Photo by Abdul-Halik Azeez courtesy The Picture Press

There is a new energy to the beautification and development of urban areas in Colombo with a surge in construction, reconstruction and opening up of new spaces.  The other side to this is the demolition of private properties and the eviction of thousands of people. In August 2014 media showed the demolition of shops in Pettah area at the behest of the powerful Urban Development Authority (UDA). This incident, like many others, was reported in the media and raised by opposition politicians to no avail. Similar demolitions were witnessed in recent years in Slave Island, Castle Street and other areas in Colombo with reports of imminent demolitions in other parts with the objective of making Colombo a slum and shanty free city.

Although there is no disputing some benefits of beautification and development, such steps should be done for the benefit of the people and not at the cost of massive loss to homes and livelihoods. Adherence should also be with the existing Constitutional, legal and policy framework and to obligations the State has to its people. Recent practices and policies of the present Government and its agents highlight that the chosen course of action is contrary to the existing legal and policy framework and undermines the rule of law and democratic governance in Sri Lanka. It also misses the fundamental point that all citizens of Sri Lanka must be treated with dignity and fairness by its own Government. What becomes clearer with each eviction in Colombo is the façade used to justify taking over of prime land with scant regard to the law, a trend evident in the North and East. Unfortunately, many distracted with new roads, restaurants, hotels and arcades fail to notice or prefer to ignore, that the very framework meant to protect rights is being manipulated and at time discarded for the benefit of the ruling elite. The reality of the beautification and development project in Colombo is mass scale land grabs that serve the political and economic interest of a select few at the cost of tens of thousands.

Facilitating Evictions within a Flawed Framework

In the case of evictions, different categories of people, residing in both private and state land, are affected and likely to be affected in the future. Many were evicted despite having valid documentation. The same fate awaited those who had resided without the necessary documentation but had developed the property and paid annual rates and utility bills. Several had claims due to prescriptive rights. None of this mattered in the face of larger plans for development. The framework in place failed to provide much needed protection with large numbers rendered homeless and robbed of their livelihoods and basic services.

Previous studies have discussed the rights pertaining to those in legal possession of both private and state lands. Although both groups have particular rights, there is no disputing that those with ownership rights over private lands with valid documentation have the best claim to their land. In legal terms, anyone whose private land is to be acquired by the State must satisfy specific criteria as provided in the Land Acquisition Act (LAA). Noteworthy in the LAA is the requirement of a ‘public purpose’, a definition creatively interpreted in recent times. Reports indicate that lands acquired or in the process of being acquired within the framework of the LAA include for purposes such as the construction of private hotels and golf courses, raising the question what benchmarks, if any, are used to define a ‘public purpose’ and whether there is an actual public benefit. Similar concerns are with lands appropriated by the State and its agents without any adherence to a legal framework, raising questions regarding the legality of such measures and the complete impunity enjoyed by some actors.

The present framework provides several options by way of using land for specific purposes such as the Urban Development Authority Act (as amended), The Board of Investment of Sri Lanka Act (as amended), The Road Development Act (as amended), The Tourism Development Act and the Strategic Development Projects Act (as amended). Despite an array of options, acquisition of private property must adhere to the LAA. One exception to the LAA is with urban development legislation which provides broad powers to the Executive when land is ‘urgently’ required for an urban development project which meets the ‘just requirements of the general welfare of the People’. This may result in situations where interpretation can be broad and arbitrary and lead to people losing lands overnight with limited scope to challenge. Although too early to comment, an examination should be done into how lands acquired and/or appropriated by the State in the guise of beautification and development are to be used in the future. A recent study in relation to land in the North that is in the process of acquisition being used for purposes other than what is perceived as a public purpose.

Although there are gaps within the legal framework and its applications, other safeguards exist. The doctrine of legitimate expectation coupled with possessory rights should influence policy and practice in owning and control land. Furthermore, the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP), although not legally enforceable, is a good basis of a fairer and just system in recognising ownership and control of land and for compensation. Unfortunately there seems little or no regard for laws and policies or for the adherence of best practices in terms of development. Moreover, there is no effort at reforming the present framework that has lead to arbitrary and unjust practices.

Disturbing Trends 

The evictions in Colombo are conducted speedily and with efficiency with no space for the consideration of rights, transparency or inclusivity. Further centralisation and militarisation are evident with the work of the UDA and other state agents involved with initiatives at beautification and development. Those threatened with evictions are provided limited time to find alternative accommodation. Several who were evicted or face imminent eviction refer to officials of the UDA or those in military gear or both being involved in the process of evictions. Trends evident with the evictions in Colombo demonstrate a very efficient plan: short notice of the demolition, use of force to move residents out of their premises and vague references of compensation with no comprehensive plan available for public scrutiny. In some cases, alternative housing with flawed infrastructure is provided. For some, alternative housing has yet to materialise.

The Government’s own entities meant to provide some form of redress for human rights violations are powerless in the face of the UDA and the military. For example, orders by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) such as the one issued in March 2014 to prevent the eviction of residents in Wanathamulla in Boralle are disregarded by officials of the UDA. The few who oppose evictions are threatened and harassed by agents of the State with a clear message: no action including challenging in courts and/or complaining to the NHRC will prevent evictions and delay implementation of so called beautification and development initiatives.

The speed with which evictions are underway in a post war setting with scant regard for rights and obligations should come as no surprise. Nor should we be surprised by the lack of regard shown towards affected communities, by the State, its agents, developers and the larger public. National security and development continue to be good reasons that justify the grabbing of lands in the North and East. Now with Colombo under siege, why would it change?

Hard Questions to Ask

Many fail to realise or prefer not to question the long-term implications of evictions. Disturbing trends of centralisation, militarisation, undermining the rule of law and culture of impunity are evident. These trends are not new in post war Sri Lanka; the present spate of evictions merely confirm and bring to the fore what is evident elsewhere in Sri Lanka. The clinical precision and the speed with which evictions take place and the lack of good governance principles and practices feed into fears of a larger agenda in place to transform demographics to influence electoral politics. With no assurance to indicate otherwise and with the possibility of national elections in the near future, many questions remain with the spectre of evictions.

Apart from the larger implications, this issue should also be a personal one. The reader should ask what, if any, safeguards provide for guaranteed residence in one’s own home. Present day practices indicate that having a deed or being a resident for decades is no guarantee one’s home is safe from being demolished, possibly overnight. The Government’s concept of beautification and development may benefit a few and distract many others, but tens of thousands have suffered and likely to suffer as a direct result. And the irony is that evictions and land grabs continue unabated despite a framework in place that is meant to prevent illegal, unjust and unfair practices. Sri Lanka maybe the ‘wonder of Asia’ for a few but for many the reality is much more unpredictable and unpleasant.