Towards a slum-free Colombo | Daily News

Towards a slum-free Colombo

The pledge made by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to make Colombo free of shanties under a future Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government would be welcomed by most people coming to the city who are confronted by the eyesore of slums and shanties dotting the city landscape.

Speaking at a forum at the Foundation Institute in Colombo last week, the Premier recalled the programme to remove shanties from Colombo city and resettle their inhabitants to housing complexes was begun by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was Defence and Urban Development Ministry Secretary. A future Government under his leadership would ensure the programme is carried forward and the low income families provided with proper housing.

Slum dwellings have been a long standing issue for all Governments who had to tackle the problem with tact and care. Even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced opposition and resistance when he tried to rid the city of shanties, with groups of slum dwellers staging protests. This is understandable since slum life is inexorably linked with vice and illegal activity which sections of these slum dwellers thrive on. It has its dark underbelly and subterranean life linked to an underground economy that can thrive only in the surrounds of slum life. Hence, the opposition to any moves to relocate.

This time too will be no different and the issue should be handled with tact. There is also politics involved in the matter. The late President R. Premadasa for all his house building projects largely left the slums alone for it is well known that the UNP garnered a block vote from these areas. Any effort to upset the status quo therefore was likely to rebound on the party’s fortunes. The people living in slums should be educated on the benefits and advantages of a new life in a completely changed environment that would remove their children from bad associations and the influence of drugs.

The initial challenge is to change the ‘slum mentality’ ingrained in most of their inhabitants which they find difficult to shed. Any responsible Government owes it at least to the children living in slums to redeem themselves from the miserable slum life and turn them into worthy citizens giving them equal opportunities to education and a life free of disease endemic in slum life.

No Government can turn its back on this aspect. There is also the question of the reluctance of most slum dwellers to relocate for other reasons mostly to do with businesses such as the supply of meals and money lending within the slum community. To be resettled outside these environs will mean a loss of such income avenues. Hopefully, this time around the Premier and the new Government will be able make a wholesale change and persuade slum inhabitants to relocate to more congenial surroundings.

Of course a lot of tact will be needed in this exercise for it is extremely difficult to resettle people accustomed to particular surroundings and lifestyles. Removing slum dwellers to storied housing schemes would be akin putting fish out of water, so entrenched has slum life become to most among their lot. But a change is called for.

Besides slums do not accord with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mission for the city of Colombo. Colombo needs upgrading and redevelopment to recapture its one time moniker of the Garden City of Asia. The change has to be wholesale. While one part of the city is beatified another cannot be dotted with slums and shanties. Interestingly the Coronavirus pandemic made a contribution somewhat to transforming Colombo city to its original beauty, chief among this turning the Galle Face Green to its original verdant quality. All steps should be taken to preserve this state by making it strictly a place for recreation with a ban imposed on commercial activity.

Not just the Colombo city, there are slums and shanties in several urban areas that needs looking into especially strips abutting railway lines both in the coastal areas and the interior. Needless to say, these are hotbeds for crime and vice and breeding grounds for underworld activity. Drugs are known to be in free circulation in such locales. They are also receptacles for illegal weapons and anti-social activity. The authorities would be doing the peace loving public a great service by getting rid of such dwellings which are mostly occupied by squatters on railway-owned lands.

Not just the slums, Colombo also needs to be transformed in other ways too, particularly with regard to congestion. There is over a million floating population at any given time in the day within the Colombo city alone, but there are hardly any decent toilets for their convenience. What is needed is a long term programme to make Colombo an inhabitable city with all comforts, facilities and free movement to the large populace that descend on the City each and every day.

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