"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.