Below The Poverty Line
By Raisa Wickrematunge
Pictures by Gazala Anver
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.