Where do we go from here? | Daily News

Where do we go from here?

Slum dwellers in Narahenpita

(Pictures by Gayan Pushpika)

 

The Western Region Megapolis Planning Project (WRMPP) is, without a doubt, the most ambitious development plan in Sri Lanka’s history. The $40 billion undertaking, which consists of over 150 different developments, proposes to radically redevelop Colombo and its neighboring districts, thereby catapulting the country to improved economic standing and its citizens to higher living standards.

Along with reducing unemployment, the project aims to secure a per capita GDP of a high-income country by 2030. Central to this vision are improvements in infrastructure and the port, together with the rebirth of Colombo as a financial services and logistics hub. A light rail transport system will be completed shortly, and road and utility improvements are underway.


Rajendran

“The Megapolis is all about the general public. The aim is to increase employment, quality of life, transportation, and infrastructure within the Western Province,” said Lakshman Jayasekara, Project Director/Team Leader of the WRMPP.

A crucial aspect of the Megapolis project is the efficient use of space. Colombo is not one of the more densely populated cities in South Asia, but land is a precious commodity that, according to several officials, is not being properly utilized at the moment.

“What we’re trying to do is establish a clear framework for how we want the Western province to evolve. Right now, it’s sprawling in a somewhat haphazard way. We need to fix this,” said Nayana Mawilmada, Head of Investment for the WRMPP.

Part of the plan is to create special industrial and housing zones that, along with improved urban planning, will streamline the currently disorganized urban sprawl.There are also policies in place to create a Science and Technology zone that universities and private research institutions can use.

The Megapolis plan is a complete re-imagination of the Western Province’s spatial and economic organization. It is the government’s hope that Colombo becomes a “smart city” that specialized in knowledge-based and innovation-driven industries.

But where will all those who would fuel Colombo’s economic rebirth live?

Housing Issues

The Western Province is facing an urgent housing crisis, as the population of the Western region is expected to reach eight million by 2025, and 9.2 million by 2035. The Ministry of Megapolis is coordinating with the UDA and NHDA to improve the housing stock in and around Colombo.


Proposed  Megapolis Master Plan

The WRMPP has robust plans for middle-income and luxury housing, as outlined in the Master Plan that was released in April. Because land is scarce in the Western region, most of the housing units will be in high-rise towers, many of which will be between twelve and fifteen stories.

To accommodate middle-income housing demand, the government will be releasing its own land holdings to developers, who in turn will bid on and then develop it.

“The developers are mandated to sell 80% of the housing they build for under Rs. 5 million. The other 20% they can sell at whatever price point they want. Our goal is to maximize housing at affordable price points,” explained Mawilmada.

The Megapolis planners have set minimum guidelines for the size of each unit, but it is up to the developers to design units that allow them to compete in the market. Moreover, the government is already working with private banks to create loan plans that will help people buy their new flats.

This is all part of the strategy to create a denser housing model that will allow for space to be used more efficiently.

This, however, is the easy portion for the Ministry of Megapolis, as there is sufficient market demand for middle-income and luxury housing. There is little concern about carrying out these projects.

The complications lie in developing low-income housing. According to the Megapolis Master Plan, just over 50% of Colombo’s population lives in slums, shanties, or rundown housing. The UDA recently completed a study that found over 68,000 families living in 1,500 under-served settlements that are unfit for human habitation.

Adding to this problem, the vast majority of those living in slums and shanties do not own the land on which they live. Many of these settlements stand on government-owned property, so people cannot sell their land and then invest their earnings in new housing.

Relocation priority

Relocating people who live without access to basic sanitation, clean running water, and electricity will be an essential aspect of the Megapolis plan.

But how is the government going about doing this?

One plan that is already being carried out is the construction of two-bedroom flats in high-rise towers, a strategy that has much in common with the middle-income housing plan. Many of the buildings will apparently be constructed on land currently occupied by slums.

“For the slums located on government land, we will use one third of the land and develop buildings for the people. The other two thirds will be sold to private companies for mixed development. It is from these sales that we will finance the construction of the new buildings,” said Rupasinghe.

He added that, though 60,000 new housing units are needed for low-income people, about 25,000 flats will be ready within the next three years. 5,000 have already been completed and are now occupied, and 15,000 are currently under construction.

These new flats will be sold for Rs. 1 million, about Rs. 4-5 million below their market value, according to Rupasinghe. It must be noted that most of those eligible for settlement in these buildings lack the money to purchase a flat outright.

“We are in the process of setting up loans that they can take in installments. We hope that this will allow people to buy flats. We want to increase the rate of home ownership in the Western Province,” said Rupasinghe.

He did admit however, that payments from those who have moved in are already getting delayed.

Mawilmada, however, voiced some concerns about this high-rise model, and admitted that the WRMPP is still debating different options with the hope of soon reaching consensus.

“We’ve had teething problems with this model. What we don’t want to do is build projects. So, we just need more time to work through that and come up with a solution,” he said.

“Improving the lives of the those who live in slums is both a humanitarian and developmental initiative. We need to uplift their livelihoods and quality of life, and we also need to clear land for development,” he stated, while adding that moving people creates complex social issues.

“We have to provide some reasonable shelter for them. We cannot just chase them out,” said Rupasinghe.

What do the people think?

An important part of the greater Megapolis plan is the expansion and electrification of railways. Many of those living in slums near train tracks are therefore being asked to vacate their settlements.

“Last month we were told to leave. The Railroad Department owns this land, and railway officials said they will destroy the slum,” said S. Rajendran, an occupant of the Narahenpita slum that straddles a solitary train track. There are plans to build a second track on this line in order to increase train traffic.

Though he does not completely believe that the government will follow through on its plan, he is worried, as the Railroad Department surveyed the land and numbered all 48 of the houses.

Railroad dilema

About 250 people live in the slum. Most of those in the Narahenpita slum who spoke with The Daily News reported liking where they live, with many saying the location was excellent. But they are fearful of what is to become of them if the railroad expansion goes ahead.

“When they told us to leave, they didn’t tell us where we should go. If the government gives us a new house, it should be in Colombo,” Rajendran said, while adding that he is willing to move to a flat if it is large enough and in the right location.

A.G. Premalatha, who lives a few doors down from Rajendran, complained that living in the flats would restrict her family’s movement. Her friends who have moved told her that the apartments are smaller than the house she currently occupies.

The slum’s community development association helped her get a property card about 15-20 years ago, and she was able to acquire electricity in her home shortly thereafter. She did not complain about the living conditions, noting that she never wakes up when trains pass at night. The vibrations have riddled the walls with cracks, though.

“We have been told that we will receive a flat. But we want to see it before we move,” she said.

Just down the tracks lies the Bakery Watte shanty. It stands on UDA land, and while it once had about 100 houses, almost all of them have been bulldozed. Just twelve families remain, living in an area strewn with rubble and trash. The drainage system is blocked, and mosquitoes have multiplied.

Chandana, who still lives there, complained to the Human Rights Council (HRC) that the UDA was unlawfully removing him from his house. The HRC instructed both parties to come to a settlement, so Chandana remains, for now.

“Some people I know like the flats, but they tend to have small families. My family of six is too big for the flats. I’m worried about the security of my children in a new neighborhood and new building,” he said.

Chandana added that he would voluntarily move if the government provides him land or money. “If I get 60 lakhs or my own land I will move. This is my village. It is difficult to leave,” he said.

Both Chandana and Premalatha had heard from friends that they would have to put down a deposit of Rs 100,000 before moving into the flats. They would then have to pay around Rs. 3,000 monthly. Chandana claimed that his friends had not been told that they own the flat.

Though the Ministry of Megapolis, according to Rupasinghe, has been carrying out a public relations campaign to share information with communities that will be resettled, had never heard of the Megapolis project.

“Megapolis? Never heard of it,” said Rajendran. 


Garbage dumps near slums


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