By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Mounting evidence suggests that losing a job or a home can rock our identity and savage our self-esteem. Forced moves wrench families from their schools and support networks.… Economic polarisation also shatters our sense of national union and common purpose, fostering political polarisation as well. — Nicholas Kristoff (New York Times – 6.11.2010)
The poor are ugly, unclean and undesirable; they obstruct flood-control, law and order and development. Colombo cannot become a modern metropolis with clean air, unblocked drains and safe streets while the poor are here. To win the development war, the poor must be removed, en masse.
So the Rajapaksas would have us believe.
A ‘humanitarian operation’ is to be launched, to liberate the poor from their squalid existence, and turn Colombo into a ‘slum-free city’. 65,000-75,000 families (around half a million men, women and children) are to be turned-out of their homes. According to the Director General, UDA, Nihal Fernando “We have identified sites in Homagama, Gampaha and Kalutara for resettlement… We cannot allow them to live in the city any longer.” (The Sunday Times – 21.11.2010)
The eviction plan will encompass not just unauthorised settlers but even families with legal titles to their lands. Each family will be paid the princely sum of Rs 100,000, as compensation (some ministers receive as much per month, as rent allowance). When private land is appropriated for developmental purposes, owners are paid the market value.
Will the legal owners among the evictees receive identical treatment or will they too be paid Rs 100,000 for land which is worth much more?
What will these families find when they are taken to their new habitats? Will there be at least shacks or tents to protect them from the elements?
Or will they find bare land with no shelter, water or toilets, no place for the children to keep their books or the elderly to rest their heads?
How will the surrounding rural communities respond to this urban influx?
Who will decide which family will go where — the families or the state?
Isn’t the forcible relocation of citizens unconstitutional?
What about the Herculean task of finding schools for children?
How would this expulsion impact the elderly or students facing crucial exams (Year 5 scholarship, O/L and A/L)? What about the livelihoods of evictees?
What is the moral difference between the proposed expulsion of Colombo’s poor and the expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE?
Most of us are not yet callous enough to ignore the pain of fellow human beings dragged away from their homes, possibly at gun-point; not when images of their tragedy are brought into our homes by the media, in the form of weeping children or pleading elderly. So the Rajapaksas have launched a propaganda campaign to market this moral outrage as a ‘developmental necessity’, via a narrative which portrays the poor as perpetrators of criminals and health-hazards.
The aim is to blunt our capacity for compassion by playing on our phobias, to persuade us to see Colombo’s poor not as fellow human beings but as ‘threats’ and ‘obstructions’. And thereby to win our silent collusion for the eviction plan, so that the land of these citizens can be ‘developed’ and sold/leased to foreigners, to finance a rapacious Ruling Family and a mammoth cabinet. (Incidentally, the construction of luxury hotels and apartments on the wetlands around Diyawanna Oya would have worsened city-floods than all Colombo ‘slums’).
Politics augment greed. For the siblings who vanquished the Tigers, the failure to conquer Colombo must be galling. And Colombo would be unconquerable, so long as its poorer residents remain. Because not only are Colombo’s poor pro-UNP; they are also ethno-religiously pluralist, culturally heterodox and, in their irreverence, immune to our Ruling poseurs.
President Rajapaksa is a vocal adherent of trickle-down economics, a dogma which has failed spectacularly, in Sri Lanka (1977-1989) and elsewhere, including in the developed world. As Jeffery Sachs, once the begetter of shock-therapy, points out, “The lesson from America is that economic growth is no guarantee of wellbeing or political stability” (The Guardian – 6.10.2010). A recent IMF-ILO study warns of an ‘apparent decline in the employment intensity of growth’ i.e. an exacerbation of the old phenomenon of ‘jobless-growth’. Thus the model adhered to by the Rajapaksas cannot ensure better living conditions for the poor and the middle classes because of its ingrained flaws.
In addition, the Rajapaksa infrastructure projects create minimal employment/income-generation opportunities for Lankans due to extensive use of Chinese convict-labour; they also combine astronomical costs with abysmal quality (the new Dehiwala flyover is so structurally unsound, heavy vehicles are banned from using it). The planned hiking of electricity rates despite the successful completion of the Norochcholai plant is an indication of where this model is headed.
As historian Tony Judt points out, “For the last 30 years…when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss — economic questions in the narrowest sense — is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste” (London Review of Books – 17.12.2009).
During the Premadasa years a concerted effort was made to abandon this ‘acquired taste’ and factor in the impact on people as a primary measure of the desirability or undesirability of an economic policy. The Premadasa approach to slum clearance, which aimed at improving housing and living conditions of urban poor rather than uprooting them, reflected this thinking. This is a main contributory factor to the fact that Colombo’s ‘slums’ are often stolid houses, like lower-middle class dwellings anywhere in Sri Lanka.
The Rajapaksas favour a system of governance which objectifies people, either to be used as weapons, discarded as marginals or suppressed as obstacles. They follow a politico-economic policy regimen which is tyrannical, predatory and pitiless.
With their humanitarian operation, the Rajapaksas increased the psychological divide between the North and the South. If their economic policies take wing, a similar exacerbation in the class-divide will result. Old repressive laws are retained and new ones being considered to quell the popular opposition to these unpopular measures, as is indicated in the recent statement by a Rajapaksa sibling that the Emergency will continue because of the ‘clandestine activities of the TNA and JVP’.
Colombo’s poor are organising to defend their homes but they cannot prevail alone. The UNP must consider this battle its own; if the eviction plan works, the party will lose its last bastion. Current and potential UNP leaders can prove their prowess on this battlefield, because if Colombo is lost, nothing and no one will be able to resurrect the Elephant.
But this is an issue which should closely concern the entirety of Southern society, beyond political, ethno-religious or class divides. Enlightened self-interest, apart from moral or humanitarian considerations, demand that we resist this outrage, because if the Rajapaksas get away with it, what guarantee do we have that we will not be the next (or the next….) target of their acquisitive spirit?