Rising Above 

Life, family and hope at Methsara Uyana

The Centre for Policy Alternatives has for years documented the stories of people affected by the rapid development drive that occurred under the previous regime, when the Urban Development Authority commandeered evictions across Colombo to make room for what has materialised as mixed development projects that promise a luxurious future for those who can afford it.

A visit to Methsara Uyana in Dematagoda, one of the highrises where evicted families have been relocated to, is firstly a visual reminder of the disconnect between the residents and their new environment. The stairwells are dirty, the elevators that are to service a 12-storey building are broken and the allocation of space according to a 'house for a house' policy and not by ‘house for a family’ has resulted in uncomfortable overcrowding for some.

Arriving in the afternoon, we had the chance to speak to a few of the women who live in the complex. Their responsibilities extend from taking care of their kids to trying to make small businesses work in the new apartment complex.

'Representatives of the authorities visited and I told them everything we need; a waste management system, the lift fixed, our children to be registered so that they get the educational facilities they are entitled to from our previous homes. 

Then they say that's too much and that they cannot help us like that, so then I ask why they bother talking about it then, if they’re not going to help us?’

'I used to make Rs. 22,000 daily in the shop I had. But they didn't allocate a shop for us in this complex and when they destroyed our old places and after months of hoping we’d receive such, I went and brought all my things to the living room of our apartment. 

Now we have less space and are all restricted to the 2 bedrooms, my son and his wife live with us as well. I can’t make as much here as I used to, maybe around Rs. 1000-3000 a day?'
'It costs us about Rs. 300 to send the children to school every day in a three wheeler. My older daughter goes to school in the morning, goes for classes and to the mosque and then comes home late in the night because she doesn't like staying at home. 

There is no space for kids to play and be kids, this is not the kind of environment they should be growing up in.’
'It's sometimes a little dangerous for us women to walk alone, even in these areas. There are men, sometimes very young boys, who try to be funny and scare women walking alone. 

In this place, we have no divisions, Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim, everyone gets along fine because we all know the other is experiencing the same difficulties we are.’
'What's difficult is the lives we had built for years in our homes were uprooted when we moved. Now we have to spend so much to go to the mosque, to take the children to school, or to the shops we used to own or frequent. 

We’re making new friends along the way in this struggle together, but that sense of community that we had is missing.’

It is the women in these communities who have been affected the most in this relocation as most have lost the ability to carry out their informal income-generating activities. The dynamics of the new environment mean their previously-successful enterprises are now running at a loss.  The loss of the strong community bonds they previously enjoyed adds an element of uncertainty to their daily lives, especially when considering the safety of their children should they go to work outside.

Despite the weight of the transition and their responsibility to their families, these women also work tirelessly in the capacity of activists. They regularly present their community's struggles to officials from the Urban Development Authority and find ways to ensure that they are addressed, even if it means bringing up the same unresolved issues to the authorities repeatedly.

Their community's struggles have been kept from the mainstream media, despite the blatant breakdown of justice and process that has embodied their eviction and relocation. Yet in spite of the odds being stacked against them, the women at Sirisara Uyana remain resilient in the small acts that shape their daily lives.

Their requests are simple - that those who had businesses be given shop space either close to their apartments or even in a common centre elsewhere in the building, to be able to carry out their trade. What most of them do hope for is that the mistakes made in this wave of evictions and relocations will not be repeated in future - especially with the ambitious Western Region Megapolis Plan that will unfold over the next few years - so that other communities and families will not face the same injustice. 

Visit Right to the City for more features and resources on the topic of land acquisition, eviction and relocation for development in Colombo.