Colombo is the main city of the country. It belongs to its residents and in a sense to the country as a whole. In administering the city, those who govern need to pay heed to the city’s citizens and also to the needs of the many commuters to the city.
Beautifying the city is laudable, but the fundamental problems regarding slums, environment and transport have not been adequately addressed in the past five years
The city has over 400,000 voters and nearly twice as many residents, with about half the population live in poor housing and in areas with low quality infrastructure. A liveable environment for everybody could be nurtured only when the poorer areas of the city are beneficiaries of investment and development.
Beautifying the city is laudable, but the fundamental problems regarding slums, environment and transport have not been adequately addressed in the past five years.
The areas with poor physical infrastructure are known as ‘Gardens’ or ‘Wattes’. There are 1,500 such settlements in the city. Each of these gardens has 20 to 1,000 houses. The quality of housing varies from cement walls and asbestos sheets to corroding tin roofing sheets and rotting pieces of wood.
The unhealthy environment, with broken and blocked drains and overflowing sewerage pipes, has an unbearable stench. The monsoon rains flood these surroundings carrying dirt and diseases once or twice in a year into the living spaces of citizens in some of these gardens.
Improving the quality of houses, physical infrastructure and environmental conditions of these citizens will enhance the liveability of the city for all its citizens. Ignoring these conditions and improving the lot of the ‘well-to-do’ will only lead to social unrest in the future. Development is not only the improvement of physical infrastructure but social advancement through the participation of all.
Uncertain and bleak future
Instead of better housing, the poor have only received ‘demolished’ houses, threats of further demolition and an uncertain and bleak future. In some gardens including 187 Watte in Torrington Avenue, Colombo, 43 houses were demolished on the promise of new housing units.
It is more than two years since a foundation stone has been laid, but not a single house has been constructed. Even worse, the 168 voters of these demolished houses have forfeited their eligibility to vote as the Grama Niladhari has refused to entertain their voter registration as they cannot lay claim to a physical housing unit.
In recent months the rise of the killer disease dengue has reached epidemic proportions. A 100,000 may have contracted the disease, while multiple scores of people including children have died.
The most dengue-affected part in the country is the city of Colombo, where frequently children are being laid to rest. Even as I write a student of St. Peter’s College and a resident of Kirulapone has fallen victim to the deadly disease.
Authorities blame residents for not keeping the environment clean and for the resulting spread of the disease. The environment is the collective responsibility of all its citizens. The ability to keep an environment clean does not depend solely on the efforts of residents, but also on the physical infrastructure in which they find themselves.
With the absence of good quality housing there is also an absence of drains, proper sewerage, and better community services. A new UNP administration at the CMC will make the construction of better quality houses, its highest priority as it will contribute the most to a better, cleaner disease free environment.
The recent investment in the city of Colombo has not been resident-centred. The former Chairman of the National Transport Commission in a recent article in the Sunday Times has mentioned that the changes to the road network have many disadvantages, but the underlying point of the article was that no experts in the transport field had been consulted in its design.
For those of us who drive vehicles, such changes may be useful, but the article pointed out that the new traffic plan had certainly disadvantaged the poor, the bus commuter and the pavement hawker.
Those who wield power need to be reminded that the town planner, the architect, the engineer, the transport expert, the health and environmental specialist and other professionals have much to contribute in shaping the city.
Ensuring peace and stability
Many of the residents in the gardens have temporary employment and low wages. Pavement hawking, small boutiques, home industries and the three wheel-taxis are important parts of their economy. Any threat to the survival of the poor will drive them further into desperate measures.
Modernisers, developers, bureaucrats and politicians need to recognise that ongoing consultation with the citizenry is a non-negotiable condition of development. People-centred, pro-poor policies are the only strategy that will ensure peace and stability.
A city evolves overtime shaped by its citizenry and other forces brought to bear on it. Its history is a record of its people and events. Colombo belongs to all its people, irrespective of culture and class.
(The writer is a Member of Parliament.)