On March 15, 2018 (Thursday) at around 7.45 pm, a fire broke out inside a fifth floor apartment at the Sirisara Uyana complex in Dematagoda. Sirisara Uyana is one of the high-rises built by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) for the working class poor of Colombo who were evicted or forcibly relocated there. It was declared open in November 2014 and has 12 floors and 780 apartments. The complex is visible from Baseline Road as one passes Welikada Prison on the right.
The apartment where the fire occurred was occupied by a family of three. They were not at home at the time of the incident. The head of household earns a daily wage by selling onions on a cart parked outside the apartment complex. His wife worked in Cyprus for five years and returned recently. Their son is eleven years old. Everything in the apartment burned that night. Nothing could be salvaged – including all the items purchased using the money earned during the wife’s time in Cyprus. This includes a refrigerator, a washing machine, furniture and other items.
Interviews conducted the morning following the fire with floor residents, relatives of the apartment occupants and others in the building raised several issues of concern. It is also worth noting that several of these issues have been consistently raised by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (See reports from April 2014, May 2015, November 2016, and January 2017) and other civil society actors over the last three years with the Urban Development Authority with no indication of any of them being addressed.
- No smoke detectors in the UDA complexes – None of the complexes have smoke detectors or alarms, either in the apartments or in public spaces like corridors or staircases. Residents said that they did not know there was a fire until people in the adjacent building (Sahaspura) started shouting. Some residents when interviewed said that they did not know why people were shouting and running downstairs and assumed it was a fight taking place. There are alarms fixed at the top of every staircase on each floor, but residents said no alarms went off that night.
- Building maintenance issues – The breakdown of facilities in the UDA buildings has been consistently raised over the years, but no measures have been taken to address them. Most elevators in the buildings are broken. Some compartments where fire extinguishers and hoses are kept have been vandalised. However on the night of the fire, residents said that the fire hose on the fifth floor did not work and there was no water. Some residents attempted to put the fire out by bringing fire extinguishers from other floors or by using buckets of water, with no success. The fire raged on for more than one hour.
- No prior evacuation training – Sirisara Uyana is a building that spans 12 floors. More than 1000 families living in 780 apartments call it home. Residents said that they have never participated in a fire drill or evacuation since they moved in in 2014 and that Thursday night was the first time they had to leave the building in this way. They reported that the evacuation itself went well and people helped each other. However, a resident of the fifth floor said that not everyone evacuated and in addition to the people who tried to put out the fire, the floor was packed with people who wanted to watch. When the fire brigade did arrive more than one hour later they were delayed in reaching the apartment as they could not make their way through the crowd gathered. Considering the cracks on the walls and floor that have appeared in the apartments adjoining the affected apartment, as well as cracks on the apartments directly below and above, it is evident that people were not aware of the danger of continuing to occupy a burning building.
- Lack of support for people with disabilities – Apartments on the ground floor not being assigned to people with disabilities is a key issue that has been raised for years. A wheelchair-bound resident who lives on the second floor said she was undecided as to whether she should go downstairs or not as she did not know why people were evacuating. Finally two young men that she had never met before had offered to carry her down and then, back upstairs when it was safe to go return to the building. We have met other disabled persons as well as elderly people with various ailments, including cardiovascular disease, who had been assigned apartments on top level floors across many of the UDA buildings in Colombo.
- Delay in fire brigade reaching Sirisara Uyana – Residents reported that it took more than one hour for the fire brigade to reach Dematagoda. One lady reported that she had made several calls while the fire brigade was en route. She was curtly told by the operator that the fire brigade would reach there soon and that perhaps the residents should learn to look after their apartments better. This speaks to the attitude officials have towards the working class poor of Colombo and the petty tyrannies faced by them at the hands of authorities.
Moving forward, there are some key issues the UDA needs to address. For years, residents have been complaining about the quality of the apartment complex with visible cracks appearing on the outer walls as well as inside apartments. This fire has only intensified the fear among residents, about how livable and safe these high-rises are in the long run. The disconnect between the residents and their built environment is evident in the badly kept public spaces and vandalism that takes place. By continuing to blame the residents for the state of the buildings and therefore not maintaining them, the UDA continues to create vertical slums.
The UDA must address the lived realities of the residents, take into consideration the involuntary nature of their move to the apartments and take measures to rectify their relationship with the affected people in order to avoid the current situation going from bad to worse. An assessment of the buildings must be done to ensure that the apartments are compliant with building standards. Awareness meetings must be conducted in order to inform residents as well answer questions they have about the building as well. Not only is it problematic that the UDA continues to see densification as the only way to house the working class poor (by the time of completion of the Urban Regeneration Project, 65,000 families will be living in one of these apartments), that basic standards are not being met despite residents’ continuous complaints is equally problematic. While their homes in the “wattes” may not have not had smoke detectors, they also did not have to run 12 floors downstairs along with 1000 other people in an emergency.
The standards, including on building compliance, maintained for the construction of prime ‘seven star luxury’ or ‘world-class-living’ apartments in other parts of Colombo (a few of them, ironically, built on land that some of the relocated apartment dwellers used to live on) must be applied to the working class poor of Colombo as well. We are lucky that lives were not lost that night due to the fire and we hope that it does not take the loss of a life, or a situation like the Grenfell Tower fire for the UDA to act.
For more information on evictions and forced relocations in Colombo, visit the Right To The City Sri Lanka initiative.
Editor’s Note: Also read “Evicted Under the World Bank’s Watch” and “The Meethotamulla tragedy: The face not fear of development“