The Sunday Leader

The Development War — A‘Humanitarian Operation’ Against Colombo’s Poor

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Mounting evidence suggests that losing a job or a home can rock our identity and savage our self-esteem. Forced moves wrench families from their schools and support networks.… Economic polarisation also shatters our sense of national union and common purpose, fostering political polarisation as well.
— Nicholas Kristoff (New York Times – 6.11.2010)

The poor are ugly, unclean and undesirable; they obstruct flood-control, law and order and development. Colombo cannot become a modern metropolis with clean air, unblocked drains and safe streets while the poor are here. To win the development war, the poor must be removed, en masse.
So the Rajapaksas would have us believe.
A ‘humanitarian operation’ is to be launched, to liberate the poor from their squalid existence, and turn Colombo into a ‘slum-free city’. 65,000-75,000 families (around half a million men, women and children) are to be turned-out of their homes. According to the Director General, UDA, Nihal Fernando “We have identified sites in Homagama, Gampaha and Kalutara for resettlement… We cannot allow them to live in the city any longer.” (The Sunday Times – 21.11.2010)
The eviction plan will encompass not just unauthorised settlers but even families with legal titles to their lands. Each family will be paid the princely sum of Rs 100,000, as compensation (some ministers receive as much per month, as rent allowance). When private land is appropriated for developmental purposes, owners are paid the market value. Will the legal owners among the evictees receive identical treatment or will they too be paid Rs 100,000 for land which is worth much more?
What will these families find when they are taken to their new habitats? Will there be at least shacks or tents to protect them from the elements? Or will they find bare land with no shelter, water or toilets, no place for the children to keep their books or the elderly to rest their heads? How will the surrounding rural communities respond to this urban influx? Who will decide which family will go where — the families or the state?
Isn’t the forcible relocation of citizens unconstitutional? What about the Herculean task of finding schools for children? How would this expulsion impact the elderly or students facing crucial exams (Year 5 scholarship, O/L and A/L)? What about the livelihoods of evictees?
What is the moral difference between the proposed expulsion of Colombo’s poor and the expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE?
Most of us are not yet callous enough to ignore the pain of fellow human beings dragged away from their homes, possibly at gun-point; not when images of their tragedy are brought into our homes by the media, in the form of weeping children or pleading elderly. So the Rajapaksas have launched a propaganda campaign to market this moral outrage as a ‘developmental necessity’, via a narrative which portrays the poor as perpetrators of criminals and health-hazards. The aim is to blunt our capacity for compassion by playing on our phobias, to persuade us to see Colombo’s poor not as fellow human beings but as ‘threats’ and ‘obstructions’. And thereby to win our silent collusion for the eviction plan, so that the land of these citizens can be ‘developed’ and sold/leased to foreigners, to finance a rapacious Ruling Family and a mammoth cabinet. (Incidentally, the construction of luxury hotels and apartments on the wetlands around Diyawanna Oya would have worsened city-floods than all Colombo ‘slums’).
Politics augment greed. For the siblings who vanquished the Tigers, the failure to conquer Colombo must be galling. And Colombo would be unconquerable, so long as its poorer residents remain. Because not only are Colombo’s poor pro-UNP; they are also ethno-religiously pluralist, culturally heterodox and, in their irreverence, immune to our Ruling poseurs.
A Common Concern

President Rajapaksa is a vocal adherent of trickle-down economics, a dogma which has failed spectacularly, in Sri Lanka (1977-1989) and elsewhere, including in the developed world. As Jeffery Sachs, once the begetter of shock-therapy, points out, “The lesson from America is that economic growth is no guarantee of wellbeing or political stability” (The Guardian – 6.10.2010). A recent IMF-ILO study warns of an ‘apparent decline in the employment intensity of growth’ i.e. an exacerbation of the old phenomenon of ‘jobless-growth’. Thus the model adhered to by the Rajapaksas cannot ensure better living conditions for the poor and the middle classes because of its ingrained flaws.
In addition, the Rajapaksa infrastructure projects create minimal employment/income-generation opportunities for Lankans due to extensive use of Chinese convict-labour; they also combine astronomical costs with abysmal quality (the new Dehiwala flyover is so structurally unsound, heavy vehicles are banned from using it). The planned hiking of electricity rates despite the successful completion of the Norochcholai plant is an indication of where this model is headed.
As historian Tony Judt points out, “For the last 30 years…when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss — economic questions in the narrowest sense — is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste” (London Review of Books – 17.12.2009).
During the Premadasa years a concerted effort was made to abandon this ‘acquired taste’ and factor in the impact on people as a primary measure of the desirability or undesirability of an economic policy. The Premadasa approach to slum clearance, which aimed at improving housing and living conditions of urban poor rather than uprooting them, reflected this thinking. This is a main contributory factor to the fact that Colombo’s ‘slums’ are often stolid houses, like lower-middle class dwellings anywhere in Sri Lanka.
The Rajapaksas favour a system of governance which objectifies people, either to be used as weapons, discarded as marginals or suppressed as obstacles. They follow a politico-economic policy regimen which is tyrannical, predatory and pitiless. With their humanitarian operation, the Rajapaksas increased the psychological divide between the North and the South. If their economic policies take wing, a similar exacerbation in the class-divide will result. Old repressive laws are retained and new ones being considered to quell the popular opposition to these unpopular measures, as is indicated in the recent statement by a Rajapaksa sibling that the Emergency will continue because of the ‘clandestine activities of the TNA and JVP’.
Colombo’s poor are organising to defend their homes but they cannot prevail alone. The UNP must consider this battle its own; if the eviction plan works, the party will lose its last bastion. Current and potential UNP leaders can prove their prowess on this battlefield, because if Colombo is lost, nothing and no one will be able to resurrect the Elephant. But this is an issue which should closely concern the entirety of Southern society, beyond political, ethno-religious or class divides. Enlightened self-interest, apart from moral or humanitarian considerations, demand that we resist this outrage, because if the Rajapaksas get away with it, what guarantee do we have that we will not be the next (or the next….) target of their acquisitive spirit?

19 Comments for “The Development War — A‘Humanitarian Operation’ Against Colombo’s Poor”

  1. Thank you Tisaranee

  2. P.A.Samaraweera

    Ranee, you are shedding crocodile tears for the poor in Colombo. You should cry for the people in the North as they suffer because of the LTTE which you supported. You are being critical for everything the govt does . But the people are better off today as they walk in the streets without suicide bombers stalking.

    P.A.Samaraweera, Australia.

    • Omar Anver

      But the people are better off today ? My foot. Situation is deteriorating, gone from bad to worse. Malpractices, mismanagement, corruption all over and hoodwinked supporters still believe whatever the drama episode the govt play.
      They walk in the streets without suicide bombers stalking? Thats the very reason that people voted and supported MR (of course with the help of SF lead Army and other forces). How long people going to listen to this same old record played time and again. We salute MR for his courage/contribution/leadership which lead to wipe out LTTE ones and for all. That doesnt mean that MR or his regime can do anything they wish. Boasting about development while billions are wasted, for instant – recent cabinet appointments, how many ministers? and the so called ministers themselves I am sure, dont even know what kind of duties they have to perform. Utter chaos. This regime is same as the 70s Sirimao regime which had nice plans on paper but carried out disastrously and at the end JR got a 5/6 majority.
      MR is good in delevering big talks to his gallery. They like to do some development (specially in Hambantota) but there is no proper or systematic plans.
      Tasaranee is right and its very well written article.

    • K. C. John

      Please read Paththarakaraya’s article “Making of a Miracle” in this same edition of “The Sunday Leader” (5th Dec. 2010) and then tell us why anybody should not be critical of the “governance” that is going on in Sri Lanka today? Why are you in Australia if you are so happy about how things are going here? Are you planning to come back to live here?

      • Jay

        @ K.C John, It’s a shame that you get your dose of news from Sunday Leader.

        • Fairose

          Go Read the “Daily News” and get all the good news about the country. Oh the brilliant mind.

  3. punchinilame

    The bombs of the LTTE (opposing a political divide) is a matter of Law and Order.

    The political cunningness is what the Writer wishes to elucidate must not be over-
    looked.

  4. NeutralTamil

    if we dont clear the slum, we’ll be slum city.
    people in the north n east r suffering much more, during war, for past 30 years, they slept under trees n in bunkers, there sons n daughters , fathers n mothers killed in the war.

    these slum people life a far better life n they r crying when asked to leave the land they dont own, where as in north n east, people left all that they owned for their life. u enjoyed the land which u didnt own, now ur not asked to leave without anything, the government is giving u a land elsewhere n more over helping u build a house. wat else do u ask for?

    one perch in colombo cost few millions. if given u the deed, ur gonna sell it for a good price n move out somewhere. so its all about money right? the government have to feed the poor people who r dieing of hunger, the government cant afford to make help make people millionaires.

    • Justitia omnibus

      Will “Neutral Tamil” please list who are becoming “millionaires?”

      • NeutralTamil

        Justitia omnibus,
        some of the people who r living in government lands in colombo r asking to give them deeds for the lands they dont own n build them better houses in that area, so colombo will look beautiful.
        one perch of land in colombo = 1.5 to 4million depending on the place.
        if government give them free deeds in colombo, its around few million, next thing they will do is sell that land to some apartment builders n get the money.
        so giving deeds will just make them millionaires, n i dont have any prob with that but the government have other people to tc of.
        22% of sri lankan population is bellow poverty line, which means 2 people out of 10 people who is traveling in the bus with u or walking in the pavement with u dont have food to eat. its a big amount, so a poor country government cant afford to make people rich by giving them free deed as they have poeple to feed

        • Fairose

          Neutral Tamil, Are you. You are a imposter. Many would agree with me without a second guess. Stop fooling yourself but many of the bloggers have labelled you a fool who is doing shopping for this unpopular government.

  5. Wombat killer

    SL is still one of the poorest countries in the world. I visited SL after many years living in my beautiful western country and I was shocked to see beggars, flies, dengue and dirt and garbage. My friends who work in private banks and companies are struggling to put food on the table and begged me to find a way of helping them to migrate.

    • Ruwan Ferdinandez

      Ha ha, your friends… do they work on charity at private banks? Or do they work at river banks?

      • NeutralTamil

        Ruwan Ferdinandez,
        how much do u think private bank pay u?
        somewhere around Rs60,000
        u know how many dollar it is, just $600
        u know the pay in first world countires , for an under graduate, its more than $3000, which is more than Rs300,000.
        this is the minimum.
        undergraduates get paid upto $12,000 alright
        so wat he said is so true

      • Fairose

        Ruwan, If you’re eating “Kurumbetie” you can live happily in sri lanka with the earning. All those who wish to eat rice and curry wants to migrate or runaway from the beautiful country ruined by corrupt rulers.

  6. P.L.J.B.Palipana

    Those poor must be provided with good shelter. This is a very good move.

  7. Ron

    Large number of poor people who did not have an inch of land were brainwashed and made them to kill each other in the name of mother land.

  8. Bruz

    YES , indeed it is a “Humanitarian Operation” NOT against the poor, but for the poor . Just like the last “Humanitarian operation” undertaken ‘successfully’ in Wanni,
    where 300,000 Tamils were saved from the clutches of LTTE & the rest is history.
    This time it’s for the upliftment of poor slum dwellers of Colombo & the suburbs.
    Just some years ago, the then president Chandrika Kumaranatunga-Bandara-nayake waged a holy “war for Peace” to rid the LTTE -cum- Tamil seperatists.
    The latest “Humanitarian Task” undertaken by the Govt is “solely” for the betterment of the people who live there & also to beautify the city but not for the greed of selfish politicians. So when they say that we all should beleive it.!
    Indeed the slums are an eyesore, but which country or capital doesn’t have slums ?
    India,Pakistan,Bangaladesh,Burma to name a few asian countries.Even New york has “ghettos” Bombay slums are now world famous. It’s difficult to eradicate them
    just like that & even Bombay & New Delhi tried it with not much success. Having a clean & beautiful city is really good but at what cost & by sacrifying how many peooples’ livelihood? These poor folks work in & around the capital city at or near harbour,central markets, & other whole sale or retail business organisations doing labour or coolie odd jobs. Many of them taxi or auto drivers,domestic helps,vendors,
    pavement hawkers etc & they cannot go & live in Panadura,Kalutara or Gampaha.
    They are so used to live & work in & around Colombo.If their dwellings are dirty or filthy , the Govt has an obligation to supply them with proper accomodation or land near the city.They should not be removed to make the city beautiful. The priority should be given to people & their lives.They are not animals to be herded out.
    There are so many things a responsible Govt must do for the citizens of this country
    in the first place before moving the folks out of their places & destroy their lives.
    There are many more important things the Govt should do for the country & the people, especially after the years long internal war, before embarking on this novel
    project which has no urgency now.First things first. Bring a political settlement,make the lives of innocent people suffering in jails better, eradicate unemployment,reform the educational systems etc etc., Priorities should be given to those things & beautifying colombo can wait. They are also needed in colombo to do the ‘odd jobs or the ‘dirty’ work, no one else want to do. Decorating colombo for the sake of attracting tourists by building more hotels are not that important now. And also most of the tourists come to Sri lanka mainly to enjoy the sun & sands at the beaches, & not to just stay in Colombo hotels.
    Tissaranee’s column is another eye opener , sensible, unbiased and factual for anyone who understand today’s reality in the country.She is one of the rare species among the so called columnists writing garbage ,untruths with their partisan attitude , bringing disrepute to the once acclaimed columnists of Sri lankan news media.

  9. Eddy

    It is not fair to crtisize every move the govt: makes,but I must agree with Thisaranee,on the rampant courruption & wastage, unplanned re-location of slum dwelers(Human beings) will be a disaster,as the writer points out, childrens schooling,jobs,etc: all these matters to be considered and the re-location should be done in an orderly manner, in stages,Mr GR is a very effeciant man,he should personaly oversee this, I would rather send ideas to the govt: to help them do it right,than just flatly critisize them; but govt: should respect well meaning public openion,and act on them,rather than trying to think,that they know all!!( After all it is the public(Citizens of SL), who put them to this office) This is a big weakness of all politicos,when they are in power!! Development do come with some sacrifices,but the govt: must be mindfull to bear most of it !! MR must realize that he can not be in power for ever!! It will never happen!! JR thought so,but where is UNP today?

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