the EAP Group of
Companies, requesting them to provide EFL with copies of

1. The Lease Agreement entered into between the UDA and the EAP Group of
Companies or related entity and

2. The approved plan, if any, for the development of Galle Face Green in terms of
the said lease.

The UDA was also asked to provide a copy of the order vesting Galle Face Green
in the Authority. When no replies were received, EFL sent reminder letters on the
14th January 2004. Thereafter the UDA replied by letter dated 20th January,
refusing to release what they termed "official documents".

EFL therefore filed action in the Supreme Court, on 26th January 2004, pleading
infringement of its fundamental and asking that the UDA be directed to furnish the
documents requested in the letter of 6th January; and also seeking to restrain the
UDA from putting into operation the lease agreement with the EAP Group of
Companies or any related entity until the hearing and determination of its
application.

EFL maintained ( FR 47/2004) that its fundamental rights under Articles 12 (1), 14
(1)(a) and 14(1)(g) of the Constitution, relating to the right to equality before the
law, to the freedom of _expression including the right to information and to the
freedom to carry out a lawful occupation, profession or trade, were infringed by
the refusal by the UDA to release these documents. It asked that the UDA be
directed to furnish EFL with copies of the order vesting Galle Face Green in the
UDA, the Lease Agreement entered into between the UDA and the EAP Group of
Companies or related entity and the approved plan, if any, for the development of
Galle Face Green in terms of the said lease. It named the Chairperson of the EAP
Group of Companies and the Hon. Attorney General as the other respondents to
its application.

When the case was called on 13th February, Mr Romesh de Silva, PC, appearing
for the UDA, was asked from the bench whether his clients would not release the
agreement. In reply he stated that he would only release it if the petitioner gave an
undertaking that it would not go to court thereafter to challenge the agreement but
would agree to resolve any disputes by arbitration.

Court thereupon gave EFL leave to proceed. The respondents were granted four
weeks to file objections and the petitioner a further two weeks to produce counter
affidavits. Argument was fixed for 14th June 2004 and heard thereafter.An Interim
Order directed the UDA to refrain from putting into operation, any lease or
agreement, to effect the use, occupation and or the management of the Galle
Face Green.

The end result of it all was the ruling on Nov 28th. When news of the proposed
lease appeared in the press there was a public outcry against the move. Galle
Face Green was truly a preserve of the people and the people resented the
move. When news of EFL action came out in the press there were letters of praise
from the public. Now that a victory has been achieved the people with whose lives
the Green was intimately involved will cheer  out a loud "hurrah!" That includes
this columnist too.

The life of this writer like many middle class people of Colombo was entwined with
Galle Face Green. It was at Galle Face that my mother took her  walks during
pregnancy; It was to  Galle Face that I came often with siblings, cousins, friends
and neighbours for fun and frolic.It was to Galle Face that I accompanied my
grandparents for their evening walks often going down to the beach and splashing
about in the waves.. It was at Galle Face that I got "lost" as a kid and was restored
to my parents through the kindness of an unknown Sinhala family. It was at Galle
Face that I first flew a kite or had a pony ride. It was when driving through Galle
face that my father would allow me as an excited  child to "take" the wheel.

Even as I grew up the Green too grew in my life. While living in Kollupitiya one
would often come to this green to run, play, cycle or simply sightsee. The green
was to become in later life a place to coo as lovebirds or to  hold hands and walk
within the parameters of approved public romancing, a place to walk and sit with
friends and discuss all sorts of topics and issues , a place to watch cultural shows
and listen to political speeches particularly the may day ones of the past. It was
also where one jogged  at the crack of dawn to keep fit and on some occasions to
sat it out alone as dusk fell  watching the sun set in a pensive, philosophical mood.

Had I been living in Colombo still there is no doubt that  the Green (more often
brown) would be an integral part of life. So when relatives and friends set out for
Colombo from abroad I ask them to take the children to Galle Face which many  
do even without my asking. When relating their experiences of Galle Face the kids
seem radiantly happy. I am indeed amazed and glad that Galle face remains
fascinating for even children born and raised in the West. The delights of
childhood I suppose are universal.

It was with great sadness therefore  that I heard  of the moves to lease it out to big
business a few years ago. I am jubilant now that those moves have  been firmly
thwarted. May Galle Face Green remain for ever and ever in the Colombo
landscape. May it always belong to the people. May an eternally vigilant people
safeguard their rights, heritage and environment.
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