The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) was formed in the firm belief that there is an urgent need to strengthen institution and capacity-building for good governance and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka, and that non-partisan civil society groups have an important and constructive contribution to make to this process. Since its inception in 1996, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) addresses and challenges democratic governance in Sri Lanka, and advocates the direct and proactive involvement of citizens in the design and operation of governance mechanisms that are more responsive, accountable and transparent. The mission of the organization is to strengthen the civil society contribution towards public policy making, through programs of research and advocacy in the areas of democratic governance and peace, with human rights as an overarching priority.

Why the Right To The City Sri Lanka initiative?

Following the end of Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil war in May 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka prioritised infrastructure and urban development in its reconciliation and rebuilding process. In early 2010, following a landslide electoral victory, Sri Lanka’s then President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought the Urban Development Authority (UDA) under the purview of the Ministry of Defence. Not long thereafter, in early May 2010, the UDA undertook the first of its military-backed evictions when bulldozers accompanied by armed soldiers demolished the homes and businesses of a small lower-middle class community on Mews Street in Colombo.

The then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presided over urban development in post-war Sri Lanka and repeatedly stressed that his goal was to transform Colombo into a slum-free, “world-class”, “garden city”; a “preferred destination for international business and tourism”.

The creation of this world class city involved two key projects – (a) the Urban Regeneration Project to be carried out by the Ministry and (b) the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project, a 5 year US$320 million project by the World Bank and the Government. The Urban Regeneration Project activities primarily involved beautification of the city, and creating a “slum free Colombo” by “liberating” commercially valuable property across the city that were home to working class poor communities for generations.

The serious democratic deficits in Colombo’s urban development, whether in respect of safeguarding land rights and entitlements or ensuring transparency and participation, is inextricably linked to the post-war militarisation of governance in Sri Lanka, including at the level of municipalities.

According to the Urban Development Authority, “Over fifty percent of the Colombo city population lives in shanties, slums or dilapidated old housing schemes, which occupied nine percent of the total land extent of the city” – indicating that even though 50% of the city’s population occupy only 9% of the land, even that is too much for them and therefore should be further densified in order to release the “economic corridors occupied by them”.

Colombo’s working class poor need significantly higher levels of service provisioning, and the lack of adequate housing, secure tenure and title are a concern. However, it is important to underline that unlike many other South Asian cities for example, Colombo has never had large sprawling slums.

Even though Government data claim that a total number of 68,812 families live in 1,499 community clusters which “do not have a healthy environment for human habitation and access to basic infrastructure facilities such as clean water, electricity, sanitation etc”, according to a 2012 survey conducted in the Colombo district by the Colombo Municipal Council and Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre, 54.4% of settlements in Colombo fall into the category of ‘upgraded’ and 39.3% fall into the category of ‘fully upgraded’ – which means that almost 94% of the settlements in Colombo are of satisfactory conditions. Official estimates of the number of families in Colombo to be relocated varied from “nearly 70,000” to 135,000 and assuming an average urban household size of 4.2, this implies the relocation of anywhere between 280,000 to over 500,000 people, the scale and complexity of which presents wide ranging social and economic risks.

The right to the city initiative explores the process of making Colombo a world class city, begun post -war under the Rajapaksa regime and its continuity under the yahapalanaya government. It looks at city making through a rights perspective, highlighting narratives that are often hidden or silenced.

This site is curated by former CPA Senior Researcher Iromi Perera.


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