Business Times

Famous city landmark – the St. John Fish Market – moves to Peliyagoda

By Quintus Perera

St JOHN’S FISH MARKET PETTAH --Colombo’s skyline and landscape is changing, but slowly and the slowness indicates the pace of development in comparison to some other cities of the region which are far ahead of Sri Lanka’s main business district and administrative capital.


The Government has now drawn up plans to develop the city and the task of such a development plans has been entrusted to the Urban Development Authority. Construction of buildings, roads and bridges is the mirror of this development strategy and the case of construction of any buildings in Colombo is handicapped due to lack of land. Therefore this kind of development invariably targets old buildings and any marshy land available. So, in adjusting to the new development trend, the change in the landscape of the Colombo City is inevitable.

In this whole phenomenon of city development and the changing landscape, the St John’s Fish Market (SJFM) at Pettah is caught in the middle and all plans are afoot to remove it altogether from the city of Colombo to a new building constructed on the reclaimed marshy land, away from Colombo in Peliyagoda.

St John’s Fish Market was built in 1894 by the Colombo Municipal Council along St Johns Road, Pettah which even at that point of time was a very crowded and busy road. It was constructed when C.E.D. Pennywick was the Mayor and Chairman, Colombo Municipal Council. In its original concept the fish market would have had some historical value but today nothing is left as such as the entire St John’s Fish Market was demolished during Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Government in 1983.

Subsequently during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s Government a three storey building work at the old market was constructed making it the Colombo Central Supermarket and its ownership was moved to UDA while the original owners Colombo Municipal Council operated the St John’s Fish Market in the ground floor.

The Business Times recently visited the SJFM twice during the wee hours at around 3 am in watery muck to ascertain how the entire fish trade gets underway. During the British times this fish market was constructed for the use of the city dwellers as a part of CMC’s responsibility to provide amenities and facilities to make the lives of the city folk comfortable.

There is absolutely no disturbance or rackety noises from the SJFM that would disturb city folk as the height of activity takes place around 4 am when the city is asleep and at that point of time it is the busiest place in the city.

Those who operate here for a long time told BT that the British has provided everything for the smooth functioning of this fish market but improper and misuse of facilities and turning the fish market into a supermarket created all the rumpus. Wholesale areas are used for retailing and unloading bays are used for the sale of fish while there are no toilet facilities.

Rohan Perera, President, Fish Sellers Association told BT that moving the city fish market to Peliyagoda would not be the best and the majority of those engaged in the fish trade here are in two minds whether to shift or not. He said that they have inspected the new premises in Peliyagoda and said that there are some serious flaws to conduct their trade in that premises.

He said that earlier fish from all parts of the country came to SJFM and during the conflict time fish from the North and the East did not reach here. Some buyers are now accustomed to go to the sources of the catch to make their purchases and slowly the number of buyers and sellers would gradually diminish and once the fish market is moved to Peliyagoda this number would further diminish.

Some of the fish carriers and nattames (street delivery-men) told the BT that they would not be able to operate in Peliyagoda in the same way they operate in Colombo and also some of them said that they would not be able to operate at all in Peliyagoda. Thus, the shift of the SJFM to Peliyagoda would hit the first rung of the fish trade like in the case of removing the pavement hawkers in the city.

Jayantha Chandrasoma, Chairman, National Aquaculture Development Authority told the BT that a modern fish market is waiting to be occupied in Peliyagoda, and most probably it would be declared open in January next year. He said the Peliyagoda Fish Market (PFM) has two main buildings – one with 148 stalls for wholesale marketing and the other with 20 stalls for retail marketing. There are facilities for two bank branches, space for shops to sell fishing gear, a modern restaurant and two flake ice plants capable of producing 25 tons of ice per day.

The PFM occupies 3.2 hectares of reclaimed marshy land and the buildings were constructed at a cost of Rs 1,700 million of which 50% was financed by the Asian Development Bank and the balance by the government.

Mr Perera said that they have sought a clarification as to their stand at the SJFM from the CMC as they felt that the fish market belongs to CMC and they are still awaiting a reply from CMC. Meanwhile when contacted, Omar Kamil, Special Commissioner, CMC told the BT that as far as they are concerned they have allowed the fish sellers in Pettah to continue this year and also they would be permitted to operate next year. He said that up till 1979/80 the SJFM was owned by the CMC but then it was vested in the UDA. He said that according to his knowledge the Peliyagoda Fish Market would be opened by the middle of next year.

When asked once the SJFM moved to Peliyagoda what the CMC’s responsibility would be in providing this facility to the city dwellers, Mr Kamil said that it would be a matter that would be decided then and said that the answer to this question should be obtained from the UDA. When asked whether it was the duty and responsibility of CMC to see to the comfort of the Colombo citizens in providing such facilities with a well-stocked fish market, he did not provide a clear answer.

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