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.