Less than a decade after the end of the war, Colombo’s skyline has undergone a rapid transformation. Across the city, high-rise complexes have sprung up, and are billed as the practical solution to a housing crisis affecting the city’s working poor. The names of these towering structures – Methsara Uyana, Lakmuthu Sevana and Sirisara Uyana – promise earthly paradises, havens and parks rich in beauty and loving kindness, but it should come as no surprise that reality is somewhat more complicated.
Under the controversial Urban Regeneration Project (URP), over 5,000 families from underserved communities have already been resettled in high-rises in and around Colombo. And more will follow – the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has committed to building another 15,000 – 20,000 apartments.
At this crucial point in the URP, two recent studies –one published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and the other by International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) – offer critical insights into its successes and failures.
Their narratives and numbers reveal the tensions pervading the new high-rises and the emerging problems, around maintenance and security in particular. They examine the roots of specific dissatisfactions among the communities and highlight how trust in the government has been eroded over time. Notably, the studies agree on how these families are struggling to adapt to a new kind of life in the high-rises, so distinct from their familiar networks in the old settlements.
CPA’s report ‘Living it Down’ is the first and most comprehensive quantitative survey to date of those affected by the URP. Drawing on answers from 1222 respondents living in three complexes – Mihindusenpura, Sirisara Uyana and Methsara Uyana – all located in Dematagoda, it seeks to assess the experiences of those who have lived in these high-rises for over a year.
“The government has decided that the high-rises are the answer to housing issues in Colombo,” says Iromi Perera, a senior researcher at CPA and the lead author of ‘Living it Down.’ “In fact, historically, this is an approach that has failed all over the world. We are making the same kind of the mistakes that the US and other countries made in the 70s,” she adds, highlighting the very real danger that these high-rises might become vertical slums. Perera thinks it’s unlikely that the government will change track so far into this programme, but she hopes that sharing the experiences of communities will inform policy going forward.
The ICES research paper ‘Experiences of a relocated community in Colombo’ is a case study of the Sinhapura high-rise inWanathamulla and began with a survey of over 800 relocated households in Colombo, which was followed by a community profiling exercise. “I think the relocation of these shanty communities is an important phenomenon, and one worth studying because it has all kinds of politics attached to it,” says Iresha Lakshman, a sociologist and one of the authors of the ICES study.
Both studies highlight that how people feel about their new homes has a great deal to do with the circumstances under which they left their old ones. Sinhapura, for instance, comprises two phases: Phase 1 was constructed in 2007 and Phase 2 in 2011. Residents of Phase 1 come mainly from 54 watta. While the majority of the residents of Phase 2, were from 187 watta, in Torrington, Colombo 7.
The evictions for Phase 1 were loaded with violence as people were forced out of their homes by the military. One resident told ICES researchers: “We didn’t come here willingly. They demolished a section of our house and I dragged my children like animals and came here…”
Those in Phase 2 were deceived by promises that they would be housed in a complex in the same area as their old homes. Many in this group feel deeply nostalgic for their old homes, and those who relied on being in the Colombo 7 area for work have found their livelihoods adversely impacted.
Class distinctions – between those who had lived in “good houses” and those who lived in “small houses” – were also felt between those from Phase 1 and Phase 2. Those who already had indoor toilets for instance, were less keen on the apartments than those in small houses who may not have even had electricity.
The CPA study breaks down these histories by the numbers, and one result of this approach is that it challenges the notion that many of those resettled lived in squalor in shanty towns, squatting on government property. Instead the survey reveals that 70.3% previously lived in a permanent house; 23.8% had houses that were 100-500 square feet, 41% had houses that were 501-1000 square feet and 10% had houses that were 1000 – 2500 square feet.
A full 48.8% had indoor bathrooms, while 78% of houses had piped-water and 90.4% had electricity. 20.9% had a deed and owned their land and regardless of ownership, many had lived in this one space for years: 24.4%for 1-10 years, 26.8% for 11-20 years, 20.9% for 21-30 years and 25.8% for more than 30 years.
Perera says this offers a crucial lesson for policy makers: “We need to stop looking at people through the narrow lens of title holder and non-title holder.” People have often invested their savings in improving their homes, and may have lived in this one area for generations. “The state has also recognized these people on paper – they pay taxes, they are on the electoral register, they pay utility bills,” she points out, adding, “We should not be relocating people involuntarily.”
While the eviction process may have a difficult one for many of these families, there are those whose old homes were difficult places to live. According to the CPA study 21.6% said they experienced floods several times a year and 9.8% said twice a year.In focus groups with young children, ICES researchers were told by one student: “It used to always flood during heavy rain because those locations were low lands. We become helpless when floods come. Our books get wet. But here that is not a problem because these are flats.” Researchers noted that these families were also pleased at that they would one day own these new houses.
But it is clear, if this is to become a home for multiple generations that more thought needs to go into the design of the complexes and of the relocation process itself. There are practical issues: electricity meters that are inaccessible or water tanks on the roof whose lids are blown off by the wind, leaving residents sometimes drinking water polluted by the corpses of dead animals. There are cultural issues – no mosque in the vicinity of the Methsara Uyana has left its Muslim families bereft. There are economic issues – families are unable to pay the government money that is due for their homes, many have gone into debt, others have eaten into their savings.
Meanwhile, cleanliness in public spaces has begun to noticeably deteriorate. “The way that people treat the building reveals how they feel about it,” says Perera, adding that for her one of the most important findings of the CPA study is the disconnect people feel from their environment. Just keeping the lifts running and the public spaces and playgrounds clean is something of a challenge. “It is very unsustainable for the UDA to take on this role of the landlord,” says Perera.
Lakshman says a lack of community feeling is also contributing to a widespread sense of insecurity.“In their previous location for instance, there were still issues around drugs, but they told me that they and their neighbours would ensure that those people never came close to their homes or to their children. In the high-rises, they are scared to confront strangers because they are not sure the people around them will support them. That kind of social networking just hasn’t happened yet.”
This lack of a community identity is also what Lakshman believes is hindering the high-rise dwellers from taking charge of their own spaces. “For some things you need the intervention of the government,” says the sociologist, citing a problem such as a leak in a pipeline that runs 13 floors. However, the community playground has become filthy, and she believes the community themselves should be invested enough to keep it clean.
“You have all these environmental, economic, and political issues, but sociologically the biggest problem is how people have not connected with each other. There is simply no mechanism to help them do this.” With all the problems – both inherited and newly generated facing the URP – this is one of the most pressing. “They are missing a sense of belonging, and unless people feel they belong to this community, all these other problems will continue to worsen over the years.”
In her foreword to ‘Living it Down,’Perera sums up what needs to change in the government’s attitude: ‘Policy makers and the UDA must move away from an approach,’ she writes, ‘that views people, especially the working class poor, as impediments to adding social and economic value to the city, to one that acknowledges them not only as partners but, in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, as sovereign.’
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 25 December, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. Pictures courtesy Abdul Halik Azeez and Iromi Perera for Right To The City initiative/ CPA.