When Chintaka Abeywardena moved into his newly built home in Battaramulla, it was a dream come true. It was a perfect suburban neighbourhood, so close to the amenities of the city but also blessed with the bountiful beauty of nature- vast marshlands, wooded areas and a flowing Diyawanna Oya just a stones throw away. Never did he dream that one day he would be locked in a battle with the government, in a desperate attempt to keep his home. Unfortunately for Chintaka and 28 other householders along Rohini Mawatha, Pelawatte their houses stand in the way of a government scheme to build a Presidential residence in this area.
Last Wednesday the residents were given notice under the Land Acquisition Act, that their properties will be taken over by the State. Up in arms, these people vehemently declare that they will not move from their homes.
But do they really have a choice ? According to officials of the UDA, they dont. The government has grand plans for a large new complex for the President, which would host the official residence of the head of government and the Presidential Secretariat, besides security posts, quarters for security personnel and a power sub-station of its own. The site has been chosen because of its location which makes it ideal- security wise, the government claims.
Construction of the new complex is expected to begin within the next three months, according to UDA sources. Geoffery Bawa, renowned architect responsible for the Parliament among other impressive edifices, is involved in the designing of the house and secretariat, which is estimated to cost some Rs. 1.5 billion. Even this, say some officials , is a rather a conservative estimate.
"The decision to build at this particular spot was taken entirely by the Ministry of Defence," Project Co-ordinating Consultant of the UDA, Winston Rupasinghe told The Sunday Times. " The Defence Ministry studied several sites and decided on this one. We were instructed by the government to acquire the land on which these houses are built and prepare for the construction."
This is a part of a plan to move most official buildings from Colombo to Kotte. Already the Speakers Official Residence is under construction at Battaramulla. The two and a half acre plot on which the 29 houses are built, is only part of the 50 acre land which will be a high security area containing the new residence and secretariat. Even new road access is planned although information on this or where the exact location of the residence was not divulged. The 50 acres will mostly consist of reclaimed marshy land, taken over by the UDA when the Parliamentary complex was built. Other than the 28 houses, most of which were built by the property developer, Vajira House Builders, the land presently contains the Jana Kala Centre where students are trained in folk art. The Centre too will be moved to a site agreed upon by the Youth Ministry.
Also to be acquired is a building and land proposed for an Old Peoples Home owned by ex. UNP Chairman N.G.P. Panditharatne. UDA claims that he has agreed to hand the site over. When asked if there was any way of avoiding the 29 houses, and constructing on the rest of the 50 acre plot, UDA officials were adamant. "There can be no other buildings close by. All that is built upon now will have to be razed to the ground."
But the residents remain equally adamant, even after receiving notice of acquisition. "We hope we can solve this amicably, without resorting to legal procedure," Tilak Pathirana, a resident said. When asked if he would consider compensation, he quickly replied, "You must be joking. I spent four years and two months building this house and if they had told me earlier I could have saved several millions." Pathirana, Chairman of the Southern Group, is just completing his luxurious Rs. 55- million-upto-now house at the edge of the Diyawanna Oya.
"There is no bigger damage one could do to a human being. All the residents would rather do a fast- unto- death than move from here," he said.
The residents are most annoyed that they only came to know of this proposal to take over their land when newspapers carried stories about it. The UDA has publicly maintained that there is no serious objection from the residents, that they are co-operating with the project, but the true position is far from that.
"We should have been told of the plan," U. Hemachandra, a resident said. "We have written to many officials, and so many times to the President herself, but our letters and faxes have not even been acknowledged."
The oldest residents of the area, Martin Munesinghe who was born in this locality 85 years ago, and his wife are now in the eve of their life and unable to even cope with the thought of relocating. "Our livelihood is rearing cows for milk, and we are not at an age to rebuild a house," Martin said. They too had recently added a room and toilet to their old house.
The residents also blame the UDA for approving house plans and issuing Certificates of Conformity on houses built there when , in fact, the area was earmarked for development of this sort. But UDA officials throw up their hands helplessly and say that they did not know of the orders to acquire until a couple of months ago. It was only on June 02, the government issued a gazette notice stating its intentions to take over this land, on the basis that it was an urgent urban development project.
"I am sure that the President is not aware that we residents are not willing to move, considering that the UDA maintains that there is no problem," Pathirana said
In 1982, when a plan to shift the administrative capital to Kotte was drawn up, this very area was earmarked for a MPs hostel and a security post since it faces the rear of the Parliament. But the initial plan was not carried out. Then in consideration of the Presidents safety, the move to Kotte was decided upon. "The land was always earmarked for a project connected with the shifting of the capital to Kotte, even in the time of President Jayewardene," Winston Rupasinghe said. He added that it was unfortunate that during the early nineties, a large tract of this land was divested in the property developer, by the UDA that time.
Martin Munesinghes family owned ancestral property there and that was the only extent of private property before Vajira Builders bought the land.
The UDA claims that the project, once it is through will greatly improve the infrastructure of the area. "People will have better roads, electricity supply and security. Land prices will escalate and generally there will be a boom in the area," Rupasinghe said.
The Urban Development Authority offers the residents compensation in terms of alternate land and houses built to plans of their own. "We are acquiring another block of land-three and a half acres- at Pahalewela road, some 800 metres away from the present location, on the boundary of the high security zone. This land will be vested in the residents, and we will build them houses according to their requirements, to compensate for what they lost," Rupasinghe said. "If others simply want the money, that too is possible."
Evaluation will be done by the Government Valuation Department. "We are trying to expedite the procedure since, when work starts on the construction , they will find it very difficult to live there."
But most are not willing to even listen about compensation. "When UDA officials came to our houses last Tuesday, to talk of compensation we told them we are not interested," Chintaka said. "We called on the gods to strike down with lightning the people who are behind this scheme, and sent them off."
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