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Sunday, 28 June 2015

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Bulldozed.... and now abandoned

The Ambalangoda Rest House, a building of historical significance dating back to the Dutch rule in Sri Lanka, was demolished in 2008 without any prior notice. Later a portion of the land was sold to a private developer looking to construct a modern tourist hotel. Both the demolition of the Rest House and the sale of the land have been deemed illegal, amidst allegations of large scale corruption and misappropriation of funds. Seven years on... the land, partly covered by scrub jungle has become a haven for miscreants and their nefarious activities

Now a lorry park

The sleepy seaside town of Ambalangoda was once known as the Cinnamon Town and deemed a place of significance because of the economic value placed on cinnamon, a commodity found in abundance in the area.

The Dutch administrators monopolized the management of the cinnamon industry, and the high officials who regularly visited the area to check on the cinnamon processing and packaging, used a house built on a rocky out- crop, with a panoramic view of the sea, as their base.

This was the origins of the famous Ambalangoda Resthouse, which over time gained great historical and cultural significance.

It was viewed as a showpiece building of great architectural value and a landmark on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka by both residents and visitors (local and foreign) alike. Adjoining the Rest House is the Dutch Period Courthouse, with its remand cell for the convicted. Fishermen from the area have been using this cell for many years as a storeroom for their fishing gear.

Contrasting tales

In a tale of contrasting development of two Dutch period buildings, the Rest House though run down due to neglect, was demolished in 2008 without any thought to its historic and cultural significance, while the Courthouse, had come under the Department of Archaeology and is being preserved as a historic monument.

The demolition of the Ambalangoda Rest House, allegedly on the instructions of the then Chairman of Ruhuna Tourist Bureau, shocked the residents of Ambalangoda town, who couldn't quite understand the haste with which a historic building was being rendered to dust. Reportedly the demolition team, had on the instructions of the then Chairman of Ruhuna Tourist Bureau (RTB), removed the valuable timber and the antique doors, door posts, widows ,window posts and furniture, prior to flattening the structure. The demolition had been done without the knowledge of Anura Pradeep, the then Chairman of the Ambalangoda Urban Council (UC). Councillors of the governing UPFA and the opposition UNP lodged a complaint with the Ambalangoda Police against the RTB for the illegal demolition of the Rest House, which was the property of the Ambalangoda UC.

Illegal sale

The Councillors accused the former chairman of RTB of colluding with the Southern Provincial Council to demolish the Resthouse.

They alleged that the former chairman had subsequently sold the equipment, kitchen utensils, timber , furniture and window and door posts, along with truck loads of lime stones and roofing material for several lakhs of rupees and deposited only Rs.750,000 into the UC account, in response to critical arguments during the monthly meetings .

The management of the Rest House was formerly handed over to the Urban Development Authority, in 1982, with the stipulation that 90% of the income earned by the Resthouse be transferred to the account of the Ambalangoda UC. This was during the reign of assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The UDA leased out the property to a private hotelier based in Weligama for a monthly rent of Rs.70, 000. However, reports reveal that the hotelier had repeatedly defaulted on payment, accruing a debt of several millions of rupees, while at the same time depriving the Ambalangoda UC millions of rupees in revenue.

According to the then Opposition Leader of the Ambalangoda UC, J. W. Jayantha, corruption and mismanagement had been rife in the Ambalangoda Resthouse ever since its management was handed over to the UDA.

Arrears in rent

In the course of numerous monthly UC meetings, it was also revealed that a UDA officer who had been assigned to discuss the outstanding arrears in rent had subsequently become an intimate friend of the hotelier who had leased the Resthouse from the UDA. Resultantly, the exact amount in arrears had never been brought to the notice of the UDA.

Former Chairman of Ambalangoda UC, Aruna Pradeep, had in the intervening years appealed to the then Minister of Local Government, to return the management of the Resthouse to the Ambalangoda UC, stating it had a great potential for development and could generate much needed income for the UC.

However, Jayantha, the then Leader of the Opposition, revealed that contrary to the request, the management of the Resthouse hand been handed over to the Southern Provincial Council, following discussions between Southern Province Chief Minister, Shan Wijayalal De Silva, and the then Minister of Urban Development, Dinesh Gunawardena. This transfer of management, the Councillors claimed in a letter forwarded to the UC, was illegal, as the property belonged to the Ambalangoda UC, as was the demolition and selling of the building material and furniture.

Compounding the original misdemeanour, several years alter the former UC Chairman, leased out two acre of land where the Ambalangoda Resthouse stood proud for more than half a century, to a private company to build a tourist hotel.

Although the contract had been signed, the deal had not been discussed at any of the monthly meetings of the Ambalangoda UC. Jayantha, the former Opposition Leader, revealed that the contract had no legal validity. The land that once proudly played host to the magnificent RestHouse now stands neglected, making it more a shrub jungle than prime real estate with historic significance.

Part of the land is now being used as a lorry park by businessmen in the area. The overgrown confines have also become a haven for drug addicts, drug traffickers, sex perverts and for individuals engaged in various nefarious activates. Empty beer cans and liquor bottles littering the area have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes as well.

The councillors and Ambalangoda residents are unsure what will happen to the land that once housed a historic building, but fear the land would be sold by the private company to another buyer. The large scale corruption that has taken place since the day of demolition of the Rest House has never been investigated by the relevant authorities.

 

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