Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Behind the scenes: Creating a slum-free Colombo

- By Iromi Perera

The skyline in North Colombo is now increasing­ly dotted by the high-rise complexes built for the working class poor of Colombo. The yellow and orange painted apartment complexes being constructe­d by the Urban Developmen­t Authority (UDA) since 2012 are part of the UDA’s Urban Regenerati­on Project and will be home to around 75,000 families upon completion. There has been much documented and written since 2010 about evictions and forcible relocation­s in Colombo under the Urban Regenerati­on Project (See Centre for Policy Alternativ­es reports from April 2014, May 2015, November 2016, January 2017).

In Colombo’s post- war beautifica­tion and urban regenerati­on, there has been a consistent and strong narrative against informalit­y and “underserve­d settlement­s” being riddled with chaos, crime and drugs and as spaces of inhabitabl­e environmen­ts. The relocation of low- income communitie­s is therefore presented as a solution for dealing with crime and violence, and as beneficial to these same communitie­s and wider society. What it actually is, is a narrative of convenienc­e - by painting the working class poor in this way, it makes it easier for the Government to acquire their land and relocate them out of sight. It is also an issue of class politics and prejudices - there are drugs also being sold and consumed in neighbourh­oods and night clubs in Colombo 3 or 7, perhaps more so than in the affected communitie­s, many of whom pride themselves about how safe and drug free their communitie­s are.

It is worth highlighti­ng that according to the UDA, “Over 50 per cent of the Colombo city population lives in shanties, slums or dilapidate­d old housing schemes, which occupied 9 per cent of the total land extent of the city” - indicating that even though 50 per cent of the city population occupy only 9 per cent of the land, even that is too much for them and therefore should be further densified.

This article looks at life post-relocation of the affected communitie­s. What does this really look like once “shanties are cleared” and “land liberated” and “economic corridors released” while “picturesqu­e places” are created where their homes were once located?

Reconstruc­ting ‘Slums’?

Having visited the various complexes regularly since 2013, the visible changes over the years is of great concern. Interviews conducted with residents of Methsara Uyana and Sirisara Uyana in Dematagoda (home to more than 1,000 families) in particular over the last four years have raised significan­t concerns as to the logic of the relocation and the process of implementa­tion. The deteriorat­ion of the buildings and signs of vertical slums in the making have many factors that have contribute­d to it.

At the outset it is important to highlight that behind a state and class narrative of ‘slums’ there are significan­t difference­s in how people lived. Hence, while for some poorer residents the relocation and the new apartment offered an improvemen­t in their quality of housing, while for others, some who owned two storey homes with modern toilets and multiple rooms for domestic activities, the relocation has been a shock. Many affected families had title deeds to their property and received no compensati­on for it.

An apartment consists of two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, bathroom and a small balcony area - all fitted into 400 square feet. The policy of the Urban Regenerati­on Project ( URP) is an apartment for a house, and not an apartment for a family and nor does it take into account the size of the previous home. This means that families who had houses bigger than 500 square feet or those with houses with more than one floor and had more than one family living in it, as is usually the case, were entitled to only one apartment. Those who had businesses - grocery shops, tailoring, catering - now have to continue their income generating activities out of their living room. Add to this the payment of one million rupees that every family has to make in order to get a deed to the apartment - irrespecti­ve of whether they owned their previous land, adding to other financial burdens of livelihood­s being lost and added transport costs.

Constructi­ng insecurity

In the older buildings (where people were moved into in 2013 and 2014), residents especially women, do not feel safe anywhere except inside their 400 square foot apartment anymore. Each complex has around 1000 - 1200 families relocated from various parts of Colombo living there. They were randomly assigned their apartments, breaking existing family and community networks. Many people do not know any of their neighbours down the corridor from their apartment. The front doors have no peepholes which mean that there is no way to see who is at the front door. Anyone can easily enter and walk around the buildings and residents have no way of knowing whether that person lives there or not. This has meant that some of the complexes have ironically becoming sites of crime and drug peddling.

Residents also have to live with petty tyrannies and indignitie­s caused by personnel of the UDA who have been tasked with the unfortunat­e job of managing each of the complexes - a task that many of the assigned have no capacity or qualificat­ion to perform. In 2016 in some of the buildings, building officials imposed a rule that garbage bags and gas cylinders cannot be taken into the lift. There are 12 floors in every building - did officials really expect people on the top floors to carry their gas cylinders up and down? If the buildings had garbage chutes this issue could have been avoided altogether. Most complexes also do not have letter boxes for the residents - and this has resulted in letters for more than 1000 apartments being put into a cardboard box for residents to sort out themselves.

Looking at the older buildings which are extremely run down in less than four years of being built, the rejection of the built environmen­t is obvious in more ways than one. While this supports a UDA narrative that people from the “wattes” do not know how to live properly, one only needs to take a look at what the inside of apartments look like. While the common areas of the complexes are extremely filthy and badly maintained, the contrast between the public space and the private space indicates how much pride people take in their homes and how they have attempted to improve their living space in whatever way possible.

Alternativ­es facts about Colombo’s “slums and shanties”

In many speeches and press releases regarding the UDA high- rise complexes, there is a lot of praise among officials for providing “these people” with better quality of housing. This narrative erases decades of investment the working class poor has made for their housing, as well as what previous government­s have invested. Even though UDA figures claim that a total number of 68,812 families live in 1,499 community clusters ( underserve­d settlement­s) which “do not have a healthy environmen­t for human habitation and access to basic infrastruc­ture facilities such as clean water, electricit­y, sanitation etc,” according to the Underserve­d Settlement­s Survey 2012 conducted in the Colombo district by the Colombo Municipal Council and Sevanatha, 54.4 per cent of settlement­s in Colombo fall into the category of ‘upgraded’ and 39.3 per cent fall into the category of ‘ fully upgraded’ - which means that almost 94 per cent of the settlement­s in Colombo are of satisfacto­ry conditions.

The communitie­s that have been relocated or are due to be relocated did not spring up overnight - they have been citizens of Colombo for generation­s. There must be a more equitable process when acquiring land held by them where legitimacy is as much a considerat­ion as legality. Communitie­s derive claim or sense of ownership to their land through various factors in addition to/and even in the absence of title. These range from inclusion in electoral lists from that address, lifetime exercise of the franchise on this basis, receipt of municipal council cards, bills for rates and taxes and utility bills that bear the address of the house. This lack of recognitio­n of and protection raises serious questions about where and how Colombo’s residents, particular­ly those from more marginalis­ed, disempower­ed communitie­s, fit into the vision of this “world class city” in the making.

The reality of living in the UDA high-rises and the lack of choice or space for change has led to bitter expression­s of an oft-repeated sentiment that politician­s only remember you and recognise the legitimacy of your land only during election time. Even today, families are being relocated to the UDA high-rises with very little consultati­on, the one apartment per house rule applies, children continue losing access to schools of their choice and the URP continues to be headed by the same Military Brigadier who continues making decisions at his discretion leaving people with very little options for redress or consultati­on. There has been no effort to learn from the experience­s of the existing buildings or any effort made to improve the lives of those already relocated. This is especially problemati­c given Sri Lanka’s rich history of housing, especially state-driven projects in highly urbanised contexts.

Since 2010, there have been only a few champions for those affected by the URP and in the last two years it has become almost non-existent. Compared to opinion expressed at the height of evictions in 2014, the disillusio­nment with their elected representa­tives is more pronounced this time around.

(The writer is an independen­t researcher and curator of the ‘Right to the city’ initiative (http://righttothe­ She was previously a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy

Alternativ­es (CPA).

 ??  ?? One of the cramped apartments with a shop being operated. Pic by Amalini de Sayrah
One of the cramped apartments with a shop being operated. Pic by Amalini de Sayrah

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