Friday, 6 June 2014 00:00
Recently, the foundation stone was laid for the redevelopment of lands in Slave Island – formerly occupied by low-income settlements – as an undertaking by the Indian giant ‘Tata Housing’ with a proposed investment of $ 430 million.
The Government claimed that the project, having accumulated nearly 500 small land plots for development, is the first of its kind. Prior to the event, a number of newspaper articles featured the Government’s program; however, spokesmen for Opposition parties and articles by local organisations with foreign connections were highly critical of the resettlement process.
Colonial era housing
During early British times, urban Colombo stretched from Port to Mattakkuliya, and the Fort was home to the Governor’s residence and administration. The southern part of Colombo was sparsely populated and were chiefly used for cultivation purposes (consider Cinnamon Gardens and Polwatta around Liberty Cinema). The British granted lands south of Fort along the Galle Road for development based on loyalty.
The first organisation established for servicing essential needs of the British community was the Ceylon Cold Stores (Elephant House), and first industrialisation came with the Wellawatte Weaving Mills. Elephant House’s manual workers settled around the factory in Slave Island. However, ‘Slave Island’ was created by the Portuguese and the Dutch, who indulged in the slave trade to the East in a minor way and therefore had a transit camp in Sri Lanka.
For Wellawatte Mills, workers (mostly low caste) and supervisors (high caste) were brought from South India. The settlement of the supervisory categories with their families close to the factory created the current Tamil population in Wellawatte. During the early 1950s, some flats were constructed in Slave Island as well as near Wellawatte Mills; these are in existence even today, but in a depleted condition.
Origin of slums
At the time of Independence, Colombo had few concentrations of low-income residences other than those mentioned above. However, in small workplaces and building sites, workers from far away resided within the premises. Some owners allowed their trusted workers, especially caretakers, to bring their families to the city, who then lived in small temporary shelters.
These shelters started in private properties, and then slowly expanded over the underutilised Government land as well as private lands. When these encroachers were not chased away, they brought their relatives and friends. They found ready employment in low-level jobs in shops, workplaces and in construction sites needing cheap labour.
Over the decades, unauthorised residents were helped by the local politicians, who fought for their rights, got them registered into electoral registers, and provided help with electricity connections, public toilets and community water taps. With the registration in the voter’s list and electrical connections, they received an acceptance paper from a Government Authority.
Thugs involved in illegal activities hid among the masses with a ready supply of assistants from the unemployed, took control and developed connections with politicians. Slum dwellers were also helped by the clergy, who set up places of worship for them. When the law was disturbed, the priests took charge and supported the residents, the law officials respected the clergy and were reluctant to attack. Thus, the slums grew and grew, and became a force to reckon with.
The Premadasa era was a goldmine for the urban poor. He provided deeds to the lands they occupied. In Colombo Fort, he erected rows of shops on the road opposite the Telecommunication Building. He also closed the Main Street, Pettah, erected rows of shops and distributed them among supporters. Taking his cue, unauthorised structures appeared on every open space.
Subsequent Governments faced great difficulties in relocating these shops from Fort and Main Street. Some were moved to a semi-permanent building built over a property adjoining the Fort Railway Station. No one complained that the location was earmarked for the Mail Sorting Office, or that concrete piles for foundations had already been constructed for a 20-storey building at an enormous cost.
Extent of the problem
A survey carried out in 2001 identified that there were a total of 77,612 families living in 1,614 low-income settlements in the city. According to the November 2010 national census, 68,812 families were living in shanties. However, only 20,000 families are actually living in filthy conditions beside canals and railway tracks.
Colombo’s low-income settlements – when compared to other South Asian countries – were relatively small clusters, with 74% having fewer than 50 units, while settlements over 500 units accounted for only 0.7% and less than 25% of these families had ownership rights.
By early 2000, a high percentage of lands around Colombo Fort and the boundary of Beira Lake were covered by low-income settlements, with their effluent discharging into the Beira Lake. Even the land south-east of Temple Trees was occupied by laundrymen.
Most shanties were semi-permanent structures with occasional upstairs, and some residents had deeds of sorts to their properties. Most did not own the land where their buildings were built, but some past builders had transferred their (nonexistent) rights to the children by deeds.
The ‘Mahinda Chinthana Vision for the Future’ 2010 (page 175), under the ‘Development of Underserved Settlements’ section, quotes: “The Government will introduce a program to provide housing facilities to families living in underserved settlements though liberalisation and development of prime lands in the cities. Public-Private Partnerships will be one of the modes adopted. The Urban Settlement and Development Authority and the Urban Development Authority will implement these programs with cooperation of private sector developers. This program will release approximately 350 acres of prime land for commercial and mixed use development. By 2015, 40,000 apartment units will be constructed for shanty dwellers and 20,000 luxury and semi-luxury apartments will be constructed in formerly underserved areas. By 2020, city of Colombo will have no more shanty dwellers.”
The Government plan requires an investment of Rs. 500 billion under the first phase to allocate 20,000 houses among low income families; the second phase will create an additional 68,812 houses.
A major achievement by the Government was to clean the Beira Lake by diverting sewage and waste dumped by the shanty dwellers living around the lake. Sahaspura, a tower block complex in North-East Colombo was the first housing complex built by the Government for those relocated from shanties.
According to the UDA, housing complexes are being constructed at Henamulla, Aluthmawatha, Ferguson Road, Bloemendhal, Cyril C. Perera Mawatha, Edirisinghe Mawatha, Maligawatte CGR land, Dematagoda CGR land, Estate 31 – Orugodawatte site, Estate 54 and 66, Government factory land-Kolonnawa, Salamulla and Angoda. Completed schemes are being settled with ousted families from different parts of the city.
Relocation in Slave Island
The situation of the Slave Island residents were highlighted by media and various agencies, possibly due to being located close to city centre, the residents being ethnically mixed and a large section of the population being Tamil and Muslim. Some occupiers of this depleted housing actually had deeds to their properties.
The first group to leave Slave Island were the Mews Street (adjoining the Army buildings) residents, who were given houses in Dematagoda, six km away.
The relocation of people from Slave Island was based on a better utilisation of lands for commercial purposes. Housing in Slave Island area came under three categories: 1. Properties with deeds, 2. Properties without documents and 3. Railway quarters.
The attempt to acquire properties was challenged in court, but UDA managed to convince the court that a fair deal was offered and acquired properties. Those with deeds for properties were offered equivalent size apartments up to 1,200 sq. ft. and shop-owners with shops in new developments.
Residents without deeds were offered standard size apartments i.e., a 400 sq. ft. house with living area, two bedrooms, kitchen and European style washroom. For most, the offer was a far improvement from their current residences. They were also offered financial assistance for renting accommodation until their apartments constructed in the vacated lands would be ready for occupation.
Vacated properties were handed over to private developers for constructing apartments, and the balance lands were slated for redevelopment. Thus the UDA was spared from spending for the construction.
The Government’s beautification of Colombo city and relocation of underserved communities were not appreciated by the Opposition parties as well as by organisations claiming to support the poor. Some of their allegations were as follows:
‘Poor people are forcibly evicted from their houses where they lived for generations’ – The so-called poor forcibly occupied Government and private lands, and continued living as a combined force supported by local politicians/thugs/priests who forced the respective State agencies to inaction.
‘The democratic rights of the people as land rights and entitlements are disregarded’ – The existences of slum communities were resented by law-abiding sectors of the neighbourhood, who were helpless. The land rights of these communities are based on their resisting the law for a long period. People who occupy other’s properties by force cannot have entitlements, but the Government and the society have agreed to treat them in a humane way by resettling them in apartments.
‘Irregular tenure of occupants is being used by the UDA to dispossess people without compensation while compelling them to pay for relocated housing’ – In relocation, the occupants without documents are being provided with a housing allowance until the new apartment is ready for occupation and a house worth Rs. 7 million for one million, payable without interest over 20 years. The balance is funded by the Government (people).
‘They were relocated in tower blocks away from children’s schooling and their places of business’ – Those relocated in tower blocks in Colombo are fortunate, as the relocation offers job opportunities, social recognition, a permanent address, a better society and an atmosphere away from illegal activities. During the past decades a high percentage of families living in Colombo moved to the outskirts due to land price escalations, their residences giving way to commercial establishments. Soon prestigious schools will be filled with students from the new tower blocks.
‘The standard house as one-size-fits-all approach has proved to be a failure in the past’ – The standard house, which has a living area, two bedrooms, kitchen and a toilet with electricity and pipe-borne water, is a vast improvement from the sheds they previously occupied, which had only common public toilets and a common water tap as facilities.
‘The post-war militarisation of governance in Sri Lanka using the Army claiming to make Colombo a beautiful place’ – The UDA, by using the Army, was able to eliminate the powerbase of the local thugs and politicians, who prevented Government agencies from taking action.
‘The taken-over lands are released for redevelopment by foreigners’ – Some lands with high commercial value were released to private developers, on condition that they fund and construct apartments for the former residents, releasing the Government of footing the cost.
‘In acquiring properties for Southern Expressway even those without titles as well as owners of nonregistered businesses were entitled to compensation for the loss of structures, assets and incomes’ – In property acquisition for the Southern Expressway, some property owners with political power manipulated to get higher valuations to their properties. Raising the benchmark benefited others too. Is society, which is forced to foot the bill eventually, to continue to allow such cheating?
Amalgamating land plots
The Slave Island project collected 456 housing plots yielding seven acres for development, where four towers of 650 housing units and 100 shops would be constructed. This shows allowing for roads, pathways and common amenities the average land size amounts to less than two perches per housing unit.
The opponents to the project claim that the National Housing Policy calls for “families who are able to build their own houses to be directly assisted by way of regularising the land, providing basic amenities and releasing housing assistance on concessionary interest rates with necessary technical guidance.” But the criticisers seem ignorant that the smallness of the lands do not allow individual improvements.
Cost of housing
The UDA claims that new settlers are provided with a house worth Rs. 7 million and that the prospective occupiers are expected to pay only Rs. 1 million, with an advance payment of Rs. 50,000 and balance in Rs. 3,960.00 monthly payments over the next 20 years. If one million were considered as a loan, the instalment amounts to 0.4% per annum interest without capital payment.
They are also expected to pay Rs. 50,000 in three instalments towards a maintenance fund for the maintenance of the apartment complex. The interest from the one-time payment of Rs. 50,000 cannot possibly pay for the maintenance of buildings, especially with inflation. The Government provides a house worth Rs. 7 million for Rs. 1 million and is expected to bear the maintenance costs as well.
One would recall that last year the Maligawatte flats currently occupied mostly by shop owners from Panchikawatta (original recipients have sold their houses) were repaired and painted at a cost of around Rs.75 million. The law-abiding citizens of the country (who did not forcefully occupy others’ property) are asked to bear Rs. 6.9 million per house, amounting to a total of Rs. 483,000 million (or nearly 500 billion) for the 70,000 houses, and also pay for maintenance of the housing as well. This sacrifice cannot be expected from the public.
Maintenance of tower buildings
Maintenance of jointly-owned buildings falls under the Condominium Property Act 12 of 1970, to facilitate the administration of collectively-owned properties, housing, or commercial units in a building or a complex. The condominium (corporation) is run by a committee appointed by the shareholders (apartment owners), and expenses are shared by the tenants.
The costs include electricity for lifts and lighting of public areas including stairs, maintenance of lifts and buildings, and salaries of maintenance and security staff. As water pressure from mains cannot reach every apartment, water needs to be stored in a ground tank and pumped into tanks at different levels. The cost of water to each tenant would include additional costs of pumping and maintenance.
Sahaspura Housing Scheme
The Government built high-rise housing, the Sahaspura Housing Scheme, was the first public housing scheme administered under the Condominium Property Act, and consists of five blocks of 14-storeyed buildings yielding 670 units of 485 sq.ft., but latter developments were reduced to 375 sq. ft. Sahaspura showed how persons from slums changed their attitudes for a better way of life under improved circumstances.
Staffing Colombo establishments
The public who patronise shops, hotels and restaurants in the city take services for granted, but hardly look at the lives of those who provide the services. These establishments survive due to the labour from shop assistants, waiters, etc., who dress in keeping with the establishments’ standards. Most staffers serving customers originate from lower middle class school dropouts, and live 15-20 km away from the city centre, enduring heavy transport costs.
The jobs are not attractive due to poor salaries and late closing hours, leaving practically every establishment with vacancies. However, employers would not dream of selecting their staff from the nearby slum-dwellers, due to the possible association of thuggery. Filling these vacancies would become a major problem in time to come.
Changes in attitudes with environment
People live in slums in the absence of alternatives; having lived in a congested environment, they are adaptable and would easily learn a trade, and their proximity to working places would be an asset to any employer. As proved by Sahaspura, the same occupants in a different environment would undergo changes in attitude and become eligible for job opportunities.
The construction boom and the new developments taking place in Colombo are creating employment opportunities – firstly for skilled construction workers such as masons, carpenters, iron benders, plumbers, tilers, labourers, thereafter for maintenance staff as electricians, air-conditioning mechanics, plumbers, mechanics, lift operators, gardeners, sweepers, and so on. The proposed commercial establishments will require staff of the calibre of clerks, cashiers, shop assistants and sales girls.
Young persons from new multi-storeyed housing would be ideally suited for these job opportunities. However, the problem would be the acquisitions of necessary skills, including proficiency of English. The prospective workforce living in the heart of Colombo can undergo required training in the Maradana Technical College for vocational skills and in the Hotel School located in the neighbourhood.
The issue lies in that our Government establishments cannot be expected to take the initiative in providing such courses for the current slum dwellers, as they would be considered ‘inferior’ citizens. This situation could only be rectified by the involvement of the Defence Secretary in issuing a directive.
Enforce Condominium Act on apartments
As shown above, the maintenance of new apartments for under-served settlements could become a serious burden to the society. The claim that most had no proper income was only an excuse. When the Condominium Act is enforced, their children would be encouraged into training to accept available jobs. The push factor for readjustment would be the need to pay for condominium charges.
The low level housing allowed for day-to-day survival without savings, but the requirement to pay a monthly sum would demand a change in lifestyle. When failures are evicted as would inevitably occur, the others would be forced to adjust their lifestyles to suit the environment, and a monthly salary would be most welcome.
When the younger generation of former slums embrace employment in establishments, producing a respectable society and maintaining their own apartments in a satisfactory manner, the Rs. 500 billion investment by society on building apartments would be fully justified.
(The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.)