It is significant that several leading members of the present government issued congratulatory statements on the occasion of the launching of the tallest building to be constructed by the largest real estate developer in the country (Sunday times, Feb. 12, 2006) It is understandable that these political leaders are stunned by the scale of the project as their own contribution to urban development has been next to nothing.
On the other hand, political leaders responsible for urban development do not seem to realize the implications of the ever widening gap between the affluent and the impoverished parts of the city. While dozens of luxury apartment complexes are being built in the affluent part of the city, thousands of poor families are pushed into overcrowded slums and shanties in the rest of the city. The deprived communities inhabiting these disadvantaged settlements do not provide social and economic conditions desirable for human development.
Overcrowding, unhealthy environment, family disorganization, crime, violence, disputes and conflicts over resources, poverty, frequent illnesses, the lack of opportunities, etc. constitute the day to day experiences of people living in these communities. Many children growing up under such conditions do not see any prospect of breaking away from poverty and squalor. Thanks to the work of real estate developers, land prices in the city have skyrocketed over the last two decades and perhaps only those with shady incomes and expatriates can aspire to purchase urban property. Squatting is the only way in which the urban poor can acquire land within the city limits and beyond. The urban elites conveniently forget that many of their minor employees and labourers working in their sleek office complexes, factories, housing projects and rich households are resident in the disadvantaged quarters of the city and suburbs.
The proliferation of squatter settlements both within and outside city limits over the last several decades has been a major factor contributing to economic crime. While burglaries, thefts, hold – ups, extortion, etc are on the rise, the real estate developers build gated communities with twenty four hour security. Yet, only a fraction of the city and sub-urban population can have twenty four hour security. The rest of the population is constantly exposed to thieves, robbers and burglers. In some of the suburbs of Colombo, there are not many people whose houses have not been ransacked. The poor who are marginalized by the urban real estate market have moved into whatever public spaces available, often with the blessings of national and local political leaders. There are no more reservations left along rivers, canals, railway lines, etc. These are in fact public spaces that should have been developed as green belts to improve environmental quality in the city
It is obvious that the pathetic conditions prevailing in slum and squatter areas are not going to get better, unless a major urban renewal program is launched by the government with the support of the private sector, non – governmental organizations and development assistance agencies.
If the business and political leaders have any shame, or any sense of social responsibility, they should not be just marveling at the tallest building that they can put up, using the surplus they mop up from the wider population of the country, but pay equal attention to the miserable conditions under which more than half the city's population lives. As is well known, Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia not only presided over the construction of one of the tallest buildings in the world in his own capital city but ensured that real estate developers build houses for all strata of society, not just for those who have amassed wealth in a liberal economic environment. But, we of course do no have leaders of the calibre of Mahathir Mohamed in this country.. So it is at least upto the business leaders who talk so much about peace and justice to get together and establish their own "urban renewal fund" in order to divert resources to impoverished areas of the city. A fraction of their profits set aside on a regular basis can support such a programme that can be conceptualized by a group of professionals and experts. Our business leaders may not be aware that their counterparts in other countries build and maintain large public parks for the benefit of the of the wider population. A good example is the large public park in the middle of Kolkata maintained by TATA company.
Integrated urban renewal program
An integrated urban renewal programme, involving housing, community development, environmental sanitation, income generation activities and the provision of social infrastructure, if implemented in stages, the disadvantaged highbourhoods could be developed over a reasonable period of time; This would not only help solve the acute problems faced by the people living in these communities but address hidden urban problems such as crime, health hazards, and environmental degradation that affect almost everybody. On the other hand, this might be too much to expect in a country which is dominated by self – seeking businessmen, mediocre politicians and an opportunistic middle class. Instead of upgrading the impoverished quarters of the city, what is more likely to happen is the establishment of more garbage dumping sites next to the settlements of the urban poor, as we have done in the past. So, the thousands of tons of solid waste produced by the rich and the affluent living in high rise building can be conveniently deposited there, exposing thousands of innocent children, women and men in the settlements in the vicinity of garbage dumps.
As we all know now, despite so much political excitement about garbage in the recent months, business and political elites in Colombo have failed miserably to come up with any effective plan of action and the necessary resources. Unplanned developments in the city guided by naked market forces and petty political considerations have led to the disappearance of most public spaces. But, the real estate developers want us to live in a fool's paradise. They remove any trace of greenery from most of their development sites but use labels like 'green park', Kensington garden, "Green Grove," etc to advertise the building sites'. Our smart politicians have no problem with such practices.
The writer is a Professor of Sociology, at the University of Colombo