The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Colombo's growth pains: what is really meant by "rehabilitation"?

Five years from the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, Marco Picardi recalls his tour of the capital, where billboards for numerous redevelopment projects paper over an all-too-common logic of modernisation, eviction, and lack of compensation.

Cities: Colombo

Topics: New cities and special projects, Property, rights and evictions, Property and real estate, Labour and livelihoods, Poverty and inequality

Tuk-tuks race past Buddhist temples in Colombo. Photo: Marco Picardi
A barren commercial strip on the edge of Fort, Colombo's historical district. Photo: Luca Picardi
Closing time at Pettah market. Photo: Luca Picardi
A residential courtyard on Slave Island. Photo: Luca Picardi
Children play cricket in a quiet corner of Slave Island. Photo: Luca Picardi
A tuk-tuk waits in Pettah. Photo: Luca Picardi
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Colombo's Dutch Hospital doesn't quite deliver what it promises. Fortunately I wasn't there for urgent medical attention because apart from its gable roof there's nothing Dutch or hospital-like about the structure these days. Located in Fort, the city's old colonial district, and across the road from the cylindrical towers of Sri Lanka's sky-high World Trade Centre, the hospital has experienced a karmic rebirth as a commercial centre to showcase Colombo's modernity and act as a gateway between new and old. Not that Fort is exactly an immutable ancient relic — next door's historic building hosts a TGI Friday's.

Seated at a cafe between a seafood restaurant and a linen shop, I started to question my choice of guidebook. I glanced around from behind my laminated English menu. Sheltered from the sun-splashed central atrium, tourists huddled under the cool shadowy overhang of the Dutch roof and dispersed in small groups. They constituted almost the entire client base of the Hospital. Was this really the "centerpiece" of the "newly vibrant Fort" as my guide suggested? It was only later, some time into my stay in January 2014, that I realised that the Dutch Hospital — a place held up as a model of urban development and yet disconnected from the informal economic reality of most of the city's residents — was in fact the ultimate expression of Colombo's zeitgeist.

Blooming since the war

In my guidebook, the new Old Hospital was exalted as "literally at the centre of Colombo's resurgence". Its redevelopment is part of a new wave of burgeoning construction in the country's urban centres that reflects a GDP growth rate of between six and nine per cent per year since the end of the war; a construction boom that many locals explain is evidence of a city blooming in a country newly at peace. While the majority of countries recently affected by violent conflict are far from achieving any of the Millennium Development Goals, Sri Lanka believes it is on track to achieve most of them. Remarkably, Sri Lanka was reclassified from a low-income to a middle-income country less than a year after a harrowing climax brought an end to a brutal quarter-century civil war.

I left the cafe in the bright blue early afternoon heat, unsure what to think. Can spaces dominated by tourists really be vibrant? Where else does the post-conflict upturn manifest itself? Back through the sunlit courtyard out onto the street, my barefooted driver Rohan was waiting for me in a metered tuk-tuk. We pulled out into the capital's lunchtime gridlock bound for Slave Island, a neighbourhood a short distance southwards. Rohan aggressively and precisely manoeuvered the three-wheeler through the cacophony of old Leyland buses and 4x4s. Gradually we started making headway with a series of short engine revs.

As we drove through the slow-going traffic, Rohan tested his English. "I live in Slave Island," he offered. Then he revealed that this same journey would have been much more unpleasant before last year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Many, many potholes scarred the roads, making for a ride that was very bumpy, he said. He laughed, continuing, "I couldn't work for a week because of Prince Charles … they closed the roads!" He laughed again, and waggled his head. Was this amusing? I couldn't tell, but it was clear that beneath Rohan's smiling veneer lay an uneasy frustration.

Nodding at a poster of the president — it seems that no streetscape in Sri Lanka is complete without his smile — Rohan continued: "they want everything to be new" — in reference to the government's road improvement scheme that has revitalised weathered roads with fresh cement, I assumed. "Now, it has to be new. If it's not a hotel or an office they don't want it, we cannot live in the city anymore, it's too expensive,” he said in a concerned tone. He waggled his head again. As he steered the vehicle to the side of road to drop me off, I stepped out and struggled to contemplate Rohan's reality. A temporary out-of-sight arrangement for the Commonwealth conference was turning into a permanent out-of-site reality.

Euphemism for eviction

At the boundary of Slave Island on the pavement where Rohan had dropped me off stood another road sign adorned with the obligatory smiling president. "Colombo Urban Development Project," the sign proclaimed. It stated the intentions of the Urban Development Authority, curiously functioning under the Ministry of Defense, to "rehabilitate" the area with loans from the World Bank. On closer investigation, I saw that the sign advertised the Slave Island part of a citywide "rehabilitation" project — a euphemism for the government’s plans to evict over 60,000 people in the name of modernisation. So the project's consequences in etymological terms would be precisely the opposite of a rehabilitation, an act of helping somebody return to normal life.

If the local-free Dutch hospital was the vaunted model, it was no harbinger for Rohan to get excited about. In a country where the wages of many are no more than $3,000 per year, this type of property-led regeneration could push land values and rents up beyond the reach of the majority, and converge the destinies of the diverse Slave Island and Fort districts towards a similarly engineered and exclusionary rebirth. Strolling around Slave Island, it was hard to imagine how a commercial district could be transplanted here. Brightly painted homes formed the backdrop to improvised cricket matches. Saris, dhotis, and hijabs hung and dried side-by-side, a testament to Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians living peacefully together. Here, in defiance of evident material poverty was a harmony undefined by money, where the national wreckage of longstanding sectarianism was being incrementally evaporated. Fort's prosperity seemed banal in comparison.

Later that afternoon I met Lucian, a recent acquaintance and local landscape architect, in Pettah market, a historic hive of trading activity by the port. While Tamil and Sinhalese traders wound down their activities and packed up around us, we found a place to grab some egg hoppers, thin and crispy pancakes made from rice flour and coconut milk and centered with an egg yolk, the perfect post-walk snack. As far as I could recall the hopper did not feature on the menu at the Dutch hospital cafe, which, like most of the hospital eateries, had a Euro-American feel.

As we located some seats between the post-market tea drinkers, a heated exchange began unfolding behind us. Lucian, a Sinhalese speaker, proceeded to translate the debate between the shopkeeper and a customer. It transpired that the customer was a fruit trader keen to move his business away from "dirty" Pettah to the cleanliness offered by a new floating market being built on nearby Beira Lake. Lucian later explained that the government is introducing a series of new purpose-built markets to diffuse the amorphous Pettah and harness the central area's potential for regeneration. The shopkeeper, maintaining a raised voice, protested that his trade would disappear if everyone followed his customer's lead and the market relocated to another suburb. The trader retorted that the shopkeeper could always cash in on his shop, whereas the price of rice changed every week. And the back-and-forth continued.

We handed over forty rupees — about 30 US cents — to the tea-shop owner without breaking the momentum of their conversation and headed for a tea near the beach. Zigzagging back towards Fort through the fruit peels, wrapping and boxes, the remains of the lively market that filled the space during the day, we dissected the interaction we had just witnessed. This, Lucian asserted, indicated that the newly constructed markets would fill up regardless of the elevated rents. My experience with Rohan was rare, he said, adding that most people were in favor of the city's redevelopment plans. Journey times would be cut, money would come in, and most importantly the city would become "modern", Lucian argued. After passing through Fort, now desolate and deserted, and down one of the city's principal commercial strips, we emerged onto the beachfront where we were instantly reminded that even though residents can be for or against change, development is already very much afoot. Marching southwards along the coast lay a vast kilometre-long construction site separated from the road by a row of hoardings that reassured passers-by of the coming luxury with images of hotels, pools, and conference centres.

By the time we finished our cinnamon teas, the sun had set. I headed for my guesthouse on the outskirts of the city in a fast-paced tuk-tuk. We travelled past bathers along the murky lakes of Colombo's delta and down long streets in which familiar fast-food franchises were interspersed with paddy fields, a fading memory of a rural life that dominated these parts only a generation ago. I began to notice the beguiling billboards that covered all possible facades in Colombo's suburban vistas. The advertisements rose from low roofs and undeveloped plots to fill all gaps in the skyline. Pale-skinned and western-looking models marketed everything from fast food to shampoo. Was this Western-consumerist image the desired "modernity" that Lucian had alluded to?

Foreshadowing a future

The next morning I woke up still imbued with thoughts of the changing city and chatted over string hoppers, the local steamed rice flour noodles, with the guesthouse owner Marlene. She was married to an architect who regularly engaged in debates related to Colombo's redevelopment and said that one of the main issues was the arbitrary nature of compensation given to people displaced by urban development projects. She said that the government usually sided with the developers over people in these matters, as the majority of areas designated for rehabilitation were state lands informally occupied by poor Sri Lankans. In one case from 2010, families evicted from a street in Colombo were offered 100,000 rupees (around US$900 at the time) — deemed to be a year's worth of rent — to abandon the premises. A similar exchange is happening in Slave Island now. Although far from insignificant in Sri Lankan purchasing power terms, one year of rent seems a dubious exchange value for the loss of a home.

When I left Colombo behind the next day, it was clear to me that its prosperity belied simmering friction produced by the city's development boom. The pain of a growing economy was manifesting itself most profoundly in the uncertainty of its residents. And the contrasting certainty of the high-rise beachfront hotels somehow made this ambiguity more pronounced. Although Lucian was probably right in suggesting that most people are aspirational and after change — after all there are no shortage of services that could be improved in the city — it was hard to avoid the critical question: on what terms? If the city's development is motivated by the subtext of Colombo's adverts and the pretext of Fort and its sanitised Dutch Hospital, the "rehabilitation" project will struggle to ever meet the real needs of Colombo's residents. Although I am unfamiliar with the Old Dutch Hospital in its previous guise, judging by its anodyne present it can only be hoped for residents' sake that it isn't foreshadowing Colombo’s future.


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