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Half of Colombo's population live in unsafe and unhealthy environments:

Shanty dwellers to own houses



The new housing units in Dematagoda

The Dematagoda line of shanties is a view that a traveller on the main line of the Sri Lankan railway would never miss. The unhygienic conditions, the unbelievable stench that emanates after the rains are part of life of those who among these temporary habitats. An assessment survey done three years ago on these under served communities by the Urban Development Authority(UDA) (in 2011) showed that the total number of such settlements counted up to 1,499 consisting of 68,762 houses. The most recent t survey done earlier to the 2011 was a survey done in 2001 by a Non Governmental Organisation on the same under-served communities which revealed that during this ten- year period housing units have increased by a staggering 8,000.

According to the UDA the number of households to date in these communities is more than 68,000 with a population of over 300,000 people. The land extent that these people live in is 900 acres. "Which means currently, over half of the residential population in the Colombo City is living in extreme low housing conditions occupying only 10% of the total Colombo area," said E.A.C. Priyashantha Head of the Project Planning Unit, Urban Regeneration program of the UDA.

Yet these people comprise almost all the labour force that make the Colombo city function. "Many of these people work in the harbour, Railway Department and Municipal Council forming their entire labour force. They are playing a pivotal role in the proper functioning of the Colombo city," he said.

Numerous solutions were tested by successive governments during the past to find solutions to the City's housing problems But there was no proper plan of action or firm determination to address the real housing issue in the city of Colombo with a vision to develop the City of Colombo n par with other cities in the south Asian region.

"The Ministry of Defence and Urban Development has recognised the fact that addressing the housing problem in the city of Colombo should be an integral part of the overall Urban Development strategy for the western region of Sri Lanka," said Weerasena Adhikari, Deputy Director General of Planning and Operations of the UDA.


Weerasena Adhikari


E.A.C Priyashanth

The vision is by 2020, the City of Colombo will have no more shanty dwellers, he said.

"Urban development was recognised as one of the most vibrant sectors and hence introduced strategies to address the Colombo's housing problem within a holistic approach based on the lessons learned from previous experiences in developing the Colombo metro, he said.

The current policy of the Government under the Mahinda Chinthana vision for tomorrow is to make the 'Colombo City and other key cities will be improved to be on par with environment friendly modern cities in middle income countries while also establishing such cities as commercial hubs in South Asia.' It is spelt out in the Mahinda Chinthana "Vision for Future" 2010 document "My policy is that every family in Sri Lanka must own a house. To make this policy a reality, the government has already prepared a plan to construct 600,000 new houses and make 'House Ownership for all' a reality within next six years."

The plan is to provide housing facilities to families living in these under served settlements though liberalization and development of prime lands in the City of Colombo. The Urban Development Authority will implement these programs with the cooperation of private sector developers.

Currently around 14,000 housing units, apartments and otherwise are under construction at different stages in the Colombo city area. First 500 unit project was completed and handover over to the slum and shanty dwellers in November 2013. According to Adhikari, during last two year period, the UDA has awarded contract for construction of housing schemes in 19 sites containing walk-up apartments (which is 3 - 4 storied buildings) and 12 storied condominium apartments with all facilities and amenities. Negotiations are conducted by the UDA with contractors to construct another 20,000 housing units to begin with in this year.


Secretary Defence Gotabaya Rajapaska inspecting the on- going housing projects in Colombo


Shanties bordering Kelani river


Shanties alongside the railway line

From this year onwards, the resettlement of low-income families is scheduled to be continued based on a specific time frame for completion of construction of each project. By 2016, according to the plan 40,000 apartment units will be constructed for shanty dwellers and 20,000 luxury and semi-luxury apartments will be constructed. The ongoing program would cater for 14,000 households and the UDA will continue the project to address the housing needs of the nearly 68,000 low-income families in these back ward communities.

Different types

"These housing clusters are scattered over the many government lands, railway reservations, canal banks and several low lying areas," Priyashantha said.

Shanties, as we refer to these housing clusters are temporary shelters, mostly built in marginal and reserved lands. In legal terminology, they are designated as squatters or encroachers. Yet, all these under-served communities do not live in shanties. There can be shanties or squatters, slums, dilapidated labour quarter sites, service schemes and low cost flats clustered in different parts of the Colombo metro. Shanties or squatters could be considered as the worst of its kind. "People who were originally from Colombo are also living in this type of community and many have come from other parts of the country as well. People who were displaced from the North and the East have also settled down in these areas," said Priyashantha quoting the research results done by the UDA. These categories of settlements are extremely congested and all these habitats do not have basic amenities, and frequently inundated during rainy days resulting a damp soil and unbearable smell. "In many corners of the Colombo city these people have found their plots to live.

Slums, in contrast, are very old, sub-standard structures mostly built as back-to-back rows in inner-city areas, left over with no maintenance for decades.

The Labour quarters were built by government entities decades ago. The railways, Public Works Department, Port Authority, Colombo Municipal Council and such entities constructed them for their employees yet the present occupants are found to be the third or fourth generations of the original people. The building structures of these quarters are now remained very dilapidated state due to non-availability of mechanism for maintenance. There seems to be no interest in maintaining them as many of the present habitants are not serving the original employee any more.

Apartments, unlike other housing schemes ,is a unique housing concept to which home owners jointly own the common elements within the condominium property and the cost of such services to be shared among them.

Inability to regulate the collective responsibility towards this requirement seems to be the mere reason for collapsing the maintenance of many government owned apartment complexes in Colombo. Therefore the physical conditions of these quarters considered the main cause to classify them as low income housing in the city. All these are totally unsafe and unhealthy environments for human habitation.

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