The Centre for Policy Alternatives was formed in the firm belief that there is an urgent need to strengthen institution and capacity-building for good governance and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka, and that non-partisan civil society groups have an important and constructive contribution to make to this process. Since its inception in 1996, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) addresses and challenges democratic governance in Sri Lanka, and advocates the direct and proactive involvement of citizens in the design and operation of governance mechanisms that are more responsive, accountable and transparent. The mission of the organisation is to strengthen the civil society contribution towards public policy making, through programs of research and advocacy in the areas of democratic governance and peace, with human rights as an overarching priority.

Why the Right To The City Sri Lanka initiative?

Following the end of Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil war in May 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka prioritised infrastructure and development in its rebuilding process. War affected areas in Northern Sri Lanka aside, the capital city of Colombo received the most focus in terms of development, with the aim of making it a “world class city”. To carry out Sri Lanka’s development plans, urban development was brought under the purview of the Ministry of Defense in 2010, thereby creating a new Ministry – the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development. The state institution for urban development, the Urban Development Authority (UDA), therefore came under this new Ministry.

The creation of this world class city involved two key projects :

  • The Urban Regeneration Project to be carried out by the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development
  • The Metro Colombo Urban Development Project, a 5 year US$320 million project by the World Bank and the Government.

The Urban Regeneration Project activities primarily involved beautification of the city, and creating a “slum free Colombo by 2020” by “liberating” commercially valuable property across the city that was home to many of Colombo’s urban poor by building high rise apartments for them in the outskirts of the city.

Colombo’s urban poor need significantly higher levels of service provisioning, and the lack of adequate housing, secure tenure and title are a concern. However, the URP lacked a comprehensive framework of entitlements and an involuntary resettlement policy in line with national and international standards, essentially making accepting relocation a pre- condition for access to better housing and services (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014). It also did not take into account that many of the affected communities were in fact not slums, and were well built houses with water and electricity connections, sometimes spanning several floors accompanying several extended families, and importantly, that a fair percentage of homes had title to their land. However, a combination of military intimidation and use of force and people’s legal illiteracy saw thousands of families evicted to these high rise apartments between 2010 – 2014, with no compensation and no due process being followed. The breakdown of rule of law during the Rajapaksa regime during this time meant that even for those who sought legal options saw little or no redress.

January 2015 saw a change in President and August 2015 a new Government, with promises to strengthen the rule of law and ensure that human rights of all citizens are protected. The new Government also brings with them their flagship Megapolis plan.

At present, the urban poor in Colombo can be divided into two groups – those who have been relocated to high rise buildings and those who are still residing in their original location, and who may or may not be moved in the near future. Each group faces serious issues unique to their situation and these realities must inform and shape the new policy directions of the present Government. Those most affected by the transformation of Colombo are its residents – those who have lived here for generations, improving their homes significantly over time. Unlike in sprawling slums in Bombay or Dhaka, Colombo’s urban poor and even those that can be classified as living in shanties are not primarily home to migrant populations, but to people whose families lived in Colombo for decades. They had no voice under the previous regime to shape the change or development of the city, their housing and land reduced to commodities – with the Government’s role in the housing sector shifting from developer and financer to that of a regulator and facilitator, unlike in the past where Sri Lankan housing policies historically have placed emphasis on home ownership and the participation of communities in the process.

Urban housing is a serious issue that needs addressing in Colombo, in addition to the addressing the futures of the two groups mentioned above. However, the participation and realities of the communities must be at the center of any discussions around housing policy as it is they who will ultimately inhabit these spaces – a key factor that is not taken into account by policy makers and planners. Sri Lanka’s housing policy discussion needs multi-disciplinary input – from not just politicians and policy makers but also architects, urban planners, sociologists, civil society, lawyers.

There has to be a change in thinking that providing any type of housing for the urban poor is sufficient. In addition to following due process and creating spaces for inclusive decision making, policy makers also must look at the long run and concentrate on (irrespective of type of housing) creating a sense of ownership in the private and public space in the built environment, allowing for community life to continue and grow, security of tenure and improving quality of life. This initiative was created with the aim of informing and broadening this development discussion, challenge the myths surrounding Colombo’s development and to give a voice to the communities seeking justice with the hope that their experience will one day positively affect someone else’s future experience.

(The photographs featured on this site are by Abdul Halik Azeez, Selvaraj Rajasegar, Devaka Seneviratne and Iromi Perera)