When officials from the Urban Development Authority came to measure their homes in late 2013, the residents living by the St. Sebastian South canal in Colombo 12 did not know why details of their homes were being taken down. A few weeks later, they found out that due to the rehabilitation of the canal under [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Evicted under the World Bank’s watch


When officials from the Urban Development Authority came to measure their homes in late 2013, the residents living by the St. Sebastian South canal in Colombo 12 did not know why details of their homes were being taken down. A few weeks later, they found out that due to the rehabilitation of the canal under the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP) of the World Bank and the then Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, they were going to lose their homes and be relocated elsewhere.

“When they (the UDA) told us that we were being given apartments at Methsara Uyana we told them that we didn’t want to move to Wanathamulla and to give us housing somewhere close by,” says M. Nazeer, a business owner of a grocery store and eatery in his neighbourhood prior to relocation. At meetings held with residents and UDA officials in early January 2014 to inform the residents about the project, their relocation and entitlements available to them, residents had raised several issues including opposition to shift to Wanathamulla, increase in transport costs due to distance to schools and work place, inability to pay Rs 100,000 as initial payment towards the maintenance of apartments and the size of the apartments being offered to them.

Threatened and evicted

In addition to voicing their concerns at the UDA, residents had also raised their issues at the site office located in mosque in their community, which also functioned as grievance redress mechanism as per World Bank safeguards.

Unfortunately the story of how they ended up moving out of their homes is one that is common across many communities in Colombo that were forcibly evicted by the military run Urban Development Authority. The community, visited by military officials, were threatened and intimidated to vacate their homes.

The community’s description of military harassment is extremely disturbing.

“We were removed from our homes by force. They took our signatures by force. The army officers told us that they will bulldoze our houses whether we move out or not. They told us that we can either take these apartments or live on the street”, was one resident’s account. Another said that an Army officer threatened to shoot him if they did not stop protesting.

The community was fearful after these encounters and agreed to move out after the end of the Haj festival in September 2014. In every single interview conducted with residents from the St. Sebastian South canal relocation, they stated that their consent had been obtained by force and they vacated their homes only because they were scared that their homes would be demolished forcibly with their belongings inside, as they had heard that other communities had similar experiences before. They had taken out loans and pawned or sold jewellery in order to make the initial payment Rs 60,000, without which they could not move into the apartments.

High-rise living

“Hell” is how residents describe their current location. 91 families were relocated to ‘Methsara Uyana’, one of the new high rise apartments built by the previous Government under the UDA’s ‘Urban Regeneration Project’. An 11 storey apartment complex with 718 apartments, it was officially declared open on October 27, 2014 by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When one walks around Methsara Uyana, it’s hard to imagine that the building is just six months old. The public areas and walls are extremely dirty and badly maintained. Residents complain that the lifts are broken most of the time and a long queue in front of the one or two lifts in operation is a common sight. Most apartments already have cracks that have appeared on the walls and some of the common areas also have visible cracks. Speak to anyone living in these buildings and they express their worry about their safety as the poor quality of construction is evident six months into completion. Many doubt whether the building will make it to 10 years.

According to the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) prepared by the then Ministry of Defence and Urban Development in accordance with the World Bank’s safeguards policies (a requirement for any World Bank financed project where people are involuntarily displaced), only 25 out of the 91 households had four people or less living in them and some households had up to 14 family members living there. Many were also multiple-storey houses and therefore could accommodate several families in separate floors.

However, only one 400 square foot apartment had been given per house (irrespective of size or number of occupants) which means that at present some apartments have up to 14 people living in it, or have family members living on rent elsewhere due to lack of space. Ms. Saadith Sharmila, who lived in a 4-storey house with nine family members tells me that her previous house had marble flooring and that there was no space for most of their belongings in this two bedroomed apartment. “We are all living in this tiny apartment now but we can’t live like this forever,” she says.
83 out of the 91 households are Muslim and that there is no mosque close by is a big problem for them as many cannot afford to pay Rs 150 to travel to the mosque when earlier their mosque was located in their neighbourhood itself.

Impact on livelihood

Mr. M.Nazeer says that his eatery was one of the largest businesses in the area and his profit every month was around Rs. 150,000. Because his was a registered business and was one of six businesses identified by project officials, he was eligible for compensation at replacement cost and received Rs. 500,000. Today, he has gone from a 2-storey house where the ground floor (240 square feet) was solely for his shop, to operating a shop out of his 400 square foot apartment in Methsara Uyana. He makes around Rs. 15,000 – 18,000 now and finds the impact on his business and loss of income very hard to live with. There are several other grocery shops and eateries in the building and competition is high as everyone is trying to make up for the loss of a customer base. His wife adds to the conversation by telling me that they have had to pawn some of her jewellery to make ends meet since they moved here. “Those days, if we needed Rs 10,000 for something it was not difficult. Now even for Rs 5,000 we have to consider pawning my jewellery.”

It is not just businesses like Mr. Nazeer’s that have been affected. There were many households that were earning an income through home-based businesses such as mechanic shops, tailoring shops, supplying food items to shops. Many of them have experienced a complete loss of that income for several reasons, ranging from lack of space to lack of capital to loss of customer base.

World Bank and displacement

M.Nazeer’s shop

The World Bank’s Metro Colombo Urban Development Project is one of the largest projects of the bank in post-war Sri Lanka, with a loan portfolio of

US$213 million. The work taking place under the MCUDP is largely infrastructural to reduce flooding in the catchment of the Colombo water basin, with two other components that strengthens the capacity of local authorities. The first instance where displacement took place under MCUDP was with the 91 families around St. Sebastian South canal. This project was part of the larger beautification plan for the city of Colombo and was carried by the same implementing agency of the Urban Regeneration Project, the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.
A report released in April 2014 by the Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that large scale evictions were taking place in Colombo under the Urban Regeneration Project, with military force being used to acquire prime land in Colombo and acquisition of private land with due process being followed. The report notes that “though the World Bank is not directly financing these military facilitated evictions it is nevertheless complicit to the extent it is providing the broader policy direction for urban development as well as actively financing the UDA in its redevelopment efforts on other fronts”. The report further states that the UDA did not seek funding from lenders such as the World Bank and the

Cramped tailor shop

ADB for projects involvement large scale displacement in order avoid being compelled to apply safeguards that come attached with funding and states that the World Bank has in fact turned a blind eye to the forced evictions in the city of Colombo.

In a series named ‘Evicted and Abandoned: The World Bank’s broken promise to the poor’ by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) noted that “The World Bank and its private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation, have financed governments and companies accused of human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture. In some cases the lenders have continued to bankroll these borrowers after evidence of abuses emerged.” In Sri Lanka, not only did the World Bank turn a blind eye to evictions, they also supported militarisation by funding and building the capacity of military controlled institution like the Urban Development Authority. Now, it is evident that they also failed to protect those displaced by bank-funded projects.

Place this in a broader context where internal World Bank reports have recently revealed that serious shortcomings in the implementation of its resettlement policies. In a press release in March 2015, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said “We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern. We found several major problems. One is that we haven’t done a good enough job in overseeing projects involving resettlement; two, we haven’t implemented those plans well enough; and three, we haven’t put in place strong tracking systems to make sure that our policies were being followed. We must and will do better.”

Evictions in Colombo

The experience of the St. Sebastian South Canal families is not a unique experience – both before relocation and after relocation. Since the forcible eviction of 33 families in Mews Street, Slave Island on May 8th 2010 (they are yet to get housing and have been disenfranchised since their eviction), several communities across Colombo have seen their land forcibly acquired, houses demolished and families forced into 400 square foot apartments in Dematagoda. Evictions took place right across the city in the last few years – from Narahenpita to Torrington to Slave Island. There was complete lack of due process in the land acquisition process, military involvement in evictions and a significant drop of standard of living post relocation. All this was done with the objective of creating a slum-free Colombo by 2020 under the UDA’s Urban Regeneration Project.
Despite the UDA narrative, the rush to relocate thousands of people to Dematagoda was not done with the uplifting of people’s lives foremost in mind, but with the intention of freeing up property with high commercial value. If the intention had really been to provide housing for people in accordance with international standards, there would have been an attempt to explore in-situ upgrades or building the apartments in nearby/ adjoining land itself.

Today, thousands of people live in tiny apartments in high-rise buildings, being forced to pay Rs. 1 million for the apartment irrespective of whether they had deeds to their previous homes or not. Many had to borrow money or sell assets to make the initial payment of Rs. 100,000 and combining that with a loss of income and high utility bills that for many means debt is a serious issue. They are yet to get deeds to the apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting or mortgaging the apartments.

The task in front of the new Government and the new Minister for Urban Development is certainly a challenging one and one that needs to be addressed urgently. It is necessary that all projects and activities taking place through the Urban Development Authority are halted until a full review is done and the experiences, thus far, taken stock of.

The urgent need for immediate relief aside, all those engaging in post war development must look at longer term solutions and policies that are framed with people in mind in order to make our cities liveable ones for all citizens. The Policy Principles of the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy must be reviewed, brought up to date with national and international standards and be enshrined in law and made applicable to all future instances of land acquisitions involving relocation.

We are yet to see concrete steps being taken by the new Government with regard to Colombo evictions and instead have only seen a continuation of the same activities, designed by the chief architect of Colombo’s beautification, Gotabaya Rajapaksa – the erstwhile all-powerful Defence Secretary. It is also crucial that donors such as the World Bank have a commitment to safeguarding human rights of all citizens, not just those affected by the bank’s projects. The minimum expectations from the Government should be that the Government follows due process with regard to land acquisition and involuntary resettlement not just for bank-funded projects, but for all projects taking place in Sri Lanka.

(The author is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo based think tank, and can be reached at iromip@gmail.com. For more information on evictions in Colombo, read CPA’s latest May 2015 report ‘Forced Evictions in Colombo: High-rise Living’ – http://www.cpalanka.org/forced-evictions-in-colombo-high-rise-living/)

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.