Place Politics: A Facelift for Colombo Slums

by Michelle Brooks

Furniture manufacturing in Colombo Slums

Since the end of the internal war in Sri Lanka, plans to re-house those living in ‘slums’ (known as wattas or palpath ) in the capital Colombo, are gathering momentum. The Government hopes to improve water and sanitation provision to the residents through an ambitious building programme to provide a brick house for every family. Over time, NGOs such as the UN-Habitat mission and Habitat for Humanity have attempted to do this with significant but understandably slow progress. The 2001 census showed 75,000 families living in slums occupying 9% of the land within the municipality of Colombo. However, whilst the footprint of the slums has not changed since then, the Tsunami precipitated significant in-migration to the city from the devastated coastal zone increasing demand on already stretched facilities.

The slum dwellers are the expendable, industrial army of Colombo. They are paid shockingly low wages to service the ever growing demand for increases in absolute wealth of the privileged super- rich few. However along with this army of workers come families, women, children and grandparents, who also need to survive. This can lead to early marriages, exploitative working conditions for children and domestic duties for the elderly often despite physical impairments brought on by age and lack of medical treatment. This is in addition to the stigma of being a slum resident, with social exclusion capping employment opportunities and social mobility.

Having lived in Sri Lanka I could go on forever about the problems faced by slum dwellers in Colombo. However, what is at issue here is the question of improving housing and sanitation for residents without destroying valuable spatialised social networks alive and well in the slums. It remains to be seen whether Government plans will take a holistic approach to increase overall wellbeing or whether, as has happened in similar, past ventures, the new homes will be on rateable land where taxes on water, drainage and roads will be applied. Needless to say, this will lead to further impoverishment and homelessness /slums and hence must be avoided.

In an article for Transactions (of the IBG) Ipsita Chatterjee (2009) looks at a similar project in Ahmedabad where place politics were re-defined arbitrarily by urban planners. Arguably, this ‘top-down’ approach often translates into the ‘designing out’ of the poor making way for the gentrified cosmetically enhanced new face of the city. Geographical case studies from around the world have highlighted such cases, for example read Mike Davis (in Bridge and Watson 2002) for a study on L.A. and Teresa Caldeira (2001) for a study of Sao Paulo.

worldRead  Ipsita Chatterjee (Transactions) http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122250351/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

world Read Vaughan et al 2005 spatiality of poverty (Area) http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-in/fulltext/118682258/PDFSTART

world Read Hasbullah and Korf 2009 politics of ethnic purification in Sri Lanka (Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography) http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-in/fulltext/122513004/PDFSTART

world Read about the UN mission and Target 11 in Sri Lanka http://www.un.lk/resources_center/pub_pdf/1018.pdf

world Read online news about Government plans http://www.colombopage.com/archive_10/May1273293520CH.php

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