Colombo’s Urban Regeneration Could Rewrite the ‘Socio-economic DNA’ of Entire Communities

As urban regeneration continues at a dizzying pace in Colombo, it was the focus of the opening technical session of a recent forum on ‘Sri Lanka’s Road to Sustainable Development’ organised by the Law and Society Trust (August 22nd 2014). I was a panelist at this event, along with Eran Wickramaratne (MP) and a consultant to the UDA, and was asked to provide a socio-economic perspective on the issue. In this post, I capture the thoughts that I shared here. My primary thought was that the Colombo urban regeneration drive could “rewrite the socio-economic DNA” of entire communities who are being resettled, and more needs to be done to help people cope with the negative consequences of the project. I also argued that, in the rush to ‘free up’ land for private investment, important aspects of governance, inclusivity, and economic security must not suffer.


The speakers before me have given you an excellent view of the issues at hand – a view of the vision for urban development in Colombo by the UDA official, and a view on the precarious governance aspects of it by the honourable MP. Let me first zoom out of the Colombo urban project for a moment, to talk about wider urbanisation issues, and then zoom back in.

There are some realities we need to keep in mind:

Yes, Colombo has a lot of low-income housing, but we have never had massive sprawling slum and shanty towns, of the scale of Mumbai or other South Asian cities. Even compared to mega cities in the rest of Asia, we have never had a massive urbanisation problem – with an urbanization level of around 15%, the country is much less urbanized than its counterparts in Asia where urbanisation levels are closer to 50%!

A crowded metro station in Bangkok, Thailand. Asian cities have seen rapid rural-urban migration and urban infrastructure struggles to keep up. (Image by author)

A crowded metro station in Bangkok, Thailand. Asian cities have seen rapid rural-urban migration and urban infrastructure struggles to keep up. (Image by author)

The growth rate of the urban population has been just 0.3% in the past decade. A history of spatially spread investments in social infrastructure coupled with successive initiatives to take industrial activities outside of the Western Province has meant that Sri Lanka did not see intensive urban centres emerge, except for a few districts. A large influx of rural migrants was also not seen on the scale of that in other Asian countries. The reason could be twofold. On one hand, rural poverty in Sri Lanka has not been as acute as in many of these Asian countries, and welfare services like health are well located across the country. On the other hand it may also be because, while the Western Province cities did grow commercially, the growth, and resultant incomes, was not outstanding enough to attract migrants in any significant way. Contrast this to countries like China, where the population in China’s southern coastal cities grew very rapidly due to the thousands of export-oriented production facilities being located there, which proved to be a strong attraction for rural migrants seeking better incomes than in their villages

But, we still have to bear in mind that the Western Province has seen some population growth – an 11% increase in population density from 2002 to 2012. There may not have been massive rural-urban migration from other provinces, but rather migration from rural areas of the province to the more urban areas in the province. The region comprises only 6% of the total land mass, but is home to 28% of the population, accounts for 45% of GDP, and 73% of the industrial production

Meanwhile, water and sanitation hasn’t kept pace – a study by a colleague of mine on dengue, showed that one of the key reasons that dengue is so prevalent in the WP is because of the water, hygiene and sanitation conditions in the area. 10% of households dwell in unsatisfactory sanitary facilities, while, appallingly, 52% of households in the province consume unsafe drinking water

So that’s the context in which the Colombo Urban Regeneration Project (URP) is taking place.

The urban regeneration drive is very clearly articulated in government policy documents and pronouncements by key officials.

  • In the Mahinda Chintana 2010 Idiri Dekma document – “By 2020, city of Colombo will have no more shanty dwellers.”
  •  In the UDA’s URP plan – “To make the City of Colombo the most attractive in South Asia”
  • In comments by the Secretary MoD – “preferred destination for international business and tourism”

So you can see that there are twin objectives here – on one hand, urban regeneration and beautification for its own sake – the intrinsic value it brings, and secondly, the value brought from a city that is attractive as a regional and global centre of commerce. But when you really look at it, the URP comes down to 2 fundamental aspects – beautification and freeing up land for investment in property development.

At the heart of this process has been the acquisition of land from those who are already living there – in low-income housing – either with deeds or illegally. There are two main issues that arise, which I will focus on – the first is the need for due process and resulting fallout, and the second is the lack of thinking through a 360 degree approach to resettlement and the socio-economic implications.

On the first, that due process has not been followed is now becoming very clear. I highly recommend an excellent report by CPA on this, which I will be drawing extensively from today. All those being resettled or evicted have been lumped in the category of ‘slums and shanties’, when this is clearly not the case – all 70,000 plus facilities are not all slum-dwellers, a lot of them are legal land owners with lovely houses. They are being given apartments that are often a LOT smaller than their original rightful home. They are not compensated for that loss – the loss of assets accumulated over time, loss of intrinsic value of community, etc. They are also asked to pay for the new housing, around Rs 1 million over 20 years.

Houses in Slave Island's Java Lane community being razed to the ground to make way for a mixed property development by India's TATA. Image by Halik Azeez/

Houses in Slave Island’s Java Lane community being razed to the ground earlier this year, to make way for a mixed property development by India’s TATA group. Image by Halik Azeez/

According to the UDA regulations, the new apartment owners cannot use that apartment in any way that a typical housing asset could be used – to sub-rent, to sell, or mortgage to raise bank loans, etc. All the things they could have done with their original own home.

A stated strategy of the authorities has been to streamline regulations and procedures related to land acquisition for private property development. And a direct consequence of this has been a flouting of the nationally-approved policies and legal provisions with regard to land acquisition and resettlement – the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy and the Land Acquisition Act.

So thats on the first aspect of due process. The second aspect is what I called the lack of a 360 approach.

We have to remember that this kind of land acquisition, resettlement, urban regeneration is a massive upheaval. It’s not simply releasing land for private property development. And I don’t mean just the aspects of the loss of community and other important intrinsic social bonds, but I mean something more. And this hasn’t got enough attention.

We need to consider how young people’s schooling choices are impacted by the resettlement – being moved from central Colombo where they’ve lived for years, sometimes generations, to live farther away. We need to consider how livelihoods are affected. Many of these low-income residents are informal workers. Their livelihoods are intrinsically linked to proximity to work. Once you lose that proximity you lose your market. Women of the household used to engage in small income generating activities out of their homes like making string hoppers, sweets, etc., to sell to residents and also to sell to local shops and kadeys. This is lost because you cannot do this when in an apartment block of hundreds of other people. You’ve lost your market edge. Other small enterprises – grocery shops down the corner of the road, tailoring, bicycle repair. Interestingly, the NIRP even recognises unregistered informal businesses and gives compensation for lost livelihoods of this sort.

These cannot be picked up in the same way once you are put into an apartment complex. The dynamics are entirely different. What is happening is an entire rewriting of the socio-economic DNA of those communities. And the little attention paid to that is quite troubling. It impacts incomes, and household debt in the short term, and influences economic security, social protection, and intergenerational mobility in the longer term.

Another part of the 360 approach, is about how the instalment payments are to be made. Has there been an effort to provide concessionary loan schemes for evictees to help make their instalment payments? Reports of households having to borrow informally to make the 100,000 payment within 3 months of moving in. That’s a lot for those who are day wage labourers!

Have we thought about how to compensate for the loss of financial security of being able to use your house to raise money for medical expenses, education, marriage, funerals, etc.? The security that comes with a mortgageable asset, and they enjoyed before, but not anymore after moving into an apartment?

The payments over the 20 years up to 1 million have to be made regardless of the age of the folks in the household. Whereas if they were in their previous homes, they can retire either due to old age or some injury, and even without earning monthly income, not have to worry about losing their house. But what about the risk to economic security among old age residents who are now about 50-60 years, and in just a few years won’t be earning any money but have to still pay the remaining amount up to 1 million?

These are all critical issues that need to have been thought out because urban regeneration is not just about resettlement and freeing up land for development. There is a rewriting of the socio-economic DNA of these communities and there needs to be help to negate the shock to the body that comes from it this rewriting.

Let me leave 2 thoughts in concluding my remarks.

The first concluding thought is why there is so little ‘noise’ on this issue. Yes, there is a consortium of activists and researchers emerging who are tackling this issue. But I am yet to see any major noise being created, any politician (especially those with Colombo as their constituency) coming forward vocally to tackle this.

I asked a friend of mine why this is so. And she pointed to 3 things, and I tend to agree with her.

  • Militarisation and intimidation – fear
  • Legal illiteracy – no idea what rights they have
  • Colombo’s middle-class likes it – “slum and shanty free Colombo by 2020” – its a great line. As long as the elites and middle-class of a city like something, it is unlikely to be thrown out. The moment they turn, that’s when governments often sit up and take notice. See what happened with the corruption or anti-rape movement in India. It’s only once the middle-class got on the streets that action started coming, A lot of literature points out that an emerging middle class is good for governance and to raise the voice on accountability. But in Sri Lanka, at least on the urban issue, we don’t see that happening.

Politicians haven’t taken this up. While civil society, artists, photographers, journalists have.

The second concluding thought is that we need to understand that urban regeneration is beyond land and housing and beautification. It is also about efficiency in moving people around the city and in and out of it; it is about ensuring that all aspects of what makes the city competitive are improved – from land use planning, to traffic management, to urban public transport, to office spaces that cater to an emerging knowledge economy, to IT and broadband internet infrastructure, to environmental management, etc.

The experiences of Asian countries have much to offer Sri Lanka in understanding how best to manage these. The experience of Japan shows the importance of investing early in urban public transport that facilitates urbanization by connecting peripheral workers to productive jobs in cities. Already Sri Lanka appears to be late on this, evidenced by the crippling traffic jams faced by urban commuters daily in Colombo and major suburbs. As evident from many Asian cities shows, urbanization does have strong agglomeration effects. Industries clustering closer together can spur productivity and innovation, while raising worker incomes. Like in Malaysia, Sri Lanka needs to identify key urban areas into which industries and FDI can be channeled, and build the energy, housing, and environmental management infrastructure around it.

Let me end on a positive note. I think we have a unique opportunity here. As Sri Lanka is relatively new to this urban development drive, and as I pointed out right at the start, our level of urbanisation is quite low compared to other Asian countries and the pressures are less, Sri Lanka has an excellent advantage in being able to better plan, and foster inclusive and sustainable urbanisation.

Thank you.


4 thoughts on “Colombo’s Urban Regeneration Could Rewrite the ‘Socio-economic DNA’ of Entire Communities

  1. Urbanization and beautification are two different things. The pioneer late president Premadasa gave a flat and livelihood he formed residential communities to look after that. Once uprooted and located in a strange sometimes hostile environment the livelihood is very much affected and severe humanitarian crisis is created!

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