Slave Island (or Kompannyaveediya as the locals prefer to call it), among the most culturally rich neighbourhoods in Colombo, is also one of the most commercially lucrative. In the post war years, the residents of Slave Island have seen their more than century long idyll being disrupted in massive upheavals as state driven projects have sought to wrest away the land from them in a bid to beautify and ‘modernise’ Colombo.

Neighbourhoods like Mews Street have experienced violent, forcible evictions by a militarised Urban Development Authority, while other neighbourhoods like Station Passage have faced a more humane State, albeit temporarily. The acquisition of Java Lane, a densely populated, historic, largely Malay Muslim neighbourhood, is a case in point which illustrates the single minded approach of the gentrification drive, blind to the loss of intangibles such as community, shared culture and human co-dependencies.

The people however, have not been taking all of this sitting down. Through the valiant efforts of local community activists and their supporters, the citizens of Slave Island have been determinedly fighting for their rights. While deals struck with large corporates who pay big sums of money for hugely subsidised prime land appear to be honored to the letter, the Government’s promises to the people of Slave Island hide massive injustices under a barely-legal façade of fairness.

(1) Mews Street | (2) Java Lane | (3) The Java Lane mosque | (4) Castle Hotel | (5) Station Passage | (6) Stuart Street
A tractor driver takes a break at a construction site | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez
The white wall of the Defence Services School is where the homes of the Mews Street residents used to be | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez

The residents of Mews Street were forcibly evicted from their homes in May 2010 in order to make room for the expansion of the Defence Services School. The eviction of 33 families from 20 homes in broad daylight was probably one of the most brutal carried out during the Rajapaksa regime and was the first eviction to take place after urban development was brought under the military and the (then) new formed Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Families were informed verbally only 1 month prior and were served written notice just 3 days before the authorities arrived with a cohort of bulldozers to demolish their houses and a host of army and police personnel to control the crowd and prevent media access. What is significant with this case is that all the affected residents had deeds to their properties and due process with regard to the Land Acquisition Act was never followed.

Now after six years of living an itinerant life, the residents of Mews Street have finally been promised homes in a newly built UDA high rise building in Maligawatte. This has been the result of a Fundamental Rights petition filed in the Supreme Court on 24th of June 2010 by the evicted residents. In the six long years seeking justice, the Mews Street residents have been disenfranchised and face severe socio-economic issues, in addition to the mental trauma of having no indication when they be able to have a place to call home again.

Out of the 20 houses in Mews Street, only one was located on a patch of land greater that one perch in size. The land belonged to Mr. Ratnam and his family, who ran a bathing well from it which serviced the neighbourhood. Mr. Ratnam also had a successful car washing business which he has had to forego as they were evicted. His family has been promised two flats, he also hopes that he will receive a shop space to make up for his loss of livelihood.

Traces of a house, Java Lane | Photo by Iromi Perera

Java Lane was the last neighborhood in Slave Island to be completely removed and this happened in December 2013. Following a Fundamental Rights case filed by the residents against the acquisition of their property, the residents were given two choices – take compensation for their land and leave, or take rent money for two years and come back and live in an apartment complex that would be built for them in an adjoining land. The project, which was to be carried out by India’s TATA group, has barely started and the two years since they have promised new homes have lapsed, leading to widespread disgruntlement on the part of former residents.

With the change in government, a bureaucratic impasse has put the situation into flux. People who have opted for compensation have not received it yet, and are being given rent money instead. What’s more, they have even been told that the rental payments being paid now will be deducted from the eventual compensation they will receive. In several cases, the new government has requested properties to be valuated again. For the residents of Java Lane, most of whom had spacious houses with title deeds, the state’s rental payments are only a fraction of what they deserve. The added waiting, itinerant lifestyle and uncertain future they face is imposing a huge burden on these families that cannot be accounted for by finances alone.

Java Lane, today | Photo by Iromi Perera
Mr Wangsa | Station Passage housing - stalled construction of the residents' apartment building Photos by Abdul Halik Azeez

Mr. Wangsa used to work for the Municipality as an exterminator. He would go around with his tank on his back, spraying chemicals that prevent the spread of diseases in the homes of city dwellers. Now he is retired, and he and his wife survive on his small pension. His children live elsewhere. When the Slave Island Redevelopment Programme (Stage 2) of the Urban Development Authority began in late 2012, the area known as Station Passage in Slave Island was acquired for the 'Destiny Mall and Residency' by Imperial Builders, a Pakistani company, although the gazette notification for the land acquisition only stated 'public purpose'. The families who occupied 119 houses down Station Passage had been living there for generations and all had title deeds. Following a Fundamental Rights case filed by the community, they were promised new housing at the site itself, and all but 15 families left their homes until their new housing was completed. The apartment complex for the residents of Station Passage was meant to be initially concluded in 18 months, but has now taken over three and a half years with no end in sight. In addition, the piling and construction work is hazardous to those still living in the area. The remaining families have been asked to leave as well, says Mr. Wangsa, but have refused.

The house of an elderly resident of Station Passage stands alone in the Destiny Mall project site, the piling work causing the walls of her house to crack | Photo by Iromi Perera

Nazrul Islam, a community activist and one of the homeowners still living at Station Passage, says that they decided to stay in order to be better positioned to exert pressure on the government. Construction for the Destiny Mall in the area where their houses are located was only supposed to start after they had moved into their new apartments and they refuse to succumb to pressure exerted on them by the developers. While initially the relations with the UDA were good and the people of Station Passage benefitted from an unusually sensitive and initial consultative process, this has changed over time. Today, Mr. Islam and fellow Station Passage residents are incensed not only by the fact that the promised completion has taken so much longer than initially promised, but also because construction on the commercial building (belonging to the developers) is going ahead as planned while work on the apartment complex for the residents of Station Passage is not progressing at the same speed. Furthermore the relocation of their mosque and a playground for children that was part of the original plan has now changed and they are still seeking clarification regarding these changes. In early August 2016, the community staged a protest and handed over a letter to the Prime Minister highlighting their concerns.

Anderson Flats | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez
Anderson Flats | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez

Turn right halfway down Stuart Street and you will come across a set of buildings known as Anderson Flats. These buildings formerly belonged to a school, Anderson College, which were converted over forty years ago to house people who were moved there, on a temporary basis or so they were told, as their land was taken over to build another, newer school; Sariputta MV.

Though they were promised new houses, none materialised, and today hundreds of families live in premises that are in an extreme state of decay. The buildings are fighting a losing battle with the surrounding foliage. Trees, roots and weeds regularly break into houses and residents have to pay people to cut and weed them out. Sanitation is atrocious if non-existent, and upper floor toilets leak into the lower floors.Various politicians come and poke around, residents say, but usually only before elections. Meanwhile the people here live in constant danger.

Premawathi | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez

Premawathi's case is a good example of what can happen when you are poor and powerless, and find yourself with no recourse but to rely on the bureaucracy. Originally an Anderson Flats resident, her family gave their upper floor flat on rent and moved elsewhere when her husband broke his back, and could no longer negotiate the steep stairs. When the family returned after his death some years later, they found that the renters who were in their flat were refusing to leave. The court case that followed resulted in the renters being awarded the house. Desperate, she and her nephew, who is her only family left, built this tiny shack in which they have been living since. It sits on barely a perch of land and a hole in the roof leads to an upper floor, accessed by a ladder. Premawathi’s home doesn't have electricity because she can't afford to pay the required amount the government needs to draw the power lines to their house. The house itself, illegally constructed, is in danger of being demolished at the whim of a future state economic deal, and her left homeless once again.

Castle Hotel, March 2016 | Photo by Iromi Perera

Nearly four months after it closed for business, and all its workers sent home, the Castle Hotel still stands, now the property of the TATA Group. A guard sits just inside the door, with strict instructions to not let anyone in. The hotel had a famously liberal attitude towards its visitors - having been in operation for several decades, it was almost a public space. The Castle Hotel closed for business in March 2016 as its premises were taken over by the property developers gentrifying the entire neighborhood surrounding it.

Following rumours of demolition and subsequently that the TATA Group will renovate the building and use it as an office space, a concerned citizen wrote to the Department of Archaeology in March 2016 and brought the hotel to their attention. This led to an immediate inspection of the building by officers from the Department who documented the building extensively. In June 2016, the Director General of the Department of Archaeology wrote to the Chairman of the UDA, informing him that it had come to his attention that the TATA Group plans to develop the building. He cites the inspection report by his officers which highlighted that the Castle Hotel is a 141 year old building with architectural features dating back to the British period, thereby making the Castle Hotel a monument/ heritage building that must be protected. He further informs the UDA Chairman that the TATA Group must be informed that any renovations done to the building must be done in a way that the original architectural elements are not damaged or changed in any way.

Castle Hotel | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez
Castle Hotel | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez
Firi Rahman | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez

Firi is a young artist from Slave Island, and over the past few years he has been steadily creating a name for himself through his intricately detailed pencil art. He has also taken a deep interest in his neighborhood which has been seeing so much change recently. Firi presented his work ‘Slave Island Maze’ at Colomboscope in 2015, depicting a lovingly drawn map of the neighborhood, with sketches depicting its key locations. The work focused on the intricacy of the layout of Slave Island's neighborhoods, with tiny alleyways and cul de sacs leading off into entirely unique spaces invisible from the main causeways, which are the only streets visible on traditional maps of the place. The work challenges the monolithic simplicity with which Slave Island and its people are viewed; merely as an obstacle to economic development and 'progress'. Its vast history, culture and living, organic society cannot be ignored.

Java Lane mosque | Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez

The Federation of Kompannyaveediya Masjids was formed after the tsunami. The organisation was made up of the trustee boards of ten mosques in the area, and worked on rehabilitation efforts in areas such as Kattankudy and Hambantota. Since then they have continued to operate as an organisation focusing not only on social work but also on providing advocacy, development, lobbying and counselling services to the local community.

When the spate of evictions hit Slave Island the FKM was the organisation best placed to respond to the needs of a community that were often comprised of the working class poor with little access or knowledge about legal recourses available to them. In the face of the harsh approach taken by the UDA, the FKM provided ground support, shelter as well as legal counselling services to victims, helping them organise as groups in order to better fight for their case. "But still it was an uphill struggle", says Aslam Othman, a vocal activist and member of the FKM. He says the situation is now better, but the continued delay of the provision of justice to the affected peoples is worrying. Rent payments are paid in fits and starts, every six months or sometimes quarterly, making it hard for many who are waiting for houses to pay viable rental advances in order to have a steady home while they wait.

​The FKM is keen to propagate its model for a community civil society organisation. Through its encouragement and support, 12 other Masjid Federations now exist in Colombo, with two more being initiated outside the city. "The legal system is often unfair and does not work properly’" says Mr. Aslam, seeing the mosque federations as a necessary and important grassroot civil society intervention to help safeguard the rights of communities often lacking the most basic knowledge and resources.

The Java Lane mosque, once the cynosure of an entire community, now only sees a fraction of the crowds it was used to. A few families living by the rail tracks as well as a few from Malay Street nearby now form the core of its regulars. Office workers nearby also frequent it. Despite its diminished crowds the mosque continues to function as usual with all prayers including the Friday prayer and tharaweeh prayers on the nights of Ramadan being conducted on a regular basis.

The Java Lane mosque, days after the demolition of the homes down Java Lane, February 2014. Photo by Abdul Halik Azeez/ The Picture Press

Text by Abdul Halik Azeez with content curation and input from the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

For more information regarding Mews Street and Java Lane please see CPA's April 2014 report 'Forced evictions in Colombo: the ugly price of beautification'.


This is the second photo essay commissioned by CPA as a part of our Right to the City initiative. Please visit our website for more information about the initiative and follow us on Instagram for more stories related to development and rights.

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