The Sunday TimesPlus

18th August 1996



Road Blocks

by Tharuka Dissnaike

Projects to widen two major city roads still to get underway.

Good roads. This is something most of us in Colombo city consider a futuristic dream. A city plagued with the ills of heavy traffic , dust , the impatient tooting of horns , the breaking of every traffic rule in the book- this is the state of vehicular movement in modern Colombo. Added to this , the road network in the city is nothing to be proud of. Most of the roads are still what the British built- maybe tarred and widened a little over the years . But facts remain stubborn. The city needs bigger and better roads.

The biggest irony is that this need was realised not as late as yesterday but a few decades ago. City planners and decision makers at that time realised that the city was expanding beyond the limits of it's infrastructure. They planned a city very different from what it has finally grown up to be. Like a wayward child Colombo city evaded all the plans laid out for her. The plans of circular roads, wide access ways and suburban development are now at last taken off the old racks, dusted and set out for new appraisal.

The need to develop Baseline road from the Kelani Bridge to Borella and the need to widen Deans road which is a vital route linking Town Hall to Maradana were both felt a long time ago. For several years plans for these had been passing through various stages of bureaucracy- the changing of governments and subsequent rolling of heads of departments has hampered the speedy progress of many projects.

The great delay in implementing these projects was mostly due to problems in acquisition of land in preparation for the widening of the two roads. In the case of Baseline road especially the existing two- lane road was to be widened into Sri Lanka's first six lane road for which a large amount of land acquisition had to be done. This led to a great deal of problems for the institutions as well the long- time inhabitants and tenants of the land.

Even today with the project practically at the threshold of implementation, there are still those who stubbornly cling on, refusing to move, to let go of familiarity , of a home and a livelihood. Some of these people have been ousted by court order, others are awaiting court decision on their fate. All are certain that they would have to move- but they expect at least some kind of compensation for what they are losing to the road.

"I have no place to go," cried old L.M. G. Kalumahatun who had run a grocery shop near the Dematagoda railway crossing for the past thirty years. His son explained that Kalumahatun had taken ill since the government almost forcibly evacuated the shop that they ran and bulldozed it to the ground. Since they were only tenants paying rent for the shop space, Kalumahatun and his family who depended on the income from the shop , did not get compensation. Kalumahatun now lives with his son in Modera, where they have been relocated . But his daughter and son-in-law who also occupied the shop space are now virtually beggars on the road. They live and work in a little mobile grocery shop on wheels, parked near the demolished shop.

"When they start making the road we will have to move from here also," said the daughter.

Sudath Jayasinghe , runs a bicycle repair shop and he has refused to move . His little shop stands out among the rubble and cleared land around it. "We were promised a shop space for the one we were losing. We are only tenants, therefore actual compensation does not come to us. But in 1985 when they took over the land, the government promised each shop owner a space. They even advertised in the newspapers to develop a stretch of railway reservation and make it into a shopping complex for those losing their business to the road. But then the government changed and these plans were cancelled. Now they simply go to courts and throw us out," Sudath said. He has a court case pending. "The decision is due on the 23rd ."

Problems like these abound the Baseline road. The legal owners and long time occupants of houses and land have been paid government evaluated compensation for what they lost to the road. Some occupants have been relocated to Modera and Orugodawatte. But shop keepers who were tenants face the biggest problem. They have lost their means of livelihood and for some even a dwelling place without any redress.

At Deans road too this problem is apparent . More so, since the shop keepers there too have been asked to hand over the required space for the road without any hint of compensation. This road is being done by The Colombo Municipal Council, whose deadlines for handing over the shops have been repeatedy ignored by the businessmen there.

"I have nowhere else to go," said Dudley Wickrema, who runs a tea shop opposite The Eye Hospital. "We were tenants since 1960. The space was later sold in auction and bought by Wickrema. "I have the deeds to the place. But upto now there are no signs of compensation." He said that he wants a place to put up shop again and not money.

"They came yesterday too and asked us when we are vacating premises," said K. Jayawardena of Jayantha Florists. "We can't afford to renovate the back section and demolish the front of the shop the way the municipality has asked us to do."

The flower shops and eating houses along the Town Hall end of Deans road were earlier asked to move completely. But nearly all the florists we spoke to said they spoke to the Minister of Highways, A.H.M. Fowzie and agreed on demolishing half the shop while obtaining municipal permission to build one storey up.

Now most shops have to build again at the back and break down their walls half way. Bigger shops have already done so. But the smaller places face a predicament of not having the resources to build up or move out.

"We have faithfully paid our taxes to the state all these years. Why is the government doing this to us?," Jayawardena cried.

"We will pay compensation to those who own the land," K. Ganeshalingam, Mayor of Colombo said. He said the project which is completetly funded by the Municipality is ready take off from the Town Hall end. "There is a problem with the Liptons building at the beginning of the road, now occupied by a textile industry, which has constructed some unauthorised structures in the road area. But if they still refuse to comply to our specifications we will have to break the wall and proceed."

Ganeshalingam said the road will be completed by the end of the year and by then it will be an 80 foot road with 6-foot pavements on either side.

The Baseline road project is still at the stage of evaluating contractor tenders. The project is Japanese funded and when completed will feature a flyway over the Dematagoda railway line and under passes in Borella for pedestrian crossing. In the two-year first phase, the road will expand from the Kelani Bridge to Kanatte junction in Borella but later it will run upto Ratmalana.

"90% of the land acquisition is done," Fernando said. "The ceremonial inauguration will be in mid September. Work will start in October."

There is not an iota of doubt that these two roads should be developed especially after such long delay. But the problems of those caught in the throes of development are indeed human. Development of any part should not result in the downfall of the community. It is obvious that there still hiccups in the process. Throwing a family out into the roads or depriving a man of his livelihood are unacceptable. When the two new smooth carpeted roads are ready for traffic, it is hoped that non of the previous residents would be reduced to begging in its pavements.

Striving for a better world: our barriers for our development

Towards Change

by Kishali Adhikari

At a somewhat boring dinner the other day, the conversation suddenly took an unexpected turn.

"But is feminism relevant in South Asia, specially in Sri Lanka?" asked a learned man, a doctor of letters who had up to that time distinguished himself by not joining in the tidbits of scandalous gossip being floated around the table.

"Aren't all these Western notions? Here we have always treated our women with great respect. These radical ideas of rights for women are out of place in our society," he remarked.

The good doctor could not be faulted. The questions that he posed were relevant and indeed are being asked time and time again in the face of an increasing feminist consciousness being manifest in the media since of late. What is argued is that all this talk of women's rights is destructive in that its "militancy" is alien to the South Asian way of life. What is implied is that feminists are "middle-class", "westernized" and "rootless" women who take advantage of Western aid to "stir up trouble and destroy peaceful homes."

Are these arguments valid? In a sense one has to look at several different issues here. What exactly is meant by feminism? Why is it that some women who agree with feminist causes yet shy away from calling themselves feminists? Why is it that men feel basically unable to join with women in fighting for something that would benefit society as a whole in the long run?

At the root of it is a misconception about feminism and feminists. Partly to blame is false propaganda, portraying feminists as "man hating" partly also to blame is that radical extreme section of the feminist movement itself which persists in calling marriage "legalized prostitution" and holds other similarly absurd views. As a result, feminism has been alternately ridiculed and condemned. This has obscured the fact that serious issues concerning both men and women need to be discussed and examined. For example, the first ever academic session on the "women question" sponsored by the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science was greeted with a flippant response by a reader in an English newspaper who suggested that its motto should be the stirring call "Women of Sri Lanka, unite. You have nothing to lose but your husbands."

The '90's feminism has advanced quite a bit from the bra burners of yesteryear. Like advertising, feminism means simply the right to choose. In that sense, feminism gives the housewife who decides to stay at home on her own conscious and thought out decision, the right to do so. One of the major struggles of modern feminism is in fact to have housework recognized and valued so that women who do it are recognized, valued and respected. If housewives get the respect that is their due then not only would men start acknowledging it but might also start doing it.

Similarly, feminism asks that if a woman decides that her societal contribution is better achieved through a career she should be given all the support by her family and the society at large. Where unfair treatment prevents such a woman being able to work, the unfairness should be acknowledged and remedied. In a wider context therefore feminism also means "An awareness of women's oppression and exploitation in society and family, and conscious action by men and women to change this situation."

It is time therefore that these misconceptions are cleared up. The facts are that feminists in South Asia have never burnt their bras, even symbolically.

Large numbers are married, have children and run their homes as well as or as badly as any other women. The facts are that while the term "feminism" may be foreign, feminism developed in South Asia long before Western colonialism. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many voices of both men and women demanded that women should be legally emancipated and educated that polygamy sati and purdah should be banned and that widows should be allowed to remarry. In India, famous names like Ravindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Ramakrishna and Ram Molun Roy agitated for these rights.

Travelling even further back, Asian history records many instances when women fought to compete with men in their own fields. Two well known examples were Sugala (from the Mahawansa) and Gajaman Nona who defied the accepted notions of female passivity. Sugala fought King Parakrama Bahu I in defence of her kingdom while Gajaman Nona wrote poetry some of which was considered by men to be too ribald for a woman. The Asian Women's Rights Movement is therefore not imported from the West. The debate on women is an old one. For example, the issue of whether women could join the order and become nuns was debated by the Buddha and his followers in the 6th century BC. There has been a continuing debate on a woman's right to education in many Asian countries. In the 18th century a Chinese scholar named Chen Hung Mon wrote on women's education pointing out that. "There is no one in the world who is not educable, and there is no one whom we can afford not to educate; why be neglectful only in regard to girls?"

One might justly ask however as to how these questions are relevant to Sri Lanka. We have an impressive record with regard to female life expectancy, literacy and so on. The right to vote was won by women as far back as 1934, just thirteen years after the United States. The country boasts of having the first elected woman Premier in the world while right now both its President and Prime Minister are women having several women ministers in their Cabinet. Meanwhile, equal pay laws exist in the country and the right to be free from sexual discrimination is guaranteed by the constitution. Women are not subject to such tortuous practices such as sati and bride burning and are generally treated as pivotal figures in the house.

While all these are achievements to be proud of, the danger lies in letting them blind us to the fact that important changes are still necessary in our laws and social attitudes. Many laws relating to domestic violence, abortion, divorce, prostitution and the like are heavily discriminatory. Recent amendments to the penal code attempted to correct some of the imbalances but much more has to be done. Many of these laws were enacted in the 18th century and are completely out of date now. They remain valid in the statute books only, while social practices make a mockery of these laws. Customary laws such as the Muslim laws and Tesavalamai also have to be modified, so that their more blatantly unfair aspects at least are corrected. And judicial attitudes in interpreting any law have to be more gender conscious and were sensitive to the social, legal and political vulnerability of women.

Meanwhile low wages, long hours of work and discriminatory ease in hiring and firing women in employment is common in Sri Lanka. There is strong imbalance between women's access to education and employment. It is significant that women constitute only 25% of the total labour force despite the fact that almost half of the student population is female. Women are concentrated in the lower levels of employment and rarely participate in active decision making. Statistics on violence against women in the country are frightening.

A reported 32,512 cases of domestic violence were recorded by the police in 1991. The total number of cases of insults, abuses and threats against women are almost double in number, measuring 66,149. The number of rapes reported were 362 though this has increased significantly from last year (Facets of Change -1995).

In the face of all these facts, those who argue that women do not have problems to contend with in Sri Lanka are living in a fools' paradise. That there are imported women's right issues that needs to be discussed, should be acknowledged first and foremost. Importantly these issues need to be examined by men and women.

There is a reason why such a dialogue should take place and it was none better summarized than when Boutrous Boutrosh Ghali, Secretary General of the United Nations emphasized:

"Without progress in the situation of women, there can be no true social development. Human rights are not worthy of the name if they exclude the female half of humanity. The struggle for women's equality is part of the struggle for a better world for all human beings and all societies."

Thus, even though the thought may be a little hard to swallow, true feminism as exists in the 20th century is good for both men and women in the long run. Feminists seek the removal of all forms of inequality domination and oppression through the creation of a just social and economic orders in the home and society. In Sri Lanka, women are actively asking for a fair and just political solution to the Northern War. In Pakistan, women have opposed the martial law regime and Islamic fundamentalism. In India, women have been actively involved in a range of issues, including environment and communal violence. In all South Asian countries, women are now putting forward policy recommendations that suggest how the social, economic and political life of the country could be improved. There are valuable contributions to healthy national development that should not be ridiculed or minimized.

In thinking about feminism therefore, it is high time that the chaff is separated from the wheat, and the real importance of a women's rights movement is recognized and acknowledged. In the process, extremists on both sides of the divide can only stand condemned.

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