The Sunday Leader

Below The Poverty Line

By Raisa Wickrematunge
Pictures by Gazala Anver

The Madampitiya dump looms overhead , A curious child from the area, Saraswathi, who has no electricity, Swarna, wishing for a cleaner environment, The toilets shared by 500 families and Dismal sanitary conditions at Mahawatte

The houses in 87 Mahawatte, Mattakkuliya (formerly known as  Andrewwatte) are overshadowed by what looks like a huge mountain in the distance. Closer examination reveals that this mountain is made up entirely of garbage, now overgrown with grass. The Madampitiya dump is no longer used, but it still looms over the shanties ominously.
There are at least 500 wood houses  here, and an estimated 3000 people.
A woman passes by, carrying two buckets filled with water. She is heading from a concrete structure, tucked  away in a maze of concrete bylanes.
Here, there are around eight toilets, with broken doors. These toilets  serve the entire Mahawatte community. On one side, there are piles of refuse, excrement and garbage. A single  white crane perches on top of this mess, bizarrely. And the Madampitiya dump is visible. Nearby is a small stream, eventually ending in the canal. The water is stagnant and filled with garbage too.
Here, thousands of people must queue  up daily to perform their ablutions.
Fathima Riyaz, one of the residents, says that there are only five toilets which actually work. Some of them  are broken and falling into disrepair, she says. In the morning, there  is usually a huge crowd to use the toilets, so that children in the settlement are invariably late for school. The  situation is exacerbated when there are heavy rains, as the whole area goes underwater, she said.
‘Please, fix the toilets. It would be such a big help,’ Wijeykumari pleads. She says that only the family’s straitened financial circumstances  has induced them to use the dismal facilities. The smell is awful, particularly on rainy days, she says. Her house, and most of the others in the vicinity, does have electricity. The roads too have been tarred, after the recent elections. There had been promises of fixing the toilets too, but these never came to fruition, the residents complained.
Yet this group is relatively fortunate. At least  they have electricity. Saraswathi and Sandrasekara do not. They do have access to water, but their six children have to study by lamplight. This too is difficult with fuel going up in price. Saraswathi has a look of resignation on her face as she stands in the doorway, shrouded in darkness despite the scorching sun. ‘This is my life,’ husband Sandrasekara says. He sharpens  knives and scissors. Sometimes he makes Rs. 100, sometimes more. ‘The toilets are not enough for all the families’ Sandrasekara says. Their children, who attend St. Anthonys, are continually late for school because of the long queues. Often, they are scolded and sent out of class or given extra work because they are late. All of this is said with resignation, for the families here do not know what they can do to fix the situation, except make sure their children wake up as early as possible. However this makes little difference. Each family has at least two children, and so the early morning crowd remains a constant.
Rising fuel prices have affected every consumer, but none more than  Saraswathi and Sandrasekara. They cannot afford electricity, and even kerosene for the lamps is becoming more expensive. At the moment, their children cannot study in the evenings, with no light to see their books by.
‘It is very difficult to survive,’ Sandrasekara says.
There is another problem. Swarna next door pulls her skirt up to reveal hundreds of scars from scratching  mosquito bites. Not only does the rain flood, sometimes coming into people’s homes and making  moving around the settlement difficult, but it also brings the risk of disease. Swarna is worried for her young son, clad in slippers but for now, free of bites. ‘Where are we to go? This is our home,’ she said. Saraswathi’s young daughter spreads out her hands to show me. They, too, are covered in red marks. She is ill today, and has stayed home from school.
The problems of these people are myriad, but they are largely being ignored, says Priyanthi Gunaratne of the Colombo Municipal Council. While there is a lot of noise made about development for the people in terms of roads and infrastructure, there is little done to actually benefit the people of the ‘wattes’.
An argument made by many is that these people are living in illegal housing. Yet the residents dispute this. Saraswathi and Sandrasekara, for instance, have official letters from the police and the Nagara Sabha, and consider themselves legal residents. Others have national ID cards, birth and death certificates, all registered with their address. These services are provided, and roads are constructed and tarred even within the shanties, yet they are not provided legal status, Gunaratne notes. Instead, they struggle on below the poverty level, and face myriad problems. Drug dealing, prostitution and murder are rampant. Some drug dealers use the residents of low income settlements to distribute their goods, while others are users themselves. Yet nothing is done to lift these people out of their poverty or solve the social crises they face, she said.
Every morning, it takes at least 15 to 20 minutes for the communal toilets to become free, and yet the Colombo Municipal Council has not done much to alleviate the situation. The main reason is simply a lack of funds. It will cost at least Rs. 2 to 3 million to fix new toilets in 87 Mahawatte, more than the authorities are able to spend on a single project. There is no long term plan in place to solve the situation either; and the population of this settlement is growing fast. While roads are carpeted and tiles laid down outside, little is being done to change the daily reality of these people. If not addressed, the problems they face will be handed on to their children, and on it will go, in a vicious cycle.

14 Comments for “Below The Poverty Line”

  1. raj

    the main reason for the poverty is eixistence of fanatism of race, religion, nationalism, and so on.

  2. Dorothy Van Arkadie

    May be this area does not fall into the purvey of Affirmative Action of the goverment to convince the International World . No NGO cry fowl nor Human Rights crowd take their cause with the Powers to be . No Conferences to help these people that have lived in this condition for past almost 30 or 40 years Geneva Rome or otherwise . May be some foreigner will highlight it in some documentary which does not excite the activist, for slums exist the world over despite the aid agencies , funding from the UNO and despite millions of personnel drawing wages working in these areas . Make Poverty History said the slogan but that too is a faint voice from history today . An after thought read or turn the pages of the ‘HI’ magazine and no one in that crowd would believe this story nor would they want to hear it .Slums have their usefulness to some people !

  3. Kitty Koala

    So SL is still a third world country where the people still live under the poverty line. The poor in SL still receive aid from the World Food program. Shame, but this is reality. All this development is a pack of lies and rubbish.

  4. Meena M.

    This is the real picture about the situation in Sri Lanka. Building grand stadiums, ports, and airports, should come after the Sri Lankan people are all looked after, and their basic needs seen to. Basic toilet facilities are much more simpler to build than grand structures that are big as some ego’s!

    • Silva

      Very good statement!

    • Gotta the hero

      Meena, helping poor people does put money in their pockets. But building infrastructure does. These criminal fat cats are interested only in that, kick backs that is!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Adikari

    This is the true nature of the suffering of Lankans when the country is plundered by politicians and henchman.

    Ex CJ says country has lost Rs 100 billion in bribary and corruption over 1 year.
    Sri Lanka air and mihin air lost Rs 41 billion due to gross mismanagement.

    H’tota harbour rock known in’94, costing Rs 9 billion to blast after filling with water.

    Disastrous commonweath games bid costs over Rs 1.8 billion with no accountability.
    COPE report- says govt. institutions lost Rs 10 billion due to mismanagement since 2010
    list goes on and on… The most important thing is ON ONE has been held accountable for any calamities and every one involved has a free run.

    RESULT- suffering of poor man and the country is down a slippery slope.

  6. love2beTRAITOR

    sri lankans still think we r first world most powerful rich country in the world

  7. Batman

    Why not accept that you are too poor to feed your people and ask for help from rich and wealthy countries like Australia, Canada and the US to feed your people?

  8. basi

    first do something for these people first before u give LOANS to europe.

  9. hansan

    Is the Newly Appointed Mayor is there or not. The way the people prasied him does not seem to be true. Big Father wake up and serve the poor with out licking the feet of stupid so called temparory powerfull people. Why don’t you go and use one of those Toilets for a change, It will be fun for you as it is with out a door., Full A/C.

  10. Kamarajan Kuttaya Suttu

    Don’t demolish legal houses try to demolish and build nice houses for this poor people. Any anye mey mage rata..

  11. Katmai

    When I read stories about slum dwellers, around the world, I often wonder why they don’t help themselves? Take the toilet situation for instance; are they so above themselves that each family can’t take turns to fix and clean the damn toilets they all use? Same goes for the sanitary situation, drainage problems and so on.

    Believe me, there are plenty of things we can blame the government on, but the situation these people find themselves in are largely made-up by themselves. Guess what; we fix and clean our own toilets, so don’t tell me that this is somehow a big problem for them.

  12. Rowdy Peter

    They should move to Hambantota or Matara where they will soon be provided with prefabricated houses and jobs at the Port, Airport or the number of hotels in the District. Will ease the shanty problem in Kotahena.

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