Sri Lanka

Residents Express Mixed Emotions as Historic Slave Island Prepares for Demolition

The Urban Development Authority is carrying out the demolition and redevelopment of much of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

Residents Express Mixed Emotions as Historic Slave Island Prepares for Demolition

SLAVE ISLAND, SRI LANKA – Shops, historical sites and places of worship fill Colombo 2, a suburb nestled to the south of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. Local residents still informally know the area, fringed by fancy hotels and bordering the Indian Ocean, as Slave Island.

Once an area that housed slaves during British rule, Slave Island today is a multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural hub. Here, locals speak Sinhala, Tamil, Malay and English.

What unites this eclectic population is the uncertainty of the future.

Today, many of the 647,000 residents of Colombo 2 still live in shanties in overcrowded slums. A lack of resources forces families to share basic utilities and amenities. Despite the conditions throughout much of the area, residents say they are struggling to come to terms with the reality of urban redevelopment and demolition scheduled to take place in their neighborhoods.

In 2011, the Urban Development Authority notified residents that it was planning the demolition of housing on seven acres of Slave Island to make way for new homes, apartment buildings, community halls, parking lots and roads. The next phase of the project will do the same on an additional 3.5 acres of the suburb. The plan aims to attract business as well as to improve services and living conditions.

Many residents reacted strongly to the news and sought a legal injunction in hopes that the courts would declare the redevelopment to be illegal, says Sujeewa Senasinghe, the attorney and United National Party member of Parliament representing residents who hold deeds to their homes in the case pending before the Supreme Court.

Senasinghe filed a fundamental rights petition in March 2013 with signatures from 600 families who would unwillingly lose their homes in the redevelopment of Slave Island. The case will go to court again on Sept. 23 after a postponement in August.

The issue has been in and out of the courts since the judiciary approved the redevelopment and resettlement plan in 2012.

Despite the pending petition, residents say the project is moving forward. The Urban Development Authority, under the provision of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, is now asking residents to leave so that the construction companies it has contracted can demolish all existing structures to make way for thousands of new homes and apartments in phase one of the plan. Phase two will bring two more 12-story apartment buildings to the suburb.

The Urban Development Authority is offering residents two relocation options.

The first option is that the Urban Development Authority will pay 18 months’ rent, or 18,000 rupees ($135), for residents who find “proper” temporary housing, according to a January 2013 press release. Under the second option, for residents who cannot find proper rental housing, the development authority will either find housing for them or will designate plots of land where they can build temporary shelters at their own expense. The development authority has not released a definition of “proper” housing.

As of July 2013, nearly 320 people had taken the rental payment, and about 165 more people were waiting for the development authority to value their properties so they could decide what to do, Senasinghe says. He predicts that many people will just abandon their property or will relocate at the last second.

Mohammed Jabir Ali, a 32-year-old resident of Slave Island, says that deciding which relatives will benefit from forfeiting old family homes to the project is dividing kin.

“They were built in 1956,” he says. “These people are all legal owners, as they possess deeds for houses. The issue here is that after several generations, proving ownership is futile, causing rifts in families, while the buildings are in a deplorable condition.”

All current residents of Colombo 2 will be eligible to purchase the newly constructed homes and apartments once they are complete, according to the Urban Development Authority. It plans to complete the housing units within two years of the start of construction, which the companies it has contracted have not yet begun.

But some residents say they are worried it will take longer than two years for the completion of the new housing in phase one of the project after several delays in construction dates since 2011. The next phase of the project – set to begin in August 2013 – has not started yet either.

The demolition of buildings and houses in Slave Island started in 2012. Construction companies demolished 15 houses in July 2013 and plan to demolish 119 others in September.

The residents who remain in Slave Island are those who have opted to stay until the last moment. While some say they look forward to a change for the better, others say they are devastated to leave their family homes in the path of the bulldozer.

“Development in any form is necessary when one considers the fact that it would provide for better facilities,” says the Rev. Gnanathilleke, chief incumbent of the Sri Wijeratnaramaya Buddhist temple in the area.

He encourages his fellow residents to root themselves in their culture during the period of transition.

“Culture is what we need to preserve within this changing environment,” he says.

But other residents are less optimistic.

“I’m faced with a dilemma as the demolition of houses will take away my livelihood and, above all, the neighborhood,” says Suppuletchumi Jayananda, a 65-year-old retired teacher who depends on family members for economic support who will have to relocate.

Jayananda, who was born in Slave Island, laments the potential loss of community.

“The goodwill we have built in this area and the attachment to the Kovil is far too great to lose,” she says, referencing the Hindu temple near her home.

But Ali focuses on the opportunity for growth.

“I was an engine-room operator in a ship,” Ali says. “I had the good opportunity to see the world from New York to the U.K. to the Far East, and I use[d] to dream that Sri Lanka too should be developed alike.”

Editor’s note: Interviews were conducted in Sinhala and Tamil. Buddhist priests go by only one name.