28 October, 2021

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World Habitat Day; Housing & Shelter Needs In The Gampaha District

By Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda

Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda

1. Gampaha District

The problem of housing and shelter is becoming a burning issue in the district of Gampaha due to rapid development activities that are taking place there. Negombo, Katana, Wattala are the electorates where many industrial activities such as fisheries, tourism, garment and travel and transport are being carried out. The population in these areas is increasing as there is a growth in migration from rural areas towards the industrial areas during the last several decades.

On this World Habitat Day, it would be unfair if other places in Sri Lanka where the housing problem is quite acute are not mentioned. Eg. the refugees and victims in war affected areas and also the worker families living in the line rooms in the plantation sector.

2. Its Impact on People

The housing problem in Gampaha district is mostly found in the areas where industrial activities take place, such as the fishing and tourism in Negombo and garment manufacturing industrial zones in Katana and Jaela.

The problem of housing and shelter in the Gampaha district appears in various forms. The demand of a large sector of people is land to construct houses. The other sector of people is demanding titles for the land given to them during election times which they have been occupying for several decades.

The lack of privacy due to heavy overcrowded “homes” is one effect of housing and shelter problem. In some instances, three families or even more live in a small house (shack) made out of wooden planks.

Most families are forced to pay a large portion of their monthly salary as house rent creating a situation of food scarcity in their families. A housing or shelter issue does not arise if people receive high incomes. Then, the market solves the problem.

One who does not have his/her own home does not also have a “home address”. Such families find it hard to secure social recognition and self- respect. For instance, those who are without addresses, they are faced with new problems when they have to admit their children to schools or to have their names registered for voting. In modern days, although having an address becomes such an important issue, one cannot obtain it without having ownership to a house.

3. Violation of Human Dignity

Housing is a basic right. When it is not respected it inevitably violates several other rights such as privacy, health, environment, education, water and sanitation, security, dignity, right to life, social inclusion etc.

The UN declaration No 1 and No 25 and several other conventions acknowledge and support shelter rights. The article 25 recognizes the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. It states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing of oneself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services.”

According to the article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the States have recognized the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. Yet there are in our countries thousands who suffer from lack of housing and shelter.

Role of the State

The international agencies have recognized the obligation that the State has to ensure reasonable housing facilities for each and every citizen. The MP’s of each electorate, the members of the Provincial Councils and the Central Government have to work together in planning out solutions to the housing issue.

It is of common knowledge that housing and shelter rights are not sufficiently recognized as a priority by the State and the other responsible agencies as well. The State authorities and those who have the decision making power on development priorities ought to give top priority to housing needs of the poor.

Providing houses or shelter is neither a simple matter of having a roof over one’s head for mere survival nor demanding luxury housing facilities. Nevertheless, the government has the responsibility to provide people houses with basic services such as schools, health clinics, water and sanitation, roads etc to live a fuller life to suit human dignity.

It is well understood that the governments may not have the resources to provide a complete house to every family. However, in a democratic set up, the State together with people can initiate a dialogue in order to develop a process of collaboration among the stakeholders in designing a solution. During such a dialogue one can learn what people actually need, what people can contribute and what people expect from the State and what the State can provide and so on. The common complaint of those people seeking housing and shelter is the unavailability of land for the poor for their housing purposes but land is available for businesses.

Unfortunately, the unethical practice in Sri Lanka is that the issue of housing and shelter is brought before the public only during the election times by the politicians but it is soon forgotten. People’s issues are used by them as political tools.

4. Role of People

Often we find those people who are acutely afflicted by this problem are hardly taking action to lobby with their representatives and sensitize them about the burning issue. They simply wait doing nothing hoping until one fine day their leaders will step in with a solution. Some others believe that they will receive a house when their party takes over power. However, contrary to such beliefs the governments have come and gone but the housing problem has never being solved and remains a major challenge to the authorities and people as well until now. The poor are continuing to suffer as a result.

Indeed a solution to the problem can be hurried up if people begin to influence the policy makers. So long as people remain dormant without voicing out their grievances the authorities too would go into slumber until the bell announcing another election is heard.

Therefore, a third party such as civil society organizations, Faith based groups and NGOs have to come into the scene to empower people with shelter needs to play an active role of undertaking many tasks entailed in solving the housing and shelter problem.

Solving the housing problem of the poor is not a private task but ought to be a community exercise. Therefore, the poor need to develop their organizational strength. The involvement of people and their active participation in housing programs is a concept heavily promoted by the late Mr. Susil Siriwardana who was the chief architects of the million housing programme. Under his guidance the people of Negombo were once fortunate to experience what participation really means in community housing programmes. From the development perspective the participation of people in the pursuit of solutions is worth encouraging.

The poor will then have to be assigned with tasks related to self help housing activities. For instance those empowered will look for others who suffer under same conditions and encourage them to join the process. The leaders of the poor will begin to negotiate with the authorities seeking their consent to allocation of lands for housing or receive permanent titles to lands which they have been occupying over decades.

Undoubtedly such negotiations will take years to produce positive results. Meanwhile, they can start their saving programmes to build up a fund within the family and even form a housing cooperative with the expectations that the government authorities will one day provide facilities supporting actual construction.

The media in this context has a supportive role to play in housing and shelter programs of the poor. The general public including the political, civil and religious authorities are very much ignorant of the sufferings and pains that those without houses undergo. It is the media which can educate the public on this issue. If people without shelter are now organized they should be able to win over the media and other supportive groups. Another matter they ought to pay attention is to build up a strong network of all people who suffer without housing and shelter facilities so that all together they could raise a stronger voice.

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    Oh God, they will put the money of the suffering Lankans on Art work and Prime Real Estate of the Western World, but do nothing for the integration, interaction, and livelihood of the people.

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