පැල්පතකින් මැදුරට From shanty to home

"The ‘Ida denna’ promotional video of the UDA shows a young child rudely awaking in her flooded shanty from a dream in which she is playing happily among flowers and butterflies in Colombo’s newly beautified landmarks such as the Racecourse and Waters Edge and flitting into in her beautiful new home in an apartment complex. The video ends with the children coming out of tiny huts made of wooden boards, jumping over puddles and broken bricks, making their way to school accompanied by a Sinhalese song that likens the journey from shanty to shiny new apartment to a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. The reality is that the Racecourse or Waters Edge are not spaces made for Colombo’s poor. And the shiny new apartments are a façade that mask the burden of debt, economic dispossession and other hardships suffered by those forcibly moved. Contrary to the UDA’s propaganda, for thousands of the poor residents of Colombo the Urban Regeneration Project is actually a nightmare they can’t wake up from." - From shanty to home: Myth vs reality of Colombo’s Urban Regeneration Project, Centre for Policy Alternatives, July 2014

The Centre for Policy Alternatives continues to document and support communities in Colombo who were forcibly evicted or relocated under the previous Government's Urban Regeneration Project, which was carried out by the Urban Development Authority and the then Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Thousands of families living in the UDA built high rises continue to live in hope that the new Government and UDA leadership will provide them with better solutions and justice for what took place under the previous regime, while their living conditions and quality of life continue to deteriorate.

This photo essay by Abdul Halik Azeez commissioned by CPA looks at the lives of residents in two complexes - Methsara Uyana and Sirisara Uyana. Located in Wanathamulla, these two complexes have around 1100 apartments in total and had families from all over Colombo relocated there in 2014. The size of an apartment is 400 square feet and families have to pay one million rupees over thirty years in order to get a deed. This is irrespective of whether families had deeds to their original location or not, and those who did have deeds were not compensated for their acquired land.

Visits to the two complexes for this photo essay took place in late May 2016, a week following the floods.


Young men meet near a stairwell for a chat

Living in the high rises means lifestyles need to change and adapt. Most of the ‘wattas’ the resident hail from had different spatial arrangements, facilitating different modes of social interaction, public organisation and communal interaction. Living in high rise apartments has pushed communities more used to a collective lifestyle towards a mode of living that is increasingly individualistic and immediate family oriented. Children play cricket in cramped corridors, and young girls are largely confined to their houses. Parents fear letting them out of their sight, unable to trust the neighborhood, and, in the case of the children, the safety of the building’s structure.

For people used to living on flat surfaces for most of their lives, the vertical lifestyle comes with unique difficulties. Ground floor apartments are premium property. In addition to ease of access and more spacious surrounds, it is also easier for small businesses to operate out of them. The sick and disabled are overly dependent on the lifts, which frequently break down and are slow to be repaired. Not all disabled persons were allocated ground floor apartments either. Lifts are also relied upon to transport anything from furniture to the dead.

Some of the biggest complaints however come from the young men of the neighborhood, who bemoan the lack of appropriate spaces for them to gather, adding that the new arrangements and the distances they create between people makes it harder for them to meet together with their friends as much as they like. Gatherings of young men are also unwelcome in many parts of the building, and they are regarded with apprehension and suspicion.

A disabled man takes the lift up to the second floor at Methsara Uyana.
A badly drawn sign prohibts urination in stairwells, Methsara Uyana

Petty and organised crime has seriously begun to affect the lives of people. The creation of strong collectives and community organisations is prevented by criminal elements who compete for control within the neighbourhood. The lack of ability to organise is exacerbated by the fact that dozens of communities from all over Colombo were randomly assigned apartments, forcing complete strangers into becoming neighbours and making it hard to unite. Families fear for the safety of their daughters as several young girls have been harassed, chains snatched in elevators and fear their sons will get addicted to drugs and other vices. Vandalism is frequent - elevators have gaping holes and open circuitry where there should have been buttons. Common areas are strewn with garbage and stairwells are covered in betel juice, graffiti and at times even urine.

A resident points to hairline cracks on his walls, Methsara Uyana
A man walks past a common area strewn with garbage thrown from above

Building maintenance is suffering. Aside from the elevators that break down frequently and for days at a time, there are serious emerging problems within the structure of the building; walls on the upper floors are showing seeping patches of wetness, soaked through by the rainwater, and cracks are beginning to show on the walls of several apartments. Residents worry about the integrity of their dwellings. Complaints about water leaks and other maintenance issues have gone unheeded. Many complain of inordinately high electricity bills. Residents say that the UDA under the previous regime was better organised and quicker to respond, speculating that the direct oversight of the former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had a role to play.

The most common complaint from residents is to do with garbage disposal. There are no designated sites for garbage to be kept until it can be collected by the Municipality. This forces residents to keep it inside their homes, until they hear the horn of the garbage truck, at which point they have a quick window of time to take it down. There is no specific time that the garbage truck comes either, which means some people may not even be home when it comes. Their small kitchens are often strewn with garbage, creating hygiene issues. The design of the building has also failed to incorporate garbage chutes and in the last few months residents have been banned from carrying garbage bags in the lifts - leading to an issue where many people simply throw their garbage from top floor windows at night. Spraying it across the ground.

A large 'Sinhale' scrawled on the asphalt directly below Methsara Uyana

The locals, i.e. the original residents of Dematagoda and its immediate surrounds such as Wanathamulla, have a tendency to assert their supremacy and ownership of the community space over others. The notion that this is ‘our area’ appears to be widely subscribed to and there is sentiment from families who have moved here from elsewhere that they are regarded as second class citizens. This is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment afforded to the Muslim families living in the upper floors of the Methsara Uyana building. Despite repeated petitions, they have been denied the right to build a mosque in the area and not everyone is able to afford the transport fare to the closest mosque in Borella. The women complain of being verbally abused and the motorcycles and other vehicles belonging to Muslims which are parked downstairs are routinely vandalised and damaged. This large ‘Sinhale’ drawn on the asphalt lies directly below and in full sight of the flats belonging to the Maligawatte Muslims.

Rafeeka stands in her crowded apartment at Methsara Uyana

Eleven adults and children live in Rafeeka’s house. The family used to have a large two storied house in Maligawatte before they were moved here under the World Bank's Metro Colombo Urban Development Project. They were promised two apartments to compensate but have not received the second one despite repeated requests and letters sent to the UDA. The family was unable to move all of their belongings here due to the lack of space, and instead stored them at a relative’s house in Kolonnawa. However all of it was destroyed by recent floods. Rafeeka also has other children and grandchildren and they all like to gather together on Sundays, a weekly event much looked forward to. While that wasn’t a problem at the previous house, it is nearly impossible in the cramped apartment and its surrounds. To the Muslims of Maligawatte who have been moved here, the environment is strange and unwelcoming, and a far cry from the secure sense of community they experienced before.

Mr. Paranawithana makes short eats in his kitchen

The Paranawithanas are a family of four. Before they were forced to move here they lived in a spacious two floored house in Dematagoda and ran a successful catering business. Since they refused to leave when asked to, they were only given apartments in the upper floors. They received two apartments to compensate for their large house, but were not able to get them side by side. The new apartments aren’t spacious enough and the floors and walls aren’t strong enough to allow them to keep their business. Mrs. Paranawithana begged the UDA to give them ground level housing but her pleading fell on deaf ears. Now she has to go out to work to make ends meet.

Mr. Wasantha Paranawithana is a wheelchair bound diabetic. His bad leg is bandaged and is missing a few toes. With the elevators constantly out of order and the rain making the stairs slippery he is restricted to their small apartment most of the time and worries how to cope in an emergency. Mr. Paranawithana and his daughter contribute to the household income by making short-eats which they sell to nearby shops. Their lifestyle as well as livelihood has completely changed after the move, and not for the better.

Sirisara Uyana

While some residents evicted to Sirisara Uyana from flood prone areas say conditions are better than their former homes, there is still ample complaint. During the heavy rains in May, the building wasn’t doing too well. Walls were soaked through and water leaked into apartments. All the elevators catering to the eleven floors in the complex were out of order for days and authorities had turned a deaf ear to complaints. This had led many residents, especially the aged, to suffer serious injuries such as sprains and broken bones, navigating the slippery stairs every time they need to leave their homes. Problems with waste management and garbage, already quite bad, were made worse by the wet conditions and the common areas of the building were becoming even more unhygienic than usual. The adverse weather made residents wonder if shortcuts had been taken in the process of construction, posing an even bigger question about the long term structural integrity of these high rise buildings. The situation here is a far cry from the 'elevated lifestyle' promised in government propaganda leading up to the construction of these high rises.

The conditions have caused many people to leave their apartments, giving them on rent, even though renting/selling/mortgaging an apartment is prohibited by the UDA. While none of the residents here have deeds to their homes, some have managed to rent them out by drafting an agreement through a lawyer. Lack of community and neighborhood security is exacerbated by the influx of strangers, leading more people to consider leaving the premises.

Created By
Iromi Perera

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