Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 7 February 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

The gentrification of Galle Fort

Galle Fort, home to a great number of remarkably well preserved Dutch VOC buildings and the best example of a Fortified European settlement in South Asia, has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts, with the old guards who once declared themselves proud residents of 'The Fort' pushed out, their homes bought over and the walled city acquiring an extralocal vibe.

The narrow streets that once vibrated with clatter of everyday life have been transformed into cobblestoned wonders, lined with houses converted into quaint Italian cafes and retirement residences for Europeans looking for sun and change.

Just how much the Fort has changed is summed up by 50-year-old Sithy Noor, three generations of whose family had lived down one of the secluded lanes. "Today there is none. My neighbours are replaced with café and hotels we've never heard of before. We felt so out of place, we simply had to move out," she says, unhappy about the turn of events.

She is not alone in her unhappiness, or fears about the future. A. L. Gunawardhana, former Divisional Secretary, Galle, says while the numbers of houses and properties have remained static, the number of locals who've inhibited the historic city is dwindling fast. "So much so, we no longer know who actually lives in some of these houses," he says.

Sense of place lost

According to data from the Census and Statistics Department, the population of Galle Fort in 2011 was 2126. "That was the last coherent number," he says.

All attempt to calculate the demographics of the region since then has proved to be unsuccessful, with the Galle Municipal Council, the Census Department and even electoral register all coming up with conflicting figures.

Amanda Rajapaksa, a senior lecturer at the Department of Architecture at the University of Moratuwa in her exhaustive study on a 'sense of place' and the diminishing living heritage of the Galle Fort, writes that the Galle Fort, which has been a living heritage site for the past three and a half centuries has an identity that is strongly characterised by the people living there and the natural processes involved in inhabiting the place.

"The site faces issues related to gentrification since gaining World Heritage status. Excessive gentrification disrupts the authentic sense of place in this living heritage site.

Even though the sense of place of Galle Fort is not defined as a dimension of its heritage, the concept of 'sense of place' is a critical component of 'authenticity' and a representation of the authentic identity in communities," she observes.

She records that in 2011, the Fort had 400 buildings including 275 were houses, 25% of which were owned or leased to foreigners.

Today this number has drastically shot up with revealing data that suggests the gentrified percentage has reached its optimum level of up to 40%. "If uncontrolled, residents would feel alienated living within a dominating western population with very different values, beliefs and culture. This, the residents believe, will eventually drive away the existing portion of the host community due to their loss of identity and sense of belonging..." she concludes in her study.

The Galle Heritage Foundation (GHF) is ostensibly the custodians of the Fort. The Foundation, which came into being through a Parliamentary Act of 1994, is mandated to promote the preservation, conservation and development of the Fort. One would assume the Foundation would be located at the Fort itself, but finding it is not as easy. Because there is no GHF office in the Fort.

GHF chased out

"During the previous regime, we were chased out of the office space we used in the Fort," says Ramya Siriwansa, Chairman of the Foundation, pointing out, "Although we're supposed to oversee and delve into matters concerning the Fort, we work from three kilometres away. Our only office space, which was located conveniently within the Fort, was given up for rent."

Commenting on the level of disparity when it comes to properties, he says, the Foundation has requested that they be located within the Fort so that they may at least serve tourist and locals who come here to seek information."

For the most part, the GHF is helpless he explains pointing out, "The GHF has no legal powers, we're looked at as a white elephant. But the moment something happens within the Fort, we're conveniently blamed."

The clock and bell tower is a case in point. The Clock Tower, which is still being repaired, belongs to the Galle Municipality but when it was damaged, the Municipality simply refused to foot the bill due to budgetary constraints. Similarly, when the Bell Tower was damaged, the Archaeological Department cited the same.

Today the GHF is using its own funds, money collected from renting out the grounds, office space and other miscellaneous payments received, to repair the damages. "We don't have money, we're only a foundation. Contrary to popular misconceptions, we don't even receive donations," he said, adding, "We're using whatever we have to preserve this place."

Galle Fort Land values

According to Siriwansa, the value of a single perch of land in Galle in 2011 was Rs. 10 Million. "This figure today has gone up to Rs.12 million and is rising further unregulated and undocumented." Lanka Real Estate, which has an office in the Galle Fort, is headed by Ivan Robinson. He says a 25 square metre plot of land is available for sale at a thumping price of Rs.14 million today.

"If you are buying a property within the Fort prior to renovations, then it would be charged at Rs.7 million a perch, but once it's done and complete, it ranges from Rs.14 million to Rs.20 million a perch," he claims. Oddly enough, the smaller the property, the higher the price he says. "That's because the local demand so much more because they know that a two perch property even with two rooms has a commercial value to it." He also reveals that two popular Sri Lankan cricketers have in fact bought properties in the Galle Fort paying a much higher price than their foreign counterparts would.


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