Trans-sitting on the banks of the Kelani

Uprooted from 20-year-old homes on Railway Dept land, residents in temporary abodes await permanent flats promised in 2 years

Some are cheering while others are not, at their new abodes provided by the State, after they were told to move out from their original homes at Mahawatta in Bloemendhal, with the promise of a flat in two years from now, somewhere in the city.
The people were earlier squatters of Mahawatta Rail Gate, occupying land owned by the Railway Dept, for over two decades, calling it their home.

The temporary abodes at Nagalagam Street, close to the banks of the Kelaniya.Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

However, over the recent months, they were repeatedly reminded that time was running out for them at Mahawatta Rail Gate.
And so 60 families,comprising Sinhalese, Tamils and Mislims have been relocated at Nagalagam Street, close to the banks of the Kelaniya, at the gateway to the city. This is where they will have to stay for the next two years, until the Government provides them with the promised flats.
Their occupations range from shoemakers to iron and goldsmiths, tailors, bakers, pappadam manufacturers, small-time businessmen, labourers, etc.

P. Delima, a 42-year-old mother of two, is getting ready to stay in the new shelter built on a single perch of land, and measuring up to 256 sq. ft as she has no other option.

“Before we came here some two weeks ago, we had a two storied house at Mahawatta Rail Gate, with all facilities.
“But things are going to be different over here, as my family and I, along with everyone else, will now have to use the common toilets and bathing areas at the far end of the complex. But I am hopeful that the next two years will pass quickly, and we could move into the promised flats,” she said.

Ramasamy Aiyammah is sad, because her tiny business of fancy jewellery and textiles has hit the doldrums for the moment at least. “I hope to pick up business at the very earliest, and the authorities were kind enough to provide me with such a space close to my new home,” she said.
Echoing the same feelings of her neighbour, P. Delima said she too was full of hope of the promised flat, but was not convinced altogether that she would ever get it.

Sathaveli Bagawadhi, 45, a father of two, and 45-year-old S. Ganeshan are also small-time businessmen from the Rail Gate Mahawatta, who are determined not to put up shutters in the new surroundings.“At my earlier place, I operated a medium-sized tea kiosk, and right now, I am busy constructing a new one at Nagalagam Street, just next to my house,” said Ganeshan, a father of three.

For his part, Sathaveli Bagawadhi has been making flower garlands that are sold to worshippers visiting the many kovils in the area for the past 15 years. “This is what I intend to do from here as well, because I know of no other trade”, he said.
Suminal Perera is a happy man with his new-found home at Nagalagam Street.
“We have clean water to drink and wash with, equally good sanitary facilities, and therefore, I am not grumbling”, said the father of three.
He added that, the authorities had also promised him space to open a small boutique or shop somewhere in the neighbourhood, and was eager to get started at the earliest.

But, some in the neighbourhood who witnessed the construction of their temporary abodes at Nagalagam Street, said the material used for the walls were made up of compressed straw, and could come apart at any time, once the rains set in.
However, the construction of the transit abodes and the material used was strongly defended by the man behind the whole affair.
The material used for the walls is locally produced at a factory in Minneriya and is known as Dura.“The Dura sheets have proven to be worthy material for make-shift abodes, and we intend using it for similar constructions planned for similar purposes in the future,” said the chief contractor of the site, Anil Sajith Lal.

Urban Development Authority (UDA) Director General Nihal Fernando said that these people would be moved out at the very earliest, as soon as the new homes are completed. “It does not necessarily mean two more years, it could be very much earlier than that. Work is going on at a steady pace and the people will be re-located as soon as the new houses are completed”, Mr. Fernando added.
He said that, at the moment, there are 12 such sites under construction in various parts of the city, and work is expected to be completed stage by stage.
As for the temporary shelters, they will be filled by new batches from time to time, subject to requirement.
“These temporary units could be considered as transit shelters for those who have been listed to move into permanent homes, whether it be flats or otherwise”, Mr. Fernando said.

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