When it comes to people getting displaced due to natural disasters, wars, development projects, or reservoir projects, we’ve seen it on the news and read about it in newspapers. But, research and activist, Iromi Perera’s work revolves around the topic of land rights and urban development.
What made me work in this field is the fact that I realized that almost half a million people in Colombo were going to be evicted or involuntarily moved from their own houses right under our noses, while we were going on with our lives, as a result of urban regeneration policies. We see the side-walks, the newly-built parks, but we don’t see ugly side to it. I’ve seen people I’ve known for 7-8 years moved away from their family and community into tiny government built apartments that they don’t like. It’s not that they’re not willing to sacrifice their home or their land for the country, the point is it doesn’t need to be this hard and unfair.
As a part of my work, we explore the effects of Colombo being transformed into a “world-class city”. This includes investigating spacial injustice, and how development affects people disproportionately. We look into what life is like for the urban poor before and after they’re relocated. Then we take those experiences to make policies and laws better.
This is just as complicated as it sounds, and gets even worse due to factors like political will and attitude. Politicians need to deliver something within 5 years so there’s an accelerated development process to complete by the end of their term. This involves land acquisition, relocation, which isn’t easy since you’re dealing with people who’ve lived in a place for generations. There’s also an attitude among majority of bureaucrats who believe they can tell people where they should live, how they should live and what colour they should paint their houses. We try to overcome this by explaining to the State actors and others involved that the places that are being taken away from the permanent residents was built over time and sometimes over generations by working abroad and other means of hard-earned money. Our work is to show the price we are paying to become a world class city.
One thing I’m proud about is through this work, we’re able to produce an alternative narrative about Colombo. When people see the development, we want them to know the price paid for it. That someone gave up their home, their livelihood location for it. Creating this awareness compels people not to take this development for granted.
Something I really want you to think about is that there’s this idea of a city that we’ve been told about, and decision makers stick to it without adapting it to a local context. We don’t need this many sky-high buildings to be the next Singapore, instead we can be a first-of-its-kind Sri Lanka. Even when you notice the behavior of the tourists in Sri Lanka, you’ll notice that no one is taking pictures of the high rises—they prefer to visit areas like Kompannyaveediya (Slave Island) or crowded shopping streets like Pettah, which are slowly being erased. They like to know what Sri Lanka is really about and not what it pretends to be. Nobody asked us if we needed the port city or this many high-end condos and there’s no research to support the demand for it. Why is it impossible for the urban poor and even middle income earners to live in the city, and instead have to move to the suburbs? Who is this city really for?
Won’t it be a better world-class city, if the processes are more people-driven? We should have more people like the urban poor, young leaders, seniors, differently abled people and women actively involved in the decision making processes that affects a huge population. Through that, we can discover what people need and enhance the country’s wellbeing as a whole. A multidisciplinary and participatory approach is what we need. We should really ask ourselves: Can we keep building in Colombo in this way when we’re already faced with dire issues related to climate change, and how sustainable will this world-class city be in twenty years?
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.