As many as 135,000 Colombo families, or 500,000 persons, could be forcibly evicted by Sri Lankan authorities, prompted by the country’s Urban Development Authority (UDA), according to a recent report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), which cited official estimates as its source for these numbers. Further, a media statement released by the CPA [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Colombo beautification at a cost of 135,000 families : CPA


As many as 135,000 Colombo families, or 500,000 persons, could be forcibly evicted by Sri Lankan authorities, prompted by the country’s Urban Development Authority (UDA), according to a recent report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), which cited official estimates as its source for these numbers.

Further, a media statement released by the CPA in tandem with the report, titled “Forced Evictions in Colombo – The Ugly Price of Beautification”, also signalled; “Of particular concern are the involvement of the military controlled UDA in forced evictions, the modalities of which are similar to those employed in the North and East of Sri Lanka, and the scale which, according to some estimates, could even dwarf displacement in Northern Sri Lanka during the final two years of the war. The report also argues that viewing the forced evictions in Colombo as part of a development project only serves to hide the enormous social, public and human costs”.

Additionally, the CPA also opined that, “in the process, a range of existing domestic legal and policy safeguards and standards are being flouted with impunity. The report underlines that respect for domestic and internationally recognised standards is crucial to both prevent and minimise forced evictions and ensure that any resettlement results in a significant accretion rather than erosion of civil, economic, political and social rights”.

Another view of the Vihara Mahadevi Park

Quoted in the CPA statement, the organisation’s Executive Director, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, commented; “This report is about yet another key contemporary issue that goes to the very heart of democratic governance in our country – transparency, the rule of law and equality before it. It deserves our critical attention. It cannot and should not be ignored”.

Meanwhile, the CPA report itself observed the following “Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, now presiding over urban development in Sri Lanka, has repeatedly stressed that his goal is to transform Colombo into a slum-free, ‘world-class’, ‘garden city’; a ‘preferred destination for international business and tourism.’ This is what the UDA’s Urban Regeneration Project (URP) seeks to realise. While full details of the URP have never been officially made public, it is fast becoming clear that it entails the forced relocation of thousands of poor and lower-middle income families across the city. Official estimates of the number of families to be relocated over the next few years vary from ‘nearly 70,000′ to 135,000. Assuming an average urban household size of 4.27, this implies the relocation of anywhere between 280,000 to over 500,000 people, the scale and complexity of which presents wide ranging social and economic risks”.

Also noted; “While the URP’s aim of making Colombo beautiful and free of slums and shanties is endlessly replayed in the largely state-controlled media and public forums, it is important to underline that unlike many other South Asian cities for example, Colombo has never had large sprawling slums. A 2001 survey carried out by the Colombo Municipal Council and Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre identified a total of 77,612 families living in 1,614 low-income settlements in the city. Significantly however, the study also found it ‘difficult to categorise all the identified low-income settlements as being slums.’ It also found that unlike other large South Asian cities, Colombo’s low-income settlements were relatively small clusters with 74 per cent of them having fewer than 50 housing units while

The Vihara Mahadevi Park

settlements with more than 500 units accounted for only about 0.7 per cent of the total low-income settlements in Colombo.However, less than 25 per cent of these families had ownership rights and more than half of this population lacked security of tenure”.

“There is no doubt that many of Colombo’s low income settlements need significantly higher levels of service provisioning and that lack of adequate housing, secure tenure and title are a concern. However, the URP, which lacks a comprehensive framework of entitlements and an involuntary resettlement policy in line with national and international standards, essentially makes accepting relocation a pre-condition for access to better housing and services. The URP’s approach to housing contradicts that which is spelt out in the draft National Housing Policy’s (NHP) that contains many positive elements despite its limitations. That the UDA is totally ignoring the NHP’s approach only underlines the former’s power and the yawning gap between rhetoric and practice”, added the report.

Additionally, the report also makes the following allegation, “far from regularising tenure and enabling families to build their own houses in-situ, thus being empowered to add social and economic value to their own communities, irregular tenure is being used by the UDA to dispossess people without compensation while compelling them to pay for relocated housing. This is in contrast to the case of the Southern Expressway wherein even those without titles as well as owners of non- registered businesses were entitled to compensation for the loss of structures, assets and incomes. The lack of a comprehensive framework of rights and entitlements in line with nationally and internationally recognised standards pertaining to all aspects of the process and goals of involuntary resettlement as part of the URP poses a serious threat to the rights of thousands of people in Colombo… However, let alone consent or choice in terms of relocation, the URP in general and the relocation process in particular is marked by a lack of access to information and meaningful public consultation. Surveys that have not been made public and one-time meetings of communities facing evictions with senior military and UDA officials [are] being passed off as ‘consultation’. Let alone enabling communities to participate in designing and developing resettlement sites, the new housing, all vertical towers, have been designed and are being built long before the specific needs of communities have been assessed or determined”.

At the same time the report also stated; “Such a one-size-fits-all approach has proved to be a failure in the past. For instance, a 2010 study of residents of Sahaspura, a tower block complex in North-east Colombo housing those relocated from shanties, concluded that the ‘relocation project failed to achieve its targets largely because the resettlement process did not address the disruption of social fabric and did not incorporate strategies to prevent social disarticulation. Also, it did not address other socio- economic aspects such as livelihoods of non-regular income earners and their access to credit’”.

Commenting further, the report also indicated that the “serious democratic deficits in Colombo’s URP, whether in respect of safeguarding land rights and entitlements or ensuring transparency and participation, is inextricably linked to the post-war militarisation of governance in Sri Lanka, including at the level of municipalities. The military is ubiquitous in Colombo and is seen landscaping, building, cleaning and undertaking many of the tasks more commonly associated with a municipality. Various disciplinary regimes — from ‘jay-walking’ fines to the ‘environmental police’ to controlling access to the city – are in place and public spaces are constantly under surveillance, by the military and police… The military, acting within and through the UDA, also coordinates the process of evictions and relocation. Affected residents have told CPA that they have had to approach senior military officers who are overseeing the process with their requests and grievances rather than the municipality or other agencies. They also reported high levels of surveillance involving police and military personnel both prior to and after relocation. CPA researchers have also seen military personnel active during and after demolitions”.

“The UDA, backed by the enormous human, financial and technical resources of the military, and its political clout, has reduced the CMC to, at best, being a service provider. Given that elected representatives to the local government have no substantive say in the URP and given the extent of the military/UDA control, the entire land acquisition and relocation process has been placed beyond the pale of democratic institutions, effectively neutralising any possible efforts by affected communities and their political representatives to influence it. The ‘involvement’ of political representatives has been limited to those from the ruling UPFA and is either ceremonial or aimed at strengthening their patronage networks when communities are forced to appeal to them for relief (such as assistance with down-payments for the new houses) or addressing grievances (such as errors in allocation of houses in relocation sites)”, added the report.

The CPA report also made the following assertions; “As outlined in the Mahinda Chintana 2010, the Government’s development policy framework, a key goal of urban development is ‘improving under-served settlements in the city of Colombo through private developers and liberate (sic) prime lands for commercial activities. Through this process, under utilised urban prime lands will be utilised for development and commercial purposes by the private sector.’ In fact, the Mahinda Chintana is explicit that such ‘liberation’ of land will ‘release approximately 350 acres of prime land for commercial and mixed- use development. By 2015, 40,000 apartment units will be constructed for shanty dwellers and 20,000 luxury and semi-luxury apartments will be constructed in formerly underserved areas.’

Moreover, there is no elaboration of what is meant by these lands being ‘under- utiilised’, though a close reading suggests that what this actually implies is that these lands are not available for private commercial exploitation. The handing over of ‘under utilised urban prime lands’, in many cases home to poor or lower-middle income communities for decades, to the private sector raises significant concerns regarding equity which go well beyond the simple equation suggested by ‘40,000 apartment units for the poor’ equals ‘20,000 luxury and semi-luxury apartments’. If at all it exists, a systematic cost-benefit analysis of this and other dimensions of the URP have never been subject to debate in Parliament, the Municipal Councils or scrutiny in the public domain”.

Elaborating, this report also added; “This shift towards relying on private developers and capital has to be seen in the light of the prescription in the Mahinda Chintana that the ‘Government’s role in the housing sector will continue its ongoing shift from that of a developer and financer to that of a regulator and facilitator. Strategic housing investments may still be made by the state, particularly to target vulnerable populations and to address urgent needs. However, the preferred options for housing development will be through active engagement of the private sector’… A direct consequence of the state moving away from being ‘developer and financer’ and stressing instead the centrality of the private sector, is that housing and more so land are reduced to commodities, whose primary value is financial, and are stripped of their social value, the rights and entitlements of people as well as the obligations of the state they embody. Similarly, the state’s role as ‘regulator and facilitator’ is clearly defined; it is not to ensure the protection of the people’s rights and entitlements but to ensure that private capital will be met with attractive incentives and [that] a conducive policy environment will be created. Development control regulations and approval procedures will be streamlined and made more efficient”.

Giving examples, the report also highlighted some points in keeping with media reports regarding the Krrish deal and the setting up of casinos locally; “For example, consider the incentives provided to the multi-million dollar luxury mixed-use re-development of ‘Transworks House’, one of the first high-profile projects handed to a private developer (the Krrish Group from India) reportedly included land being leased to Krrish for 99 years for a mere 5 billion Sri Lankan rupees, a 10-year income tax holiday, concessionary 6 per cent tax for the next 15 years, tax-free shareholder dividends for 11 years, and exemptions from a range of other taxes, duties and levies”.

“Similarly, there are proposals to bring other private land re-development initiatives, which include hotels and casinos, under the ambit of the Strategic Development Act that would allow for massive tax benefits, reduced economic service charges, lower duties on imports, etc. Moreover, many concerns have also been raised regarding the lack of transparency in the process of awarding development rights—many of which involve single bids or non-competitive awards—and allegations of large-scale corruption.

In other words, to the extent that private investors, foreign and domestic, are being heavily subsidised and aided, especially by providing them land clear of all ‘encumbrances’ along with a wide range of financial incentives and guarantees, the state is in fact acting as ‘developer and financer’ but on behalf of national and international investors rather than the citizenry”, noted the report.
Additionally, the report was also of the opinion that the “on-going public expropriation of land in favour of private interests in Colombo is part of a wider phenomenon of ‘land grab’ taking place across the country in the name of tourism, industrial and economic development, or security . The forced acquisition of ‘prime lands’ and their subsequent handing over to private interests through non-transparent processes and on questionable terms, points also to a steady transfer of public wealth to private hands, in the name of public-private partnerships, which may well amount to ‘privatisation by stealth’”.

“Apart from the refrain of ‘development’, the claim that revenues from private exploitation of urban land are needed to provide better housing and amenities, especially to poorer residents of Colombo, is frequently used to justify the relocations. However the reality is that massive debts are being incurred on vanity projects with questionable or untested public utility, such as the Lotus Tower and the Colombo Port City projects, both being funded by millions of dollars in loans from China. With the exception of much needed flood control measures, much of Colombo’s urban development over the past three years has in fact focused on rebranding the city as a hub for global capital, tourism and entertainment. This ‘redevelopment’ consumes significant public resources, both directly and indirectly, but is not advancing social inclusion or equity”, stated the report.

In the meantime, the report also revealed that “the UDA’s claim of creating inclusive spaces is questioned by one recent study, which argues in favour of less scripted public spaces noting that Colombo’s emergent public spaces are often characterised by being ‘excessively engineered and overly designed’ or ‘inviting only to a certain income group’… It is also critical to consider such frontiers and exclusions in the light of the fact that the Colombo municipal area is amongst the most ethnically mixed in the country. Available information suggests that a significantly large section of the population being affected are Tamil and Muslim. In addition, given the alignment of large sections of these communities with a section of the political opposition, questions have also been raised concerning the possible political motivations behind the evictions”.

On the other hand, the CPA report also highlighted the role of the World Bank in these situations, stating “it is important to note the role of international financial institutions, especially the World Bank (WB). Its support to the Government of Sri Lanka’s development and economic policy hinges on the bank’s perspectives on reshaping the economic geography of the country, especially by creating competitive urban geographies, which is echoed in the Mahinda Chintana. While the approach advocated by the WB has been critiqued on several grounds, including for failing to account adequately for historical reasons behind regional imbalances in development as well as the war and its aftermath, what is most relevant to this report is the critique that the WB stresses on ‘market ‘efficiency’ over deepening democracy.’ Nowhere is this more apparent than in its consistent support for the UDA. Notwithstanding the WB’s rhetoric on strengthening peoples’ participation, local democracy, and accountability, the WB has provided a loan of US$ 213 million to the UDA’s Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP), tacitly endorsing the militarisation and erosion of local democracy under the UDA’s watch”.

Concluding, the report also indicated; “What is clear is that the procedure laid down by law to acquire private property as well as to re-posses state lands is not being strictly adhered to in the case of evictions in Colombo. The lack of a transparent and rule-bound process with regard to the land acquisition is a major concern. For instance, the process for land acquisition and the terms of involuntary resettlement applied to Mews Street differs substantially from those applied to the adjoining Java Lane and in neither case does it seem like the procedure laid down by law was followed. In the case of those evicted from state-owned lands, for example from Castle Street and elsewhere, once the communities were told by UDA representatives that they have to move, they were made to sign what are essentially ‘application forms’ for receiving new houses. They were told that in return for houses on land without full title they were going to be given permanent houses with full ownership in newly built apartment blocks. This gives the whole process the appearance of being voluntary even though it is not. The arbitrariness and inconsistent approaches not only pose serious risks of procedural and substantive rights violation but also induce fear and uncertainty amongst communities, a situation that those evicted from Java Lane are confronted with”.

The report also noted; “Not only are people being denied compensation for lost land, structures, assets or businesses, but those evicted from state-owned land have to also pay a significant sum of money before they are granted full ownership of their new houses. The Government and the UDA claim that the apartments in the relocation sites are worth Rs. 7 million each. They are being given to those being resettled at Rs. 1 million each under the following payment terms: a first installment of Rs. 50,000 to be paid upfront with a further Rs. 50,000 to be paid in three installments within the first 3 months towards maintenance and upkeep and monthly installments of Rs. 3,960 over the next 20 years. Hence, those forcibly evicted, must bear a double burden, the loss of houses, structures and in some cases even businesses in which they had invested significantly over time and what is effectively a debt liability to the tune of 1 million rupees, of which 100,000 has to be paid in the immediate term”.

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