COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — After nearly three decades of interethnic civil war, ending only in 2009, Sri Lanka’s economy is now showing robust growth with investments pouring into the island nation. In addition, Sri Lanka has also fulfilled 15 out of 22 indicators of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG). Moreover, the country has decreased the percentage of people living in poverty in Sri Lanka from 23% to 9% of the population. The republic of 20 million inhabitants is now focusing on transiting from a lower middle-income country to an upper middle-income country.
With this formidable growth also comes rapid urbanization, the result of which is a rising number of Sri Lanka’s urban population. This phenomenon has prompted an increase in informal settlements, many of which are experiencing overcrowding. Furthermore, by illegally occupying the land—as do 70% of Colombo’s urban poor households—the residents of these informal settlements are vulnerable to eviction. In Colombo city alone, where 30% of the country’s population resides, UN Habitat estimates the number of slum-dweller to be at 65,000.
It is believed that half of Colombo’s residents dwell in illegal settlements or in houses designated as unsuitable for human dwelling. Slums—watta in Sinhalese—occupy the central, northern and northeastern parts of Colombo; the living condition of these wattas is one of inadequacy. 30% of families do not have proper access to drinking water and the city’s pipe network only covers 56% of the low-income urban areas. In the north of the city, only 51% of the districts’ households have access to the city’s sewerage network.
The threat of eviction now portends more than before, as it is being realized that many slums sit on prospective commercial areas. Being in central locations allow the watta-dwellers to obtain jobs easily, and even with larger plots of land being offered in exchange for the one they currently occupy, many are reluctant to take up the deal. The issue of relocation is certainly becoming a cause of consternation for many inhabitants of Colombo’s wattas, as the Sri Lankan government had announced in 2013 that Colombo would be made slum-free by the year 2015.
14,000 houses in Colombo are being constructed for low-income families living in wattas and on the inhabitants will be relocated to these new houses. Nevertheless, these houses are situated in the north and the northeastern areas of the city, meaning that those from the slums in the city center will find it more difficult to commute to work and to find new employments. It is also problematic because much of the land that is being rehabilitated has been inhabited by the evictees’ households for decades.
The main opposition party—the United National Part (UNP)—claims that the government has an ulterior motive. As the slums of central Colombo house many Tamil and Muslim families, the UNP believes that the government is planning to alter the demographics of the city with the aim of changing Colombo’s constituencies for the next general election. There has also been speculation that the relocation is being done in manners that violate the principles of human rights. It has been claimed that watta-dwellers whose families are third generation deed holders are being evicted from Colombo over the past six years with the use of armed forces. It is also alleged that after their eviction they do not get immediately placed in their new housing but instead are forced to live in tents for an extended period.
The vulnerability of Colombo’s urban poor demonstrates—archetypically—the exclusion of the poor from Asia’s burgeoning economies. In this case, not only are the poor not benefiting from the country’s peacetime prosperity, they are also seen as a political obstruction to be manipulated and removed.