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Underpass collapse takes shine off southern highway

The completely collapsed section of the highway
(inset) Wajira de Silva: Untimely death

By Faraz Shauketaly

Sri Lanka’s showpiece infrastructure development project, the Southern Expressway has lost its lustre and appeal thanks to unmitigated planning deficiencies, inefficiency and unprofessionalism of officials.


Despite being in the know that this project was critical to this nation’s progress and development, that, much was expected of this mega project and how essential this project is for the development of the country, the officials concerned have not grasped that reality.

It is not as though Sri Lanka is bereft of the energy and professionalism required to carry out such a project: Sri Lanka today is truly the pride of Asia. It has defeated one of the world’s gravest terror outfits, with greater tactical manoeuvring than firepower and equipment. "The infrastructure development in this country can do with guidance from the focused mindset of Gotabaya Rajapakse," is how one frustrated businessman put it.

The underpass that collapsed near Poddala, Galle on the new Southern Expressway, killed 19 year-old Wajira De Silva and instantly raised questions and doubts as to the suitability of the structure used. The Southern Expressway project was awarded to Japanese firm Kumagai Gumi amidst much controversy. At the time, there were grave doubts as to the financial suitability of the company. They worked closely with a company connected to Access – the sometimes controversial group headed by Sumal Perera.


The technology used for the underpasses on this project is new to Sri Lanka. Traditionally in Sri Lanka, precast concrete structures are the preferred option. In this instance, this tried and tested method was ignored – for reasons that may or may not be financial – and a relatively new form used. This type of structure has been used in Latin America very successfully. Some experts say that Sri Lanka is not suitable for this due to the high chlorate content in the air in Southern Sri Lanka. The possibility of rusting is very high.

The majesty of the location of the stretch of road near Galle is breathtaking. The engineering is equally impressive. The contractors have had to cut through hard rock in difficult circumstances but the result as it emerges is one that Sri Lanka can be proud of. The quality of the road itself appears to be substantially recommendable. A hive of activity met us as we searched for Underpass Number 23.

As we approached the location, close to Poddala, Galle, we saw an area that was cordoned off by the Kumagai Gumi Safety Team. It was astonishing that the contractors had not closed off this underpass. They had been given notice by their client, the Road Development Authority (RDA) that the structure had shifted and that remedial work needed to be urgently carried out.

Whilst in the process of doing this remedial work it is said that incorrect methods were applied. Instead of clearing the backfill from both sides, the contractors it is alleged, had excavated just one end. This in turn created undue pressure on the structure causing it to collapse en-masse.

Young victim

As fate would have it, young Wajira de Silva, a 19 year old A/Level student from Richmond College Galle was passing underneath with his friend Nilantha on his way home after classes. As the structure started to cave in, Nilantha yelled at his friend to "get away" and ran as fast as he could. Despite having some injuries himself, Nilantha escaped. But his friend Wajira was trapped inside.

Having raised the alarm, the village found that the contractors were nowhere to be seen. Not wishing to wait any longer, the villagers took matters into their own hands and having "hot wired" the dozers started moving the earth trying to reach young Wajira, whose family looked on in complete disbelief at the tragedy that was unfolding before their very eyes.

Some two hours later drivers employed by the contractors arrived to take over but sans an engineer who would have been able to guide the excavation work. Eventually in the early hours an engineer did turn up but, as one of the villagers told us, he might as well have stayed on in the bar, for he was heavily intoxicated.

It seemed that fate and everything else had conspired to rob Wajira de Silva of his life and Sri Lanka as a whole its pride. It was sometime before they managed to locate young Wajira’s body – approximately 8 a.m. the morning after the accident.

To the untrained eye, the sheets of galvanised steel appears thin and flimsy, not easily able to comprehend how sheets approximately 3 mm in thickness are able to withstand heavy pressure.

How long?

Rusting has also appeared and this too was part of the remedial work requested. Experts from Colombo Dockyard lent their expertise to stem the ‘rusting’ issue. The point being made by some quarters, that if rusting is apparent so early in the lifetime of these sheets, just how long will these underpasses last? Even prior to the commissioning of this road, these events only serve to sow the seeds of doubt and it certainly instills a complete lack of confidence in the underpasses. It almost begs another question: what else in this project has been so compromised?

Has indeed the contractors’ alleged lack of financial standing led to the usage of sub-standard material and lack of professional workmanship?

The Republic of Sri Lanka can expect qualitative results: they have after all, awarded a contract of over US$ 110 million to the contractors – not small change. The contractor, Kumagai Gumi refused to answer any of the questions The Sunday Leader posed, in fact refusing point blank to even provide an e-mail address to which our queries could have been sent. They instead asked us to refer all queries to the RDA.


The General Manager, RDA - Galle, Ranjith Premasiri was more forthcoming. He explained that under a Presidential directive, an independent committee has been formed and that a comprehensive report will be made available within four weeks. In response to The Sunday Leader’s insistent questioning, as to whether there was an error in the choice of the type of structure to be used for underpasses, Premasiri confirmed that the answer to that – the choice of design – will be looked into by the committee.

He also confirmed that even if sub-contractors were used, the ultimate responsibility in terms of any liability regarding construction would lie with the contractor, Kumagai Gumi, as is standard practise.

The Presidential Secretariat is in fact mirroring public sentiment and urgency as this is a project of the highest national importance. Kumagai Gumi appears to under-estimate this sentiment. Perhaps it is time for the RDA to call in whatever performance guarantees that must surely be in place, to communicate effectively the urgency and importance attached to this project by the Republic of Sri Lanka. There can be no mitigating circumstances where this aspect is concerned: if there is a fault then the RDA must call in those guarantees forthwith until an acceptable and equitable solution is found.

The questions we asked

What do you attribute the cause of this collapse to?

Who is responsible for the accident?

Have the contractors and sub-contractors followed the advice of your firm as consultants?

Has the client given you information to correct the fault they detected and was this rectification work carried out accordingly to rectify?

Have the contractors/sub contractors been negligent in any way?

Reports have reached us to say that the steel used is sub-standard, not in conformity with the requirements of the client and is showing signs of rusting? Is there any truth in this?

In your opinion, what is the life expectancy of this type of construction using the metals already used for this project?

Is it suitable for conditions in Sri Lanka and compatible with the expected usage?

How does this material compare to the traditional favourite used in Sri Lanka of pre-fabricated concrete structures?

Has a check been done to establish if the makeup of the metal already used is in accordance with the specifications finally agreed upon?

Did the contractor / sub-contractor have adequate insurance cover in place at the time of the accident?

Will there be compensation given to the family of the young man killed in the incident?

Any other information you may want to state.


Response from Access

A spokesman for Access stated that their role in this project was limited to supply and erect the metal arch underpass structures, which they have already done. They had no role to play in the actual earthworks surrounding the MAU structures nor the remedial work. They claimed that it was one of their engineers who brought to the notice of the RDA the incorrect remedial works that was being done on Underpass 23.

In their opinion the collapse of the structure occurred due to incorrect remedial action. Access further stated that they were not connected in any way to the consultants and apart from the involvement as stated above, had no other link to the contractor, Kumagai Gumi. Access also commented that they had no role to play in the compensation process. In terms of the rusting, they claimed that some of the structures they delivered were standing neglected at various locations due to the shortening of the original scope of work in terms of the length of the roadway being revised.


Consultants ‘sad’

Please let me start by expressing my sadness and that of our company at the death of the young man killed in this tragic accident. We share with this man’s family and your readers the sense of sadness that these events will have caused.

Our company places the highest possible emphasis on safety during construction, and these events came as a great shock to us and to our team.

As you would expect, however, our company cannot comment at this stage on the specific questions in your email, as these issues are being carefully and independently examined, as is appropriate after such a serious event."

— John Saunsbury

Executive Director

Roughton International


Contractors ignore family

Wajira de Silva’s family is devastated. Their youngest child, aged 19 had so much of promise. His older sisters, Hasini and Hansini and mother, Vineetha were far too distraught to speak – though Hansini volunteered to do the talking. In a shocking testimony to the behaviour of the contractors, Kumagai Gumi and others involved, the family claimed that not a single person has so much as visited them if only to offer condolences.

With poor timing, "they" had offered to pay the funeral costs when they ran into Dr. G.S. de Silva, Wajira’s father. It was, said Dr. De Silva, unfortunate timing to talk of money then and dismissed as completely untrue that Kumagai Gumi or others had offered compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs.









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