Governments are fond of big projects because they are great at attracting votes. But big projects also come with big consequences for a larger number of people. Megapolis Minister Champika Ranawaka this week outlined plans to remove about half of Colombo’s slums by 2020. Such a huge step would impact thousands of lives and deserves to have much more light shed on what it would mean for sustainable development.
The Minister in his speech had said the Urban Development Authority (UDA) estimates as many as 50,000 slums or underserved settlements exist in Colombo. The UDA has earlier said they believe as much as 50% of Colombo’s population lives in these settlements. Despite their large number these slums are usually pinched into smaller tracts of land and provide the large component of the labour force needed by the capital. Many of these families have also lived in these settlements for decades and have permanent or semi-permanent housing.
The Megapolis plan launched a while ago by the Government and championed by Ranawaka is clear that these settlements are an “obstacle to realising the economic value of urban land.” They have called for their removal, usually by moving them into “high rise” buildings. This is despite numerous social and economic problems that have popped up in apartment buildings that were built by the previous Government. Hundreds of families moved to apartments, usually by force, by the Rajapaksa administration have seen these spaces becoming vertical slums. Instead of providing solutions to these issues the Government is considering increasing them.
UDA officials have often said that these settlements occupy nearly 900 acres. As pointed out by Independent Researcher and pro-poor activist Vijay K. Nagaraj the extent of the city of Colombo is around 37 square kilometres or about 9,140 acres. In other words, nearly 50% of the population of the city occupies just under 10% of its area.
He argues that the Government insists even 10%, is too much for the poor and they need to be further densified i.e. pushed into high-rises. Why does the Megapolis plan fail to recognise the extent of existing spatial inequality and actually call for measures that worsen it while claiming to be pursuing social equity? Why is there little more than lip service to equity and inclusion?
More than the poor occupying valuable lands, the truth is that lands occupied by the poor can be taken away far more cheaply and easily, especially if you simply dispossess them on the grounds that no title means no rights. The silence on committing to policies that do provide some equity safeguards, like the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy, is indicative of what the Megapolis may mean for the poor and working classes.
Even a Government as powerful as the one under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa found moving people hard going as time wore on. Many of them banded together and even lodged cases at the Supreme Court against removals but with limited success; many became activists and faced suppression. It was common to see the army deployed at evictions.
Sri Lanka does not need to see a return to such injustices. Development has to be equitable for it to have a tangible impact on people. Building luxury apartments for the richest 1% does not achieve that and the Government must remember its responsibilities to the poor when it is drawing up policy.