By Raisa Wickrematunge
Colombo is chaos — the city’s sprawl is largely unplanned. Buildings and shopfronts spring up virtually overnight, not to mention the shanty houses by the rail tracks. All this will change with the Urban Development Authority’s zoning plan for 2020. Now under the Ministry of Defence, the UDA is looking to divide the city into specific, orderly zones.
Order from chaos sounds good on paper, but there are inevitable ink blots. A major blot is the estimated 65-70,000 families illegally squatting on 450 acres of prime land in the city. There have been repeated attempts to reclaim the land, but the families have nowhere to go.
On August 12, the Ministry of Defence received Cabinet approval to lease 78 acres of this land. UDA debentures to the tune of Rs. 5 billion were issued to finance this activity. The rest of the land would be used to build organised housing for low-income settlement families, as Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa noted. However, the leased out acres would leave families displaced.
Earlier, queries as to the fate of these people were greeted with vague platitudes. They would be resettled, it was claimed, but no one could say where, and how many would be lucky enough to be provided with new homes.
This was foreboding, to say the least, for the unlucky squatters. Thankfully, it appears that this time, there is a concrete relocation plan in the works.
Architect at the UDA, Nihal Fernando said that one of the first steps had been the reorganising of ‘Sahaspura,’ a shanty improvement project. The Sahaspura building itself spans 13 storeys, Fernando said. The high rise project allows for more land for development. According to a paper published by town planner at the UDA, Thushara Samaratunga, Sahaspura accommodates 671 lower income families. Some of the families have shown willingness to move outwards, and settle in other areas, Fernando revealed.
Discussions were ongoing to find suitable alternative employment for these migrants. Also on the cards, a housing project in Dematagoda. At present, 350 units are already completed. It is expected that the contract will be awarded to construct 500 additional housing units there. It is estimated the Dematagoda project will take one year to complete.
“We are studying many other areas (for relocation) as well. We have to test sites, look at technical details. This is a large housing programme, and it will take some time to finalise,” Fernando said. Rather than doing a slapdash job, he added, the aim was to provide better facilities. The UDA has also offered assistance to those families who might need help moving their possessions to new homes.
Chairman, Land Reclamation Development Board, Harshan de Silva, said the Board was working with the UDA to relocate shanty dwellers. 976 families have been recorded as squatting on Board reservations, de Silva noted. These include areas like the Dematagoda canal, and prime plots of land such as railway reservations.The Board too had alternative lands it was planning to use to accommodate families, according to de Silva.
The alternative lands may be in the outskirts of the city, de Silva said.
It is reassuring to hear that the affected low-income families will be provided for, rather than being thrown out on the street. The platitudes have been replaced with plans. Will these plans translate to swift action?