By Indi Samarajiva
Colombo’s new urban development plan calls for restaurants, casinos, walkways and public promenades. It also calls for relocating about 66,000 slum dwellers and relocating street hawkers and traditional markets. One project in Maradana, however, is trying to see if these two worlds can coexist.
Padma Piyadarshini is seated in a glass office above an expansive warehouse. At her elbow teenage models are practicing for the ArtWalk fashion show on the ground floor. Nearby her sister and son are waiting. They have walked from the nearby watte (essentially, slum) and the models have been dropped off in cars and SUVs. But here, they occupy the same place.
“When we go to places they don’t notice, they don’t talk to us,” she said, speaking of Colombo ‘society’. This is somewhat ironic because she lives closer to Colombo than the society which lives, essentially, in the suburbs. She continued that she was touched that Mr. Kirby and Ms. Fiona had invited her to get involved and even invited her that day.
The Warehouse Project
Kirby and Fiona de Lanerolle are a local business couple who have opened up this urban warehouse as a community center, for all communities. They said that they couldn’t do it without the support of local leaders like Mrs. Piyadarshini.
“We have no agenda,” Mr. de Lanerolle said. “There is a group of Colombo people that believe they can help out. Someone just had to put their neck on the line, and put up the money.”
What the de Lanerolle’s have opened up is a warehouse large enough to play cricket in and with the modern fixings (fans, lights) to comfortably house theatre, exhibitions, events or even festivals. It is right downtown, near the Elphinstone Theatre.
The Urban Development Authority
The current Urban Development Authority (under the Defence Ministry) has a similar plan to develop and essentially gentrify the Colombo downtown, but that plan essentially involves clearing the slums. They have already cleared street hawkers from Pettah into a designated zone and are moving the historic St. John’s Fish Market to Peliyagoda. The next step is to move the people out, for which cabinet approval was recently given.
“They’ve broken the houses once,” said Mrs. Piyadarshini, “but people have gone back again. There’s nowhere else to go. Just now the Housing Ministry came. People are worried, but they were promised two perches.”
The houses people currently live in are often one perch, sometimes shacks but sometimes quite nice. These areas are called slums, but that is something of a misnomer. The houses are generally clean and livable and most have at least a television. The issue is mainly haphazard water and sanitation, sometimes one water pipe for ten houses or one toilet for 25 houses.
This is a world the Urban Development Authority and much of the business community would simply like to clear away. To quote the state owned Sunday Observer, ‘slums to disappear.’ The Warehouse Project has a different plan.
Impossibly hip music is blaring from the catwalk practice below as Mr. de Lanerolle explains. He and his wife are younger than Mrs. Piyadarshini but older than the teenagers below. In dress they are business casual.
“Colombo is full of wattes,” he said. “There are around 1,200 wattes in Colombo and an average of 50 houses per watte. There are 150,000 people living below $30 a month, yet people go to Hambantota to help. There’s $400 million dollars worth of volunteerism coming into Sri Lanka, but no one is harnessing it.”
The Warehouse Project has begun harnessing that potential by first providing an open space. There they have begun projects like EAT (feeding 50 people a day) and LIVE (bringing doctors and opticians for open clinics). They have also launched the BORDERLESS program with Jagath Weerasinghe to brings kids from all parts of Colombo together to explore and map their city through art. The Warehouse Project has also teamed up with the Mind Adventures Theatre Company to do drama workshops and to host an upcoming Theatre Competition.
“We want to bring kids together with dramas, arts, sports, to interact with each other,” said Mrs. Fiona de Lanerolle. “There’s too much of a vertical dialogue,” she said. “BORDERLESS will get people on one platform and develop respect as being neighbors.”
The people of Colombo are neighbors, but some neighbors have deeds and some do not. This is the essential gap between the slums and Colombo 7. In between, however, is one warehouse where the two sides may be able to connect.