Groundviews

Slums, shanties or stories?

Image courtesy Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne, Walkabout: Slave Island

An article titled A slum and shanties free Colombo by 2020 recently published on the infamous defence.lk site notes that,

“Our effort is to see a slums and shanties free Colombo in year 2020” said Mr. Weerasena Adikari, Senior Consultant of Urban Development Authority speaking at the weekly media briefing held at the MoD Media Centre today morning (6th Aug).

To be clear about the terms used, a slum is a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people or a house or building unfit for human habitation. A shanty is a small, crudely built shack.

A search on defence.lk for ‘slum’ yields 59 results to date, whereas ‘shanty’ brings up 39 results.

Not a single of the nearly 100 stories on the site looks at the enforced relocation of those in areas like Slave Island and Java Lane, an inherently violent and traumatic process, from the perspectives of actual inhabitants. The articles are remarkably effective in portraying a benevolent Ministry of Defence working towards the economic prosperity of Colombo, the betterment of lives and the beautification of a city. What this carefully engineered narrative masks are those these mega-development projects impact – what their lives, livelihoods and neighbourhoods were really like and how far removed they were from the popular imagination of slums or shanties, that the MoD’s propaganda accesses.

Halik Azziz, photographing and writing for The Picture Press, has some of the most compelling stories of the people the MoD calls slum and shanty dwellers from Java Lane.

Halik, as @ColomBedouin on Instagram, is particularly adept at using social media to capture the stories of these people. In a presentation made earlier this year, Halik highlighted a number of personal stories of people in areas now earmarked for beautification.

Lakna Paranamanna, also photographing and writing for The Picture Press, looks at how an community of dhobis have lost their homes and neighbourhood, which included a kovil.

Selvaraj Rajasegar, Editor of Maatram, also captured in black and white the lives of these dhobis before they lost their homes.

Produced in 2011 by Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne as part of Walkabout: Slave Island, this video focussing on Dharmadasa brings to sharp focus the lives and livelihoods the MoD completely glosses over. Sharni’s and Tarika’s twelve part audio slideshow on areas that, just 3 years after they produced this series, have been completely razed to the ground, is already a historical record of what Colombo was. Instead of ‘slums’ and ‘shanties’, we find women, men, children, families, some really amazing old people, bonds and communal ties, old friendships, thriving businesses, homes, inter-ethnic neighbourhoods, buildings, livelihoods, rich histories and tapestries of human stories not unlike any other neighbourhood in Colombo’s more affluent parts or suburbs.

The power of the MoD’s narrative and the visual appeal of a city undergoing a process of beautification is that these people and their stories are marginal at best, and risk being entirely erased. Those who are, no doubt, intelligent and informed people, when confronted with the unpleasant underbelly of Colombo’s beautification, propose that ignorance is bliss. Grudgingly, perhaps there is some truth in this. Save for bearing witness, there is no power to change any of this. Those evicted have nothing to come back to.

Using the language of ‘slums’ and ‘shanties’, we have sacrificed so many stories, for so little storeys. One wonders, what would the fearless and inimitable Dolly Archchi say to Gotabaya Rajapaksa about all this, if they ever met?