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President Premadasa’s urban commitment


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By Susil Sirivardana 

President Premadasa’s urban commitment is highly relevant in today’s Megapolis discourse in particular, and in development discourse in general. He had a concrete vision-mission for the accelerated development of the whole country in spatial-societal senses, with the preeminent priority of overcoming multifaceted poverty as the structural entry point for breaking through into wider development. 

This is an indubitable truism as a preliminary premise. But what is not sufficiently investigated and discussed by bureaucracies, technocracies and the political classes are the foundational principles and elements that constituted the success of its praxis. Today’s anniversary article discusses three significant facets of his urban commitment.



Three facets

They are:

1. Reimagining or reconceptualising the urban poor

2. Issues connected to the new departure into storeyed housing and its associated problematics

3. The issue of, to what an extent we have an informed people and state, oriented to make    personal adaptations and accommodations in their personal  lifestyles, to actively support this impending structural transformation



We need to see these three facets in their contextual reality. Are we not moving rapidly into Megapolis master plan and project making, into the as yet unimaginable Port City juggernaut, a flurry of big and medium sized hotel building countrywide with immediate implications on infrastructure provision, and distinctive signs of a robust but slightly slower process of Urbanisation of the countryside led by the district capitals? Does this not presage a break or make opportunity, the rhetoric to the contrary? It is as a proponent of optimistically welcoming this opportunity to forge the vitally necessary professional, technocratic and political mindsets to usher a form of Sri Lankan urbanisation that is appropriate for this stage of the country’s development, that this article is written.

This where the classic and fundamental  lessons drawn from President Premadasa’s urban commitment becomes an indispensable set of ‘rules of practice’ for all interested in this subject. I believe that no better compass exists for our trials and tribulations in the field today.



Reimagining the urban poor

President Premadasa had a very clear and concrete concept of the Urban Poor. All his thinking and planning – his vision-mission for Colombo – was based on this single solid building block. Hence he established a benchmark for all of us working on housing development, both urban and rural. What was this fundamental? Nothing less than that they were a vital and integral resource in the 15dynamic life of the city. The city could not tick over without their essential labour and grit and contribution. 

They were more than the underbelly of Colombo: they were part and parcel of the thews and sinews of the urban edifice. His logic and reasoning was impeccable. It derived from decades of an urban childhood in the side streets of Keselwatte. That is where he learnt his political-economy in the school of life. There was no question of invalidating even an aorta of it. His elevation to President of the country was because of its legitimacy.

That is why he placed them at the centre of his Urban Housing Sub Programme of the Million Houses Programme.That is the second most important source for the formulation of the Support-Based Paradigm of Housing by the Urban Poor (back in 1985),the first source being its rural component, the Rural Housing Sub Programme (in 1984). 

This is where for the first time in the world, a State got out of the building business, and supported the poor to build and manage their own housing initiatives with remarkable results. This was the methodology which came to be called Participatory Housing Development in the literature. The rural and urban together  made history in the global housing arena, when the United Nations General Assembly declared that 1987 would be the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. All this is now history.

His policy on land tenure for the urban poor, was a direct outcome of this position. If they were integral to the life of the city, though they were called ‘encroachers’ de jure, de facto they were productive citizens who had a right of perceived tenure. It was by this rule of practice that all governments and Colombo’s Municipal Councils over the years up to 2009-2010, did not even think of evicting them. They could be voluntarily relocated by choice, but not forcibly evicted. Though elites and anti-poor bureaucrats and technocrats may have thought that they were evictable, the political classes over the years, knew that it was not a feasible option. These politicians had learnt that other countries had tried that route and had ended in abject failure.

Hence the National Housing Development Authority of the 1980s and early ’90s, went down in history as being pro-poor animators of the urban poor. The results were hundreds of urban underserved settlements in Colombo, where the lands were ‘regularised’ in situ and given permanent tenure, together with basic infrastructure and a small housing loan to design and build their own houses. Perhaps the best and most eloquent success of this general policy and practice is, Seevalipura, formerly known as Wanathamulla, now a thriving middle class settlement.

In this context, the Prime   Minister struck the right policy note when he announced to the nation that any family that has been continuing to live in a plot of land, would qualify to get permanent tenure from the state. This is fully in keeping with the Premadasa legacy regarding tenure for the urban poor.



Database of the urban poor

Intricately connected to this point of the urban poor is, the question of their database. Fortunately we have a sound data series in the studiously conducted two Sevanatha – Colombo Municipal Council Surveys of Underserved Settlements in Colombo, published in 2002 and 2012. It is called Profile of Underserved Settlements – City Of Colombo – Sri Lanka, 2012. It is an indispensable document for today’s urbanites because of its quality of conception, which provides the user with stacks of disaggregated data for this sub sector of the city. 

The surveys have been rigorously conducted and the data is therefore accurate. They confirm that the situation on the ground has seen significant improvement and change. The total number of underserved settlements has risen from 1,614 in 2002 to 1,735 in 2012. In parallel to this, the numbers of families continuing to live in them have also risen from 77,612 in 2002 to 123,185 in 2012. 

Finally look at this: “According to the above data, it is evident that the overall condition of the USSs in the city is highly satisfactory where 93.7 % of USSSs are in upgraded and fully upgraded categories with remaining 6.3 % coming under the extremely poor and underserved categories” (page 28). This proves the fulfilment of efforts to tackle the problem has had significant results. 

It is the upshot that we wish to highlight from this statistic. That is that the number of poor families is not 68,000 as was repeated by official sources during both  2014 and 2015-16, but is  a significantly lower figure when you consider the above statement regarding overall conditions. The parallel reduction in the number of settlements is also equally impressive as the above figures indicate.  What this means is that the problem is well within the realm of doability.



Storeyed housing issue

Here, the issue lies in the fact that there is a noticeable change in the demand pattern of basic housing, especially among the low and middle income categories, where significant numbers reside. Further, this is not a purely urban phenomenon any longer, but a suburban and even rural phenomenon. High rises are visible all over the Western Province and in many district capitals. This was certainly not the case a decade ago.

The Premadasa legacy in this respect is once again instructive. Just look at the changed ground reality after his era. At the centre, he added to the Maligawatte complex core, densifying it. He built Gunasinghapura once again at the core, in addition to several smaller schemes in the city. Then he radiated outwards from the centre towards the suburban periphery and ringed it with solid middle class housing in a dramatic arc – Raddolugama, Ranpokunagama, Mattegoda, Wickramasinghapura, Maddumagewatte and Rukmale. 

Significant about this spectrum of diverse projects is that they were not designed or laid out on a one size fits all rule of thumb. On the contrary they were imaginatively laid out and designed for varied categories of users, using in the process a number of alternative types of storeyed housing. Today these projects are thriving neighbourhoods, productively serving their residents in fulfilling their needs of urban living, commuting being one of the main. 

Implicit in this morphology was President Premadasa’s vision-mission for Colombo which have stood the test of time and offer several productive leads for research today to meet the needs of current planning to innovate into new patterns of design, management and financing. We particularly wish to stress the organic and responsible nature of the working principles followed to deliver  a challenging complex of projects, with hitherto unknown scale, and executed with public-private partnership. That is the kind of practice that we should try to emulate in today’s changed context. 

The points we wish to pose are of the following order. Again while welcoming this new orientation in demand, are we to un-criticise one potential expedients, as responses? How ready are our urban local authorities to meet the implications of this rapid rise in storeyed housing? What about the direct implication of this trend on just two primary related areas, namely condominiums and infrastructure provision? What about capacities and planning ahead to meet this new construction load? Regarding condominiums, the general state of awareness among condominium residents is yet minimal and there is a great deal of public awareness building to be done to clear backlogs in condominiums already built, quite apart from catering to rapid new demand.

From the design angle, how much of a home-grown discourse have we generated in designing for storeyed housing? Yes, we do have a set of building regulations put out by the UDA in, but was that not produced for a situation where the scale of operations was much smaller? There is a literature on the questions of the pros and cons of the number of floors that are considered appropriate for particular urban contexts.

When I visited Helsinki in 1988, I was to learn that it had a reached consensus on a rule that it would remain a medium rise city, and it was certainly most beautiful to see such a city. Here was a case of a city populace collectively deciding that they would exercise their aesthetic and practical judgment not to blindly follow what others were doing, with serious commitment for another way of modern living.



Readiness of people and state

The third concern is our readiness to accept and accommodate the changes that are to accompany the transition in the macro-micro innovations of megapolis. It is not the fact that the current Government has decided to follow the Singapore model that disturbs us. Countries need to draw from exogenous models and experiences in this age of innovation and creative thinking. It is the fact of general societal awareness-raising that is our concern.

We believe in a fundamental principle that all right development has to be rooted in the culture and civilisation milieu of a people. If people appreciate the pros and cons of a change process at a basic level, then it is reasonable to believe that they will do their best to get it right when they impact and negotiate with elements of that change. But if they are not at one with a mode of change, they are quite likely to misperceive it, underuse its best potential, make wasteful mistakes, or even collectively oppose it.

Our people particularly are smart and pick up potential change very fast, but they have to be given the chance to imaginatively work it out in their own familiar contexts. Therefore we would urge that high priority be given to found a sound system of Public Education, which will enable the transition into new modes of living, working, commuting, self-disciplining much easier and affordable. Just to highlight one single aspect of this macro process, imagine the massive disconnect in citizen discipline when it comes to Singapore and Sri Lanka. We should move into this well aware of the new challenges we are facing and immediately setting out to work towards educating our citizenry.


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