Shah reports on how an architect-driven community effort has seen
a new village take shape
When asked how he got involved in the reconstruction of Kalametiya,
a small fishing village of about 140 people, a long pause ensues
as Madhura Prematilleke, a Colombo-based architect, tries to sift
through his thoughts. Although he had done some planning projects
through his firm, Architrave, including the proposed development
master plan for Trincomalee, he had never been involved in a project
quite like this one.
didn’t go into the project as an architect,” Prematilleke
says after reflection. “I wanted to help in any way I could…I
just happened to be an architect.”
Prematilleke is one of a group of friends with close contact to
the village that formed the “Friends of Kalametiya”
(FoKal), which grew out of the Kalametiya Rehabilitation and Development
(KRDT) Fund, set up shortly after the tsunami disaster.
of KRDT’s founders are Sonali Senaratne, a sociologist whose
Ph.D research on coastal fishing villages brought her to Kalametiya
in the Ambalantota area some years ago, and her husband Dinesh Sellamuttu.
Early on, while non-governmental organizations were providing emergency
relief and fighting over the right to rebuild the village, FoKal
and KRDT were filling in the gaps with donations of clothing and
extra water. Later, when temporary housing was built, the group
shifted to providing boat repairs and bicycles for transport back
to the old village. They also encouraged and motivated the community
to stay involved in the reconstruction process.
soon realized that his main contribution would be his ability to
represent the community to the Urban Development Authority (UDA).
He registered with them to provide design and planning services
and thus began a tumultuous five-month relationship.
had been allocated for permanent resettlement by early February,
though it was four kilometres inland from the original village in
which 30 of 31 families were fisherfolk. In a manner that seems
to have been fairly typical throughout the country, there was nothing
but confusion and miscommunication about land allocation and the
coastal buffer zone from the beginning. In fact, had it not been
for the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, the people of Kalametiya would
still be waiting for answers. The Green Movement is a consortium
of 133 NGOs, community based groups, and other organizations around
the island. Three of its members moved into the temporary housing
site and made enormous efforts to push through the layers of bureaucracy.
At one point, waiting for a survey of the newly allocated land,
they had to take the survey order from the DS’s office to
the Survey Department for approval, and then take it from the department
and put it in the hands of the surveyor himself.
all of this was happening, Prematilleke and his colleagues were
developing the village plan and the housing type with information
and feedback they received from the villagers. The plan is quite
simple in the end, with the housing organized in small clusters
of six houses, each sharing a common central open space. The village’s
public spaces and activities, including a cricket ground, library
and nursery, were pulled to the front of the village near the road.
he points out to me what he believes to be a fundamental reality
in designing housing schemes in Sri Lanka: that nobody gets any
more than anyone else, in any sense. Each plot and each house had
to be exactly the same size. This is also why the facilities near
the road will be built as common spaces, to be shared with the neighbouring
villages that were unaffected by the tsunami.
architects also made numerous visits to Kalametiya to present designs
and to discuss ideas and concerns. At one particularly memorable
meeting, the community assembled under a tamarind tree near the
temporary housing site. With no proper arrangements for display,
the architects taped their drawings to the window of a van and began
the presentation. They were asked about everything from the foundation
design to material selection and gave many suggestions as well.
were very absorbed,” recalls Prematilleke. The villagers were
so involved that the Green Movement took an unusual step, and decided
to hire local baases, or masons, to organize and direct construction,
while relying on 80% of the labour force through community participation.
“It was like a dream project…something you imagine in
school that you might do one day, and it always stays there in your
imagination as an ideal.”
construction could begin, though, the architects needed approval
for the plans from the UDA. Prematilleke had been promised that
there was a “Special Mechanism” that would approve house
plans in one day. Ten days after submittal, with everyone eager
to get started, they had heard nothing. At this point, Prematilleke
called the UDA, and warned them that unless they approved the plans
immediately, they would have to bring bulldozers and knock down
the houses, because the villagers were going to build anyway.
“You have to take that stance if you’re speaking on
behalf of these people…they have nothing left to lose,”
says Prematilleke in explanation. “You have to see it from
their point of view.” He received full approval the same afternoon.
houses in Kalametiya are now under construction, and though the
project seems a success, it still leaves Prematilleke open to criticism
about being in implicit agreement with the coastal buffer zone.
you ask me as an individual,” he responds, “I am absolutely
opposed to this sort of forced relocation. However, you must eventually
accept the status-quo in this case and give the best deal possible.
The people of Kalametiya had to make the decision to accept the
situation and they did. I am only their architect.”
he does go on to say that the UDA has not written a clear policy
on this issue because they are afraid that everything they are doing
is legally challengeable. In fact, according to Sharia Scharenguivel
of the Law Faculty at Colombo University, their relocation of villages
is legally questionable. The UDA’s policies are by-laws, or
secondary legislation, and as such, any of its regulations, or as
Professor Scharenguivel says, “in this case, their lack of
clear regulations”, are legally challengeable.
given the huge expense such a challenge would entail, and the near
total power given to the UDA under the Urban Development Authority
Act of 1980, it becomes impractical for any group of simple fishermen
Despite all the struggles and controversy, though, Prematilleke
feels grateful that he has been able to make a contribution. “They
are my best clients,” he says, referring to the people of
Kalametiya. “They made changes throughout the process, and
of course, during construction, and they made the project their
months after the tsunami, the new Kalametiya village has begun to
take shape and the houses are up to the roofline. Though the community
participation in construction has fallen to 20% of total time and
effort, the people do continue to build and take ownership.
for Madhura Prematilleke, he looks forward to seeing the gardens
growing in Kalametiya in the future, and to the time when all the
unexpected small touches he sees tell him that the new village belongs
to its people.