Groundviews

And they all fall down

This afternoon, the remaining residents of 34 watta in Wanathamulla had surprise visitors. Brigadier Samarasinghe who is the Project Director of the UDA’s Urban Regeneration Programme, accompanied by several other UDA officials, police and demolition equipment turned up at 34 watta and informed the residents of imminent evictions and the destruction of their homes.

Most of the residents of 34 watta had already left their homes for good (more details below) and the only residents that were remaining in 34 watta were the ones who filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal against the Urban Development Authority (in which Brigadier Samarasinghe is cited as the 3rd Respondent) and other actors challenging the directive issues by the UDA ordering them to move from their homes to an alternative location provided by the UDA or accept compensation proposed by the UDA.

Key background information to keep in mind is that these residents (along with most who left previously) have deeds to their houses, some even dating back to 1979. Their own houses are bigger than the new apartments being offered to them and the compensation amount proposed by the UDA was unacceptable. More importantly, the Government had not served a Section 2 notice under the Land Acquisition Act (as this is private land) in order to acquire the land in adherence to the present legal framework and had done so thus far through intimidation and a process that makes the relocation look voluntary on paper. Furthermore, the burden of having to make the initial down payments and the monthly payments over the next 20 years is not possible for the petitioners as some of them retire in 2 – 4 years, one is dependent on the income of a relative working in the Middle East and is due to return to Sri Lanka soon while another is daily wage worker.

CPA has been informed that Brigadier Samarasinghe, during his afternoon visit today informed the petitioners that the UDA had got orders to demolish their houses and that going to court or HRC was of no use. They had then proceeded to start demolishing the adjoining houses of the watta. Already, it was only the outer structure that remained in most, and the watta had been transformed into an environment that was difficult to live in for the remaining residents with open sewage pipes and disturbances to water and electricity.

The demolition that took place today had create some damages to the homes of the petitioners. What is disturbing is that even with full knowledge of the court case, the UDA decided to employ yet another intimidation strategy. One of the petitioners informed CPA that when her brother started taking photos with his camera of the demolition and the damage to her house, the Brigadier and other officials had grabbed him by the neck, dragged him away and threatened him.

The rain had put a temporary halt to the demolition. Following phone calls being made to lawyers and the arrival of some media personnel, the UDA officials had left the site. Subsequently UNP Member of Parliament Eran Wickramaratne also arrived at the scene and witnessed the destruction and was able to speak to the residents.

Two police complaints were made at the Borella Police Station by the petitioners this evening – on the intimidation and threats by UDA officials and in light of the case filed the attempts by the UDA to demolish their houses.

At the time of writing (7.00pm), CPA has been informed by the petitioners that more demolition equipment has been unloaded at the watta and they live in fear that their homes with all their assets, belongings and documents will be demolished at any point. There is also a grave danger of physical harm to the petitioners who have so far withstood many forms of threats by numerous officials. When CPA visited the watta this afternoon, the unbearable stench coming from the open sewage pipes that were also broken in the demolition process was noticeable within a few minutes, making the environment even more difficult to live in and creating a situation where the petitioners may be forced to leave due to an environment that is not habitable or hygienic.

What must be kept in mind that these houses are not slums or shanties as stated by the UDA, but well furnished, tiled homes with bathrooms, running water, electricity and where the residents have legal ownership. Photos below taken in early August illustrate the state of the watta where the houses adjoining the petitioners houses were demolished and only the outer structure remains. Photos taken at the site today tell a story of an escalation of intimidation and harassment and how this story will end is anyone’s guess, but it certainly won’t be a happy one.

Background 

In December 2013, the residents of 34 Watta and adjoining wattas in Wanathamulla were told that they will be given flats in the new high rise ‘Sisira Uyana’ adjoining their watta, as their existing houses would be demolished and land acquired by the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Residents were given an “application form”, which requested for new apartments and were asked to pay Rs 50,000/- up front and another Rs 50,000/- within the next three months. They were also asked to pay Rs 3960/- a month over the next 20 years in order to own their apartment. As they were not agreeable to this offer, around 600 residents filed a petition at the Human Rights Commission against the demolition of the houses.

The key reasons as to why the residents refused to move were –

  1. Majority of the residents had deeds to their houses, some even dating back to 1979.
  2. They did not pay rent for their houses, as they already owned it and only paid water, electricity and rates.
  3. Majority of residents stated that paying Rs 3960/- a month over the next 20 years would be a huge burden on them and for some it would be impossible.
  4. The downpayment of Rs 100,000/- was another additional burden and unexpected expense they would not be able to bear.
  5. The apartments that were being offered to them were too small (346 sq. ft) when taking their current house size into consideration.

In February, the secretary of the Wanathamulla Housing Protection Society was abducted and later released. He had spoken against the new apartments and cited their reasons for refusing to move at a meeting in February 13, 2014, attended by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and other officials. At the HRC hearing, the UDA agreed that they would not move any residents who were not willing to move. However, despite this undertaking, residents complained of military intimidation and harassment.

Towards the end of July, through intimidation as well as offering multiple apartments, the UDA officials had convinced majority of the residents in 34 watta to leave their homes and move into the new apartments offered to them. In letters sent to residents that were unwilling to move, the UDA had given them options of compensation or new apartments at nearby ‘Methsiri Uyana’ that is under construction the moment. However, some residents remained, despite much intimidation in forms of visits by military and UDA officials, adjoining houses being broken down, disturbances to electricity and water supply, breaking of sewage pipes etc.

It was in this context that the Centre for Policy Alternatives supported the group of petitioners from 34 watta who filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal against the Urban Development Authority and other actors challenging the directive issues by the UDA [CA (Writ) 283/14].

Photos taken on August 4th 2014

Photos taken today, September 18th 2014.

Please check out CPA’s Flickr site for more photos taken today.