By Springer –
The news that those living in low income urban settlements will get alternative accommodation in high rise apartments, may really excite the average Sri Lankan of a less analytical mind. However the story is actually about not doing right, but using might. This is the usual cruel and boorish behavior of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his abetters in the now infamous UDA. The acronym UDA can be changed from Urban Development Authority to Unauthorised Demolition Action.
In yet another move to evict residents of these settlements, abjectly unjust treatment is being dished out to over 2500 families. This is in the location of Wanathamulla, Borella in Colombo 8 and includes the 34th , 45th , 49th, 51st , 63rd and 66th “wattes” or sections as well as those residents on Saranapala Himi Mawatha. The relatively affluent and powerful who bum suck the regime live in Section C and are not very much under threat. Many of these 2500 families, have proper deeds given to their forefathers under Municipal Housing Schemes. The houses though small in extent have seen substantial value addition, over several generations. Some of these units are valued at sums to the tune of 4 to 5 million.
The decision to sweep the people out of their homes comes in the wake of another sell out of prime land, to earn money for the state as coffers are empty. These kinds of deals also bring in millions as commissions to the ruling family and their minions. Yet another reason of course is to enhance the value of lands already grabbed or bought at ridiculously low prices, most often by force by the Raja clan. An up market capital city like Sydney or even Singapore adds value to the lands that it contains. Most people do not see this angle of Gota and why he annexed the UDA under the most unlikely of Ministries, to control it.
Many of the older people who wish to spend the twilight of their life are totally devastated as it is like drowning in the ocean. The ocean here is the insurmountable force of the military and a ruthless Gota. He is said to meet the people regularly, threatening them and being rude, continuously.
One such event where he was really rude and threatening was said to be on the 3oth of January 2014, where people had been notified on printed slips of paper to come to the Exhibition and Convention Centre in Fort. Though this was meant to be a dialogue with the residents, when each person got up to speak, they had received different responses. To one person he had said “Kanata Gahanawa” – I will hit you on your ear, to another young man who said he could not afford to pay for a new unit, he had insultingly offered a job in the Army! Promises empty promises! Gotabaya had been in the area yesterday as well, in his usual threatening manner stating that they would have to move by the beginning of March 2014.
The modalities of this eviction is in the guise of offering alternatives in the form of “flats”, in a new block, Mihindusenpura, next to the well known Sahaspura, low income apartments, in Colombo 9, next door. These alternatives are smaller than the smallest houses that some people live – 380 square feet. Construction is said to be dangerously sub standard. On close observation it is seen that the slab holding each floor is only 2.5 inches thick. The “cement” block stones expand when put into water. What is the situation of the residents when rains come down on this structure? The corridor between two sets of facing apartments is said to be 4.5 feet. This creates serious access as well as safety and privacy issues, with a host of other variables such as abuse and violence against women and girls. Many of the women residents earn a living through either making food to sell or other cottage industries at home such as sewing. Their lament is the loudest. The space inside the houses are so small, the tiny kitchen is unbelievable. It is the women who are impacted the most. As women in any Society spend a longer time in the house. The “apartments” are a disaster of health and sanitation. One has to enter the toilet, sit on the commode and then close the door. Besides being impossible to engage in ablutions, it is a nightmare to clean. The parents of young girls say that living in Mihindusenpura is a cocktail for gender based violence. There is only one life that works and girls have to use this one lift in close proximity to those who could be easily abusive.
Adding insult to this grave injury is that people have to actually “pay” for this alternative that they never requested. Some residents are almost suicidal at having to pay Rs 100,000 initially in two instalments and Rs 4,000/month thereafter for 20 years. Residents should actually be compensated for what they are loosing and it is not for them to pay, what seems to be nearly Rs 1 million for each unit.
Thilanga Sumathipala, MP has taken some part of this bullying, saying people have to move and it is only a question of time. What right has Sumathipala to say this? Has this team explored the legalities and understood them thoroughly? Even squatters have to be given housing under basic human rights law and principles of prescription.
Quite cunningly some months ago, the UDA has asked the residents to fill in a form “requesting” alternate housing. Smart residents and community leaders saw through this and advised their neighbours not to fill this form. As is the usual Sri Lankan practice of never uniting for any cause, some filled this form and submitted it. Filling such a request would have been the easiest path to eviction for the UDA as it would be shown as a voluntary move.
So what do the people of this community request? Easy answer. Alternate housing which is of better quality and larger area than what they are living in now. They are willing to pay on these terms and would move out.
Will Gota and UDA show another way? Civil Society should step in before it is not too late to save the people and this situation.