From Bad to Worse Plight of Wanathamulla

Published : 10:46 am  June 24, 2015 | No comments so far |  | 


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“I stand by my record. I did some sharp things to get things right – too harsh – but a lot was at stake. But at the end of the day, what have I got? Just a successful Singapore.” That was  said by the late Lee Kuan Yew who as Prime Minister transformed Singapore  from a tiny island with no natural resources into a prosperous economic success.

vanatha3Gotabhaya Rajapaksa,  the formerly all-powerful Defence Secretary,  might have  followed  Lee Kuan Yew’s lead when he along with the Urban Development Authority (UDA) took action to evict those working class poor who lived by the St. Sebastian South canal in Colombo 12 for UDA’s urban renewal projects.

With the UDA’s objective of creating a slum-free Colombo by 2020, cities like Colombo became the focus of  road construction and other beautification projects. But, it is the poorest citizens who feel the most adverse impact of this rapid development,  including residents living by the St. Sebastian South canal, for whom  urban renovation became synonymous with evictions and demolitions.
The people evicted are poor and  weak both economically and politically. Although many have lived in these neighbourhoods for generations, their property rights were not recognised by the official legal system, which made it easy to evict them with no compensation.

The real estate value of this area is very  high since it is situated in the heart of Colombo. After the evictions, UDA established alternative homes for these people in the guise of ‘luxury apartments;’ the 12-storey ‘Methsara Uyana’ housing complex.

The Dailymirror visited the seven-month-old ‘Methsara Uyana’  in Wanathamulla recently. It was difficult to imagine the building was opened only seven months ago since most apartments already have cracks on the walls. The whole building is dirty and in need of repair. The elevators smell of urine, and the trash rooms in the hall overflow with garbage.

According to the law, such constructions must meet certain health and safety standards. If not, the health and safety of the residents may be at risk. In such cases the landlord would be committing an offence and legal action may be taken against him.
Residents in Methsara Uyana,  were outspoken about the problems they face with the new housing.

‘We used to live in tiny houses with happiness and freedom.’

vanatha4Nihardeen a  father of four children,  said the UDA forcibly evicted them threatening to demolish their homes along with their belongings.
 “We used to live in tiny houses but we were happy and felt free. We did not want to move here. We told them that. But, they did not listen to us. They did what they wanted,” Nihardeen said.
He showed us  the cracks  and fractures on the walls of his house. “Now we worry this building will collapse and bury us to the ground,” he said.

Moreover, according to  residents,  the   “Methsara Uyana”  was built on filled up land. Residents claimed that this might be the reason for the cracks  on their walls. Speaking on the issue, Nihardeen wondered whether they were forced to move here to be eliminated conveniently.

‘Threatened to shoot us below the knee unless we moved’
vanatha5A Sinhala family said they too, were facing the same problems. Chandrika, a mother of two who lives in an apartment with her disabled husband  said the UDA’s objective was only beautification of Colombo not the living standards or safety of the residents.

“The military  visited the houses with that arrogant former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He threatened to shoot us below the knee by using Special Task Force officers  unless we vacated. We were worried about our lives. He did not think twice about  using dirty language to evict us from there,” the husband of Chandrika said.

He said they could be easily kicked out of their houses so that landlords could obtain a steady income from the city, which is guaranteed.

‘These are not walls, just fittings’
Nona Fanusa, one of a nine member family told us that they were extremely disturbed by the threats and harassments of the military and the UDA. Two little children (sons of Fanusa) were hanging on to their mother’s hand as we talked. They were laughing and playing because the little boys had no idea about what was happening to their home. Fanusa has requested the authorities to grant a change from their current residence where the apartments run up to 12 floors like match boxes.vanatha5

Fanusa’s house, too, has cracks on the walls and some windows were broken.
“These are not walls. These are just fittings. We know now  that we were hoodwinked by the UDA. Though they promised to uplift  our living conditions by offering new houses, now we are in hell. All we want is to leave this place and live under a roof where our children’s lives would be safe and sound,” she said.

According to her, UDA officials have informed them not to hammer even a nail on to the walls and not to bring in any heavy furniture in to the apartments. Ms. Asma is one resident who had to  undergo surgery after a ceiling fan fell on her head. A minute after  she switched on the fan, it had come crashing down on her head. The cement applied on the walls of apartments is sub-standard and caused the accident. However, she said she was not paid compensation from the UDA.

“Sahas Puraya,” another housing complex adjoining Methsara Uyana,  was built and opened under the patronage of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunge. Though older, it was in a better condition  than the very recently built Methsara Uyana. The residents too, confirmed this. Anybody who isn’t blind  could see that the building opened with such fanfare by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will not last  ten more years.

 These residents were  ordered to pay Rs. 100,000 as initial payment. Later, they had to pay another Rs. 50,000  before they moved in. Some said they had taken  loans and pawned jewellery  to make these payments. Those who could not were  not eligible to have the electricity supply according to the UDA regulations.

‘We have no other place to go, we are very helpless’
Meanwhile, we met a widow named Kalyani who lives with her daughter and granddaughters. They do not have electricity.
“Since the day my husband passed away, we have lived a very hard  life. We have no other place to go. Otherwise, who wants to live with so much fear wondering when we will get buried with the building? We can’t sleep during windy nights. We are very helpless,” Kalyani said.

‘No mosque in neighbourhood’
vanatha7Mohammed Roomy had the most damaged house where most walls including the bathroom and living room showed cracks. He along with his seven family members aired their views.

“Doesn’t the government care about us? Why do they consider our lives to be counterfeit coins? We can’t live here. Please let them know how distressed we are,” Roomy said.

Another problem they are having is that there is no mosque in their neighbourhood though the majority of these residents are Muslims. Roomy said they travel to a mosque elsewhere, paying hundreds of rupees for transport.
Every resident who spoke to , requested the  authorities to open their eyes and take quick  action.

This is a  cruel crime: Senior Architect Muthukumarana
Meanwhile, we were able to speak to Mr. Lalitharaja Muthukumarana, a senior architect who was also the first chairman of the UDA. According to him, he was the pioneer architect who designed  the  city of Sri Jayawardenepura during  1977-1982.

Speaking on the issue, he said moving the residents of St. Sebastian South canal  to this 12-storey housing complex was  inhuman. According to the internationally recognised standards, living in a building  more than four storeys high  is not healthy for residents.
“This is a very cruel crime. People become cold-blooded and hostile to each other when   living in buildings more than four storeys high. It is a well-known fact.

People become cold-blooded and hostile to each other when   living in buildings more than four storeys high.

I don’t know how this so-called architect who designed this complex did not know it,” Mr. Muthukumarana said.
He said living in buildings of such excess height  could badly affect  residents’ family planning activities too,  because of the  immense stress they undergo  inside skyscraper buildings.

This is just mudslinging over political reasons by opponents. Cracks on  the building are not possible because we built them under the  recognised standards and Methsara Uyana was not the only housing complex  made when we were in power. There are many across the country and all  of them were built following the same standards. It is obvious to  anybody that the problem is only with  residents in Methsara Uyana,” Mr.  Rajapaksa said

“It is obvious that they had evicted and moved these helpless people keeping in mind  only the market value of the place.
Now these victims have to live in this sub-standard housing scheme like animals. The UDA authorities achieved  their own goals by putting these people’s lives in  danger,” Mr. Muthukumarana said.

No problem with the structure, no danger to their lives: UDA Senior Manager
When contacted,  Senior Manager of the UDA Mr. Upul Manel Ranasinghe  refuted the allegations levelled by the residents and  said that any problem in the housing contruction was due to  misuse. According to him, those who live in Methsara Uyana might be responsible for the cracks  on their walls. He  assured that they were only external cracks and will not result in  failure of the housing structure that was designed under UDA’s guidance.

“We carried out a technological inspection with the purpose of finding out the causes of those cracks.
The report clearly states that no errors were detected in our structure and consequently there was no  danger to  the residents’ lives. Therefore, the residents are requested not  to be unnecessarily alarmed,” Mr. Ranasinghe said.

He said UDA’s present chairman Mr. Ranjith Fernando had directed them to take immediate action to repair the apartments when he was informed of the damage  by previous media reports. But, at the time we visited Methsara Uyana, no repairs had taken place. However, he said it would be done before the end of June.

Mudslinging by opponents due to political reasons: Gotabhaya Rajapaksa
vanatha8Speaking to , former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa also refuted all  allegations leveled on him and the UDA by the residents of Methsara Uyana. He said the housing was built in keeping with the standards established by  the relevant governmental organisations.

“This is just mudslinging over political reasons by opponents. Cracks on the building are not possible because we built them under the recognised standards and Methsara Uyana was not the only housing complex made when we were in power. There are many across the country and all of them were built following the same standards. It is obvious to anybody that the problem is only with  residents in Methsara Uyana,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

His remark is also fair to some extent as   a considerable number of housing projects were carried out in  the country  under the guidance of the UDA. As no such allegations were made  in other places, it should be investigated  thoroughly  what really caused such cracks to damage  the walls of Methsara Uyana.

When asked about the international guideline on the maximum number of storeys for a housing complex, he said he was unaware of such a thing.
“How could there be an internationally recognised standard? There are even 20-30 storey buildings in countries such as Singapore. Colombo became  the fastest growing city in the world, according to an annual travel study by the MasterCard. These allegations are placed to damage the image,” he further said.

The people whom we interviewed requested the present government authorities to look into their matter humanely without treating  them shoddily like the previous government. According to them, several media institutions have already interviewed them on this matter but no solutions have been given to them by those who are responsible.

As President Maithripala Sirisena pledged  the betterment of the people of Sri Lanka to be a priority, people are waiting  to see how and what steps this  government will take to   resolve this urgent issue, as thousands of lives may be in danger.