Columns - From the Sidelines

CMC election and the ugly face of 'city beautification'

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Colombo's slum dwellers are probably bewildered by the sudden overdose of attention that has been administered to them by politicians of every stripe in the past few weeks.

Since the campaign for the Colombo Municipal Council election began, there has hardly been an election rally, news conference or speech by a politician that did not refer to the communities living by the canal banks and railway lines, and residents of 'wattas' whose miserable living conditions escape the notice of those same politicians at other times.

Squatter settlements happen to constitute a large proportion of the total number of dwellings in Colombo, hence the urgent need to secure their 'block votes.'

The government's plans to evict residents of these poorer neighbourhoods to make way for construction projects of private investors has been the most contentious election issue in the battle for Colombo. The fight for control over the country's oldest and largest local government body is all the more intense because it has become a do-or-die test of the opposition UNP's survival.

Destruction in the name of development

In spite of a history of having won the CMC for decades, the UNP's declining fortunes were accentuated in the last CMC election of 2006, when it couldn't even contest under its own elephant symbol owing to the rejection of the party's nomination papers, which contained errors.

It contested by proxy through a group using the spectacles symbol, and won. The fiasco that followed saw the elected independent group refusing to yield the reins of power to the UNP and eventually crossing over to the government. The CMC has since been dissolved and run by a Special Commissioner appointed by the president.

The impending evictions of slum dwellers and demolition of buildings in many parts of the city have turned the media spotlight onto the related issue of the government's sale of high-value state properties (from which the squatters are to be evicted) to foreign companies and private investors.

Questions have arisen in parliament over alleged irregularities in these transactions, with tender procedures having been bypassed. There has been a singular lack of transparency on the part of the government with little opportunity for public debate on the desirability of the proposed changes that will result from these mega projects in the city. Their scale is such that one would expect wide-ranging input from experts in the areas of town planning, engineering, health and environment before they are approved. But the public knows little about them.

The land grabbing issue is not limited to Colombo -- protests have been reported in fishing communities affected by tourism projects along the east coast from Kuchchaveli to Trinco, and on the west coast in Kalpitiya. The handing over of thousands of acres of forest in Somawathiya National Park (Polonnaruwa) to a multi-national corporation for banana cultivation has caused outrage among environmentalists and concerned citizens.

The prospect of a 'beautified city' full of luxury hotels and shopping complexes is cold comfort to Colombo residents who face eviction, especially when they know that with each of these deals a politician somewhere stuffs his pocket with a fat commission. The government's mayoral candidate Milinda Moragoda has been earnestly reassuring residents of areas earmarked for demolition that they will not be driven out but will be given alternative accommodation in Colombo. The UNP has responded with promises not to demolish houses.

Surely the problems surrounding squatter communities require a more far sighted approach than envisaged in either the government's plan (to evict them) or the opposition's (not to evict them). Neither party has placed the issue in its wider context, linking it to the need to uplift the rural economy and thereby stem the influx into the city, whose infrastructure cannot cope.

But it was never the government's intention to address this particular human and development issue. Rather it is a case of the campaign being hijacked by it, since the demolition of houses is inevitable if the government is to proceed with its plans.

Those plans, from the little that is known of them, also appear to involve dramatic changes in the way the CMC is run. Moragoda has said very little during the campaign run about the plan afoot to amalgamate the municipal councils of Colombo, Dehiwala-Mount-Lavinia and Kotte, along with Kolonnawa Urban Council and Kotikawatta and Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabhas. Under this proposal it is reported that a 'Metropolitan City Corporation' is to be formed, headed by a governor appointed by the President.

The issue here is not opposition to change per se, but again, the fact that changes in the pipeline have not been subjected to public discussion or parliamentary debate. In the absence of such discussion one is left to conclude that the amalgamation plan is yet another move in the direction of centralizing power.
Another aspect of the government's approach to local government that has passed without comment during the campaign is the involvement of the Defence Ministry. It has been hinted -- here and there -- that the development plans require the support of the police ('for law enforcement') and military.

One of Moragoda's most cryptic statements appeared in a recent newspaper interview, when questioned about the appropriateness of retaining the Urban Development Authority under the Ministry of Defence. In response to the interviewer's suggestion that matters such as relocation or redevelopment of an urban area should be under civilian control, he said: "The military interference that is taking place is part of the development agenda. We have over 250,000 personnel in the military. They have to do something, to make a contribution to society." (Daily Mirror, 29.09.11)

Sri Lanka's armed forces are loved and respected by the people. The citizens would not want to see them deployed to intimidate poor residents of some shanty town whose homes are being demolished. Now that the war is over, the question of 'what to do with the forces' has arisen, but isn't that a separate issue? People may well ask what right the government has to use them as a cat's paw to advance its agenda.

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]
SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Other Columns
Political Column
All set for the big battle for Colombo
5th Column
A man for all seasons
The Economic Analysis
Economic growth and external financial stability
Not issued on this week
Focus on Rights
Swimming against strong currents
Talk at the Cafe Spectator
Rajapaksa's birthday PR
From the Sidelines
CMC election and the ugly face of 'city beautification'


Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 1996 - 2011 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved | Site best viewed in IE ver 8.0 @ 1024 x 768 resolution