The recent drama at Thotalanga where people living in unauthorized dwelling houses protested against their eviction was, in a way, a manifestation of an ugly aspect of politics in the country. On the face of it one may see only the illegality of occupying state-owned land and the ugliness that it adds to the beauty of the city. In reality, there is much more to it and a lot of politics behind all these illegal occupations.
Most of these settlers have come to occupy state land with the backing of politicians and as such are part of their vote base. They include parliamentarians and municipal councillors of both mainstream political parties. Around election times, their support comes quite handy for these politicians by way of leg work for organizing political rallies, pasting posters and using thuggery where necessary to intimidate the political rivals.
City of Colombo has many such illegally occupied slum areas which are known as wattes inhabited by mostly unskilled low income people. Most of them have originated as a result of popular politics that began in the sixties when law enforcement authorities had to look the other way when people who came from outside the city started unlawfully occupying state-owned land with blessings of the powerful politicians. Such encroachments are still continuing and are a common phenomenon particularly in the period before elections.
However, there is general agreement that these underdeveloped pockets of settlements are a social issue as well as a hindrance for the systematic development of the urban areas and there is a need to resettle these families in alternate locations with proper housing and other facilities. In fact, it was the previous government which expedited this process under the then defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s urban development programme.
However, the irony is that when the present government restarted the process and when illegal occupiers were protesting against their eviction even after they were provided with alternate housing, the joint opposition has come to their support purely for political gain. There are also politicians from within the government who indirectly support the shanty dwellers as they depend on their vote base. So, the political game associated with illegal shanties goes on in a different form.
Politics apart, the country has to progress and the welfare of the people who live in these slum areas also have to be looked at. What is necessary now is to stop future encroachment of urban land and expansion of these slum areas and to see that the laws with regard to state land are strictly enforced. With a systematic approach the people who are already in these areas can be effectively used as the much needed labour force in the development of the city. It’s time for politics behind slum dwellers to end.