The plight of migrant workers in the Gulf

In 2014 an estimated 300,000 men and women left Sri Lanka to work primarily in the Gulf States. The majority of men went into the construction industry whilst the women accepted jobs as housemaids. They went because they wanted to provide for a better life for their families, and the government was happy for them to go; not least because the money they send back (remittances ) amounts to $7billion; or 9% of GDP.

What the migrants didn’t know or expect was that the contracts they were promised would never materialise and many of them would end up working in conditions which amount to modern slavery.

This recent report in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror is a good place to start: www.dailymirror.lk/article/Fotune-favoured-Rani-from-the-jaws-of-death11936

Sri Lanka does not rank highly on the Global Slavery Index, yet pollsters estimate there are approximately 26,000 Sri Lankans trapped in a form of modern slavery in 2016;

My guess is that you might find this hard to believe, but that is because:

  1. Slavery is illegal, so it is either hidden tacitly ignored by the authorities or denied by the perpetrators. But in any case it goes unrecorded; one example Ask yourself next time you stop at the traffic lights in Colombo. Do the beggars you see keep the money you give them or are they forced to hand it over to  others in exchange for the most basic of food and shelter; in effect slaves. We could go on.. the case of sex workers would be another instance
  2. More importantly; most Sri Lankans trapped in slavery are not living in Sri Lanka but in The Gulf States
Facts and Figures: Migrant workers
  • An estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad affecting 1 in 4 households.
  • A total of 300,413  left for employment in 2014 of which 63.2 were males and 37% were females
  •  80% of females were employed as domestic workers
  • The Middle East is the largest source of remittances: 60%
  • Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are their main destinations
Why they go

You can think of three groups of factors; geographers will already be familiar with them:

Push Factors:
  • Low incomes whether in rural or urban areas; not enough income to adequately support a young family. Even where there is relatively full employment, wages are low. A textile factory worker will not earn much more than 25000 rupees per month; not enough to sustain a comfortable way of life. The same is true of office workers. Few are paid a living wage.
  • Lack of opportunity for advancement
  • Political patronage at a local level
  • A general feeling that life must be better elsewhere
Pull Factors
  • the promise of high incomes
Facilitating factors
  • migration to the Middle East is a well trodden path; often an individual will know of people in their community who are already migrants; they hear the stories…
  • some migrants already have people living and working in the Gulf who can help them get jobs
  • local agents and their contacts who are active in local communities arranging documents
Plus, of course they have no idea of what is waiting for them when they get to their destination
Where they go and where they come from

The top destinations are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, The Emirates and Kuwait with smaller numbers heading to Oman and Jordan. Whilst Western province is the biggest exporter in terms of numbers; in terms of the % of the population it is, in fact Ampara Trincomalee and Puttalam who export the biggest % of their population; (around 3%) annually

Life for a domestic migrant worker in the Gulf States

The migrants are often recruited by unscrupulous and unregulated agents on the promise of high incomes. The agents or employers not only pay their fares, but also arrange for passports and visas, sometimes illegally.

Migrant labourers often receive a monetary advance as an incentive to work overseas. What they are not told, or don’t realise is that these incentives will bind them into debt upon arrival in their host country. Worse is to follow: recruitment agencies in the host country regularly commit fraud by changing the agreed upon job, employer, conditions, or remuneration after the worker’s arrival.

A recent report alleged that the police and other officials in Sri Lanka accept bribes, and some sub-agents reportedly work with officials to procure forged or modified documents, or genuine documents with falsified data, to facilitate travel abroad for those desperate for a better life. The problem is that these documents are not legal. The migrant enters a country with these documents and is immediately at the mercy of their employers who could report them at any moment.

The report also observed that the Sri Lankan government does not have the ability to regulate sub-agents under the SLBFE, which officials recognized as a problem contributing to trafficking.

The situation is made worse because the migrants have little knowledge of the situations they are going to end up in. For domestic workers in particular, this involves the Kefala system, which ties the domestic worker to one employer, effectively giving that employer full control over the migrant worker. (click on the link to check this out)

The reality is that the migrants end up in slavery. Their passports are often taken from them. Employers routinely pay well below what the workers were promised, and sometimes refuse to pay their workers at all. Housemaids in particular live under conditions similar to house arrest: subject to mistreatment, abuse and both physical and sometimes sexual violence.

Kuwaiti journalists attend a Human Rights Watch press conference in Kuwait City on October 6, 2010 announcing a new report that shows abuse of domestic workers in Kuwait is rising, and maids in the Gulf emirate face prosecution when they try to escape. AFP PHOTO/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT (Photo credit should read YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

This summary from Digital Commons says it all
  • Complaints: 12,061 of which 78% females
  • Physical and sexual harassment: 96% female
  • Not sent back at the end of contract: 92% female
  • Not payment of agreed wages: 81% female
  • Breach of contract: 62% female
  • in 2009 333 deaths of housemaids working abroad were recorded
  • 2009 survey states about housemaid returnees to Sri Lanka
  • 48% were assaulted by someone from the employer’s household
  • 52% were not paid the promised salary
  • 84% were not paid for their overtime work

The situation for the women who end up in domestic work can be grim and there are plenty of examples you can find for yourself by going online: For example have a look at:

rothna-saudi_arabic_mdw_op-ed-october_2015-photo

see link; serious violence in the Gulf States

this an extract from another victim’s story

“Even if I went to bed at 3:30 a.m., I had to get up by 5:30 a.m I had continuous work until 1:00 a.m., sometimes 3:00 a.m…. Once I told the employer, “I am a human like you and I need an hour to rest.” She told me, “You have come to work; you are like my shoes, and you have to work tirelessly.”

The conditions were getting worse. I told the employer that I wanted to leave but she would not take me to the agency. [Her husband] would say, “You want to go, you want to go?” and he would pull my hair and beat me with his hands. He went to the kitchen and took a knife and told me he would kill me, cut me up into little pieces, and put the little pieces of me in the cupboard By this time they owed me four months’ salary.

There are more and more innocent women going abroad, and planning to go. It is up to the women to care of themselves. The [Sri Lankan] government gets a good profit from us; they must take care of us. They must do more to protect us.”

Kumari Indunil, age 23, a former domestic worker in Kuwait

Qatar : The Plight of construction workers

This You Tube clip speaks for itself and needs nothing extra from me

So why is this happening?

Simple answer? Nobody cares!

  • So far as the domestic employers in the Arab world are concerned there is probably little that can be done to combat the blatant racism that exists or to combat an arrogant attitude which views servants as property, and is simply a reflection of the values and attitudes of wealthy Kuwaiti, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati society. They simply don’t see what they are doing wrong. Their servants are theirs to dispose of as they wish without threat of law; they are not viewed as equal human beings in any sense. This clip sums it up.
  • Migrant workers have no legal protection or legal rights in the countries where they work., plus they are usually unaware of what their rights are
  • Some feel that the exporting governments do little to put pressure on the host governments to remedy the situation and do little to support them when they get into difficulties
So what needs to be done?

To begin with  there is a need to collect data to improve understanding of:

  • who is migrating
  • from which villages
  • what factors govern their decision to migrate
  • what factors influence the choice of where they migrate
  • what role recruitment agents playing the migration process; how do they persuade people to move? Are agents regulated, audited or even licensed?

Mapping the results allows NGOs and government organisations to focus initially on areas which are hotspots of out-migration to the Gulf and then to develop a better understanding of the migration process.

After that there are two approaches that could be considered.

  1. Reduce the flow of migrants to the Gulf
  2. Improve the conditions for those who still want to go
Reducing the Flow
  1.  The obvious answer is to give people a positive reason NOT to migrate in search of work. Poverty is the driving force. Now the government would argue that only 8% of the population fall below the poverty line, but that line is drawn very low. Unemployment per se is not the issue. However, large numbers of Sri lankans earn less than 30,000 rupees per month; this is not a living wage, so what can be done? There are options:
  • a realistic minimum living wage for paid employment enshrined in law would be a start; companies making big profits on the back of cheap labour may not like that idea..
  • improved subsidies to farmers to raise their incomes; this could be paid for out of taxation if taxes were collected more efficiently.
  • looking at ways of decentralising economic activities from the large cities like Colombo, improving infrastructure and road connections in order to spread economic growth. The governments Megalopolis plan could be a large step towards achieving this

2.  Help local people to develop small scale businesses using cheap forms of credit and support from local NGO’s like Sevanatha and The Institute of Women in Management  and the women’s co-operative bank

check out the links and you will see that what they do is:

  • Equip leaders to negotiate with local authorities on behalf of their communities to improve their socio-economic conditions
  • Develop local credit /savings bank operations run by and for the local community (often by local women) which can fund small businesses locally
  • Support and encourage women to take a bigger role as community leaders or as small scale entrepreneurs.

What the above can do is help to create cohesive communities and develop viable economic alternatives to migration for local people.

3.  Educate people to the stark realities of life on a construction site in Qatar or imprisoned in a home in Saudi Arabia : a negative reason not to go.

  • set up groups led by victims to visit communities to tell their stories
  • disseminate material to vulnerable communities on the realities of working conditions in the Gulf: it could be illustrated books, video material, victim narratives
  • mobilise  the press to tell these stories and place the spotlight.

AT the same time pressure must come from politicians, NGO’s the media and local people to force the authorities to ensure all agents are properly registered and licensed via the SLBFE for example. The issue of licences must be on the basis of conditions, which are stringent, open, and subject to scrutiny and enshrined in law. All agents should be required to lodge a bond with the authorities to be used to meet the costs of repatriation, and loss of earnings where migrants fall foul of local practices in the Gulf and need to return home.

Unlicensed agents must be prosecuted, along with corrupt government officials and police, as must those who knowingly mislead clients and do not exercise a duty of care. At present very few licensed agents are audited and few are ever prosecuted.

b.  Addressing the situation in the Gulf States

 The surest way to force a change in attitudes amongst employers in the Gulf is to dramatically cut down the flow of migrant labour. In that respect the SLBFE should be taking pro-active steps to warn migrants of the potential situations they could find themselves in.

In the meantime: there are issues to overcome:

  • governments from source countries like that of Sri Lanka (India, Nepal, Pakistan also) need to become more pro-active in lobbying host governments to ensure their citizens are protected.
  • the appalling nature of working conditions in the construction industry requires immediate attention. British companies engaged in building stadia in Qatar who appear to be indifferent at best to the plight of workers on the construction sites should be prosecuted under  the Modern Slavery Act where they are failing to heed the warnings of the British Government over working conditions.

Steps that should be taken:

  1. The dismantling of the Kefala system immediately.
  2. Migrants must be allowed to retain their passports at all times.
  3. Migrant workers must be afforded through their visa status full rights as they would apply to resident nationals, enshrined in law.
  4. Workers need to be better educated in terms of their rights as migrant workers. Lack of awareness on legal procedures, lax law enforcement  and the inability to communicate in the host country’s local languages all leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation.
  5. Employers whether companies or private households should be prosecuted where clear human rights abuses have occurred and must be made to honour the contracts they signed again under penalty of law.
  6. In the case of Qatar all countries engaged in qualifying for the next World Cup should threaten to boycott the event unless conditions change.

Within the Gulf States the embassies of the “exporting” countries should at least have staff fully trained to support abused victims. There should be a list of all addresses where migrants are living; regular checks made on them visits to ensure health and well being, wages are being paid, and they are not subject to mistreatment or abuse.

Key legal reforms are needed to ensure the most vulnerable workers, particularly domestic workers, who must be covered by basic labour law protection.

Steps must be taken to make certain victims are not further traumatized by arrest and detention if they run away to escape violence or exploitation.

Despite their contributions to their host countries, women migrants are not generally assured of basic protection. A simple 40-day mandatory training programme by the SLBFE does not simply address the concerns of those who seek foreign employment. Employers and recruiters alike must be held responsible for their role in exploiting the helpless workers.

What this needs, however, is co-operation between the sending countries and the host countries. However, if the host governments are unwilling to comply then governments like that of Sri Lanka should take steps to stop the flow of migrants to those countries, which they can do at the exit airports. Although painful in the short run tapping the economic potential of the poor at home, turning them into productive individuals through community and self help schemes could be a way forward and would spare many the fate that awaits them at the hands of  employers in the Middle East.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7pkhFnwXkImeasures should be taken to challenge perceptions about migrant workers, in order to recognize their values and contribution to the development of the country.

See more at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/115002/Vague-promises-of-greener-pastures-for-migrant-workers#sthash.iHusvVN2.dpuf

 

Short term lets on the rise in Sri lanka: is this good for the tourism industry?

The informal tourism sector is growing in Sri Lanka and Hiran Cooray Chairman of the Tourist hotels of Sri Lanka for one thinks it’s a good thing.  ( see  report in the Daily Mirror )

So do I.

By his reckoning 2/5th of tourists coming to Sri Lanka now stay in rented apartments, villas and homestay accommodation many of which are rented out via organisations such as Homestay.com Trip Advisor, AirB&B and the like.

Benefits

So why is this a good thing? Let’s start with the positive side.

  • Money paid by tourists goes directly to local people;

“Tourists staying within the local communities pass the revenue directly to the bottom of the income pyramid, fast-tracking grass root level economic development.” Hiran Cooray

  • Visiting tourists get to mix with local people rather than stay cooped up in hotels full of foreigners and they get to experience and enjoy true Sri Lankan hospitality; plus they get to hang out away from traditional tourist areas.
  • Because tourist are using existing facilities there is no additional strain on local authority services
  • The emergence of the informal rental market actually expands what Sri Lanka has to offer to tourists.

Not everyone (Chinese apart maybe) wants to stay in an hotel. A significant number of tourists like to do their own thing, explore local areas eat when they want in and around local Sri Lankans, and so on. They don’t want to be “trapped” in a cramped and possibly quite expensive hotel room. They like the space and informality that the informal sector can offer and when you can stay in an apartment in Havelock City for example.. at a much lower cost.. well why wouldn’t you?

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Havelock City; example of apartment

doing away with the negatives :

  • Unlike the major developments which are springing up around the coast from Kalpitiya to Mirissa and down the east coast; there is no negative environmental impact.
  • There are no major costs to be borne by local communities, economic, environmental or social
  • Homestay and the rental market place no extra strain on stretched local authority services such as electricity, water supply and refuse disposal (although the latter doesn’t seem to be working that well)
Costs
  • owners of rented accommodation don’t pay tourist taxes
  • they are not registered; no-one knows how many there are
  • there is no real quality control beyond what TripAdvisor and AIR B&B can exert
Is it a threat?

So does  the hotel sector needs to worry? No of course not. Sri Lanka can offer world class tourist accommodation for those who want it; plus Colombo is set become a signicant business hub in South Asia so the growth of business tourism which depends on quality hotels is almost assured.

It’s just that not every one can afford the prices that some city centre hotels charge in Colombo for example.

(I could add from my experience that for the money sometimes the service could be a whole lot better, some hotel staff could be a little less “up themselves” but that is for another blog.)

Where it is possible to agree with the Hotels Association is that it is not a level playing field because the informal sector are mainly unregistered and do not have to pay the tourist tax and development levy paid by the hotel chains.

True but the owners do pay local and regional taxes; adding the other costs could simply cause them to raise their rentals to a level where they would not get business so thinking about applying these extra costs or banning the advertising of short term rental and homestay on the web (as has happened in New York for example) is not a step to be taken lightly.

That said there is a case for regulation to be introduced in homestay and private rentals to ensure quality and value for money.

Research needed

In the meantime there is very little data available on the growth of the informal sector at present and maybe it would be worth conducting research so that all concerned know what it is they are discussing.

So time to start asking questions;

  • Where do informal sector tourists stay ? In Colombo? Western Province? Or coastal areas? Maybe it would be worth finding out.

To judge by the Air B&B site much of it is in and around Colombo. If that is so then is it a bad thing? Getting more people to visit Colombo and stay for longer, not necessarily in the city centre can only be good for the economy.

  • Who are these type of  tourists; where do they come from?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do, where do they go what do they visit?
  • Why do they choose rental/homestay?
  • What about the owners/renters: who are they? What accommodation is being used and why?
  • How much money is it making for the owners?

As I wrote in an earlier blog; A Paradise Lost ; see https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/sri-lanka-tourism-is-it-just-a-case-of-re-branding/, my belief is that Sri Lankan tourism needs a balanced portfolio of investment; homestay and apartment rentals are.   a part of that, (as is mass tourism) because it has the value of bringing tourists much closer to an understanding of Sri Lankan life and culture.

After all, there is nothing better than hanging out around Water’s Edge on a Saturday night along with the thousands of families who come to chill, enjoy the street food , and relax over an affordable beer maybe.. and you don’t get to do that at The Cinnamon Grand

Boardwalk

 

Mini Hydro Schemes; threatening Sinharaja

 

In Sri Lanka large hydro power potential has been fully utilised. There is no space to add in more plus the existing schemes are multi purpose, providing necessary irrigation water especially to the semi dry and dry zones. And this places a further limit on the capacity of Sri Lanka to generate additional electricity from major H.E.P. schemes

However, there are opportunities for the development of privately owned small scale or mini hydro schemes which could add power to the national grid in Sri Lanka. The problem is that  these schemes are causing concern amongst environmentalists because they block streams and threaten the environment of fresh water fish and fragile riverine ecosystems.

The Energy situation

The Sri Lankan government has ambitious plans to achieve high rates of economic growth in the coming years. However, Sri Lanka barely generates enough energy to satisfy the demands both domestic and industrial right now. To make matters worse, existing power supply has been plagued by disruptions and power outages in the last few months.

Since coming online the thermal power station at Norochalai on the east coast has had several reported breakdowns including a fire, a leak, a trip and an instance where generation exceeded design levels, causing a shutdown. The most recent shutdown came in March when an explosion in a stepdown transformer caused an island-wide power outage.

It doesn’t help levels of confidence in the electricity generation system to read Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for power and renewable energy, Ajith Perera, saying that the plant had been built with “outdated” technologies and substandard materials.

Add in the continuing debate over whether the next thermal power station at Sampur should be built and it  is understandable that the authorities would consider  additions to the grid from  privately owned hydro electric power generation which is both clean and renewable.

Enter the mini hydroscheme

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream. Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law.

Mini-hydro-power-gra

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

Dam-built-on-Anda-Dola-c-Rainforest-Protectors

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

The advantages to the state seem obvious.

  • The south west of the island is an area of high rainfall so projects such as this provide a clean and renewable source of energy
  • the state is not involved in any outlay of funds but can simply opt to buy in power from the private company
  • the scale of the development is small which should minimise environmental impact

However, this form of clean energy comes at a cost;

  • alterations to the river flow have an impact  on the physical hydrology of the river changing the volume and velocity of flow downstream, changing the river load and so impacting river channel processes, often increasing erosion downstream of the dam
  • changes to the river have an ecological impact on both flora and fauna
  • there is often damage to the environment from trucks and during construction destroying pristine environments and habitats

Add to that the question of whether the state should be reliant on private companies for additional power generation when their  main motive in building these schemes is arguably profit above any other consideration, including the environment

Some tea estates up in the hills already operate their own private schemes providing power to the tea factories. Theses schemes are generally not taking place in environmentally sensitive areas and are not the focus of this article. What is of concern is applications to develop mini hydro schemes in environmentally sensitive areas such the Sinharaja rainforest reserve.

Case Study

The proposal to build a  mini hydro plant at a waterfall and beauty spot is posing a real threat to Athwelthota river; home to 39 freshwater species 19 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

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source Youtube

The Athwelthota is one of many rivers that flows out from the northern flanks of the Sinharaja rain forest reserve in southern Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is a world heritage site, and the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife, especially birds, but the reserve is also home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

forest reserve.tiff

source Google sites

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

If a mini hydro plant is built, some believe that  the change in flow will be a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat,

  • Different fish need different micro-habitats, . For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water.
  • But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely.
  • With flow changes the PH value of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.
  • Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,

In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams,  Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost,

Overall 37 projects are under consideration/construction; many in or on the boundaries of the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana,

Another project in the rain forest where 2.5km of concrete penstock has been constructed in the Dellawa district is also said to be “causing massive environmental destruction to the stream, the wildlife and the forest The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

and what impact might this have on tourism going forward.. not everyone wants to dump themselves on a beach for two weeks…

Final thought

Sri Lanka as a country is changing. With the new government there is a greater concern for the environment and a growing resistance on the part of environmentalists to the power of local politicians and businessmen who have been allowed to ignore the environmental laws of the country. It will be interesting to see how successful they are going forward.

In any case micro hydro schemes are not the answer to Sari Lanka’s growing energy problem. Put together they will not generate the additional power needed. Neither can the island continue to afford to import large amounts of oil to generate power.

Maybe that does mean going ahead with the Sampur coal fired power station in spite of all the objections. Or maybe the government and its foreign funding partners should be looking much more seriously at wind power and solar power as alternatives rather than dumping outmoded and dirty technology on an unsuspecting population.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful, as ever, to Malaka Rodrigo for allowing me to take much of the above from his excellent article: Mini hydros; clean energy comes at a high cost to nature featured in his blog: Window to Nature

You should also read his latest blog which is a follow u on the first one at

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

 

Rehousing the poor in Colombo; repeating the mistakes?

 

Slum clearance using compulsory purchase orders in 1950’s and 60’s Britain’s forced the urban poor out of their inner city homes  and into Hi-Rise apartment blocks .. a disastrous social experiment that went badly wrong. The recent forced evictions of the urban poor from their homes in Colombo is an uncomfortable echo of a policy that failed in the UK. Is it going to go wrong for Sri Lanka as well?

 A note on the UK experience

Slum clearance was very much a thing of the “50’s and “60’s. The target was inner city deprivation and local authorities used CDA acts and compulsory purchase (enforced eviction) to clear away poor quality inner city slums and, in many cases relocate the residents to large urban and suburban estates dominated by Hi-Rise apartment complexes.

The first of these tower blocks arrived in 1954 – housing  people forced out of their homes by law and made homeless by slum clearances.

What the residents of the inner city wanted was improvement to their properties; hot water, central heating, inside toilets, repairs, repainting and so on.

What they got were the “houses in the sky”  sometimes located well away from where they used to live. The old communities were broken up. Tower blocks became a focus for high levels of urban deprivation. The estates became synonymous with social breakdown, crime, drugs, litter and graffiti. Those who could, moved away and the tower blocks became beset with entrenched social problems:

  •  lone parents with little education and poor parenting skills,
  • child neglect,
  • domestic violence
  • low educational attainment and high levels of truancy
  • unemployment
  • poor relationships with the police.

inner city estate

The Haygate Estate in London; credit Andrew Sides

And where are these estates now? Many including the one above are now demolished and in their place low rise homes that people prefer to live in. Urban planning has recognised its mistakes and turned a full circle

new hulme

Hulme Manchester; credit John Lord

At the same time (in other parts Manchester for example) inner city housing  has been replaced by commercial and residential developments; not for the poor (they have been squeezed out to the periphery in places like Wythenshawe) but for those with money and a taste for city living. This is just one example; the Ancoats redevelopment on the eastern side of Manchester ; a place for the young upwardly mobile middle classes..(worth a google)

JS69450571

credit; skyscrapercity.com

Hindsight is a beneficial thing, of course. Although not available to the UK planners of the 1950’s is it an experience other countries could learn from?

The Colombo experience

Colombo doesn’t have large expanses of squatter settlement. What it does have is around 50% of its population living in underserved settlements scattered around the city. They are not all the same in terms of quality.. some are very poor but most have been improved in some way or other.

Most residents living in them are on lower incomes, and they  work close by or commute the relatively short distance into the city.

What they wanted for their homes probably was for basic services to be installed or improved in their settlements (see A profile of underserved settlements in Colombo) but for some, especially those who could not prove, or didn’t have title to the land their homes were built on they got something much different; although maybe not that much different from what happened to the UK urban poor 50 years previously.

The UDA policy.

In 2011 the government of the day embarked on a radical programme to rehouse the urban poor in Colombo.

The Plan

The plan was/is to re-house 70,000 slum dwellers in tower block complexes on 10 large sites around the city. In doing so the worst of the underserved settlements would be demolished and land freed up for commercial development.

What was on offer?

Phase One Urban Regeneration: Summary 2011 – 2015; involved

  •  70,000 USS households identified for resettlement
  • relocation of 68,000 households
  • 20 development sites around the city
  • units to contain flush toilets and showers, separate living and sleeping spaces, electricity
  • guaranteed ownership and title to land
  • household to remit money as lease/purchase .

The rent depends on the number of bedrooms; typically  between 4000 and 6000 rupees per month. Although seemingly low, for poor families who had previously paid nothing at all this amount is  considered by many to be too high.

images

A government housing project at Dematagoda on the east of the city

The  costs of the scheme were borne by Urban Development Authority  and property developers who would be given access the freed up land. To quote:

once the families were evicted… “60% of the lands currently under the urban sector shelters (USS), can be released to the urban real estate development market.. (the land) is liberated and disposed for the private sector based housing and/or urban development projects; (DBSJeyeraj.com)

To some this equates to a simple land grab, not too dissimilar to what happened in the UK.

On the one hand this was backed up by an offer of compensation to those who were to be displaced BUT for those who did not want to move they faced enforced eviction from their homes at the hands of the army special forces and the civil authorities.

What was the justification for rehousing the poor?
  • flood protection;

Colombo was for years prone to flooding. It is true that unofficial squatter settlements alongside the many canals added to the rubbish and debris already in the canals but this alone was never the cause of flooding. Heavy rainfall on a low lying, flat urban catchment, poorly maintained drains and storm water channels, and consequently nowhere for the water to go were much more significant factors. The flood hazard is now efficiently managed but by using a number of large lakes around the city which act as flood storage during the wet seasons.

  • city beautification

One of the key ambitions of the Rajapakse government was to develop Colombo as “The Garden City of South Asia”  and in doing so to improve the quality of there environment and help rebrand the city as an attractive place for investment.  ( see Progress but who is it for? ) A great deal of good work was completed in this respect in and around the city and the previous administration deserve credit for what they have achieved. But, for sure, the underserved settlements did not fit into this scheme; and slum clearance was the order of the day. The U.D.A. classified over 26,000 homes as slums in order to justify its demolition and resettlement programme;

Yet according to the Census of Population and Housing 2011; ,out of the 555,926 housing units in the Colombo District, only 7979 housing units fall under the category of “hut/shanty”. Of this, only 3691 housing units come under the Colombo DS Division.

  • uplifting the lives of the urban poor

For the very poorest there is not doubt that the government built residential blocks offered a real uplift in terms of living conditions, security, living space and sanitary arrangements. But the urban poor are NOT a homogenous group, nor are the underserved settlements all of the same uniform low quality.  (  see A profile of underserved settlements in Colombo ) Many were not living in conditions of total squalor..and many didn’t want to be rehoused. Over nearly four decades many residents have painstakingly invested in improving their homes. What they wanted was for services improved to their existing settlements.

For example, an on site of survey  homes  in the district of Borella prior to enforced eviction showed them to be  well-built—many with more than one floor—neatly painted and furnished with well appointed kitchens, bathrooms and toilets..

  • the families did not have title to the land their homes were built on; they were illegal

according to the CPA report published in 2015

“While some communities did or do occupy State Land, a fair percentage of households occupy private land that they have owned for generations and have the legal documents to prove it. However, is evident that not all communities are illegal occupants and in fact hold deeds dating back several decades. What most of them do have in common is that they all occupy commercially valuable land in the heart of Colombo”  and “even those who did not have full title also had a number of rights that accrued to them under the law of the land.”

The report goes on to say: “legal illiteracy of the affected communities meant that most residents gave up the land without realising that due process was not being followed and resigned themselves to the reality that they were no match for military intimidation.”

Problems ?

Taking all of that into consideration the fact is that a large number of families have ended up in the apartment blocks and what is depressing is that the litany of problems we saw develop with the tower blocks in the UK over 50 years is already emerging in Sri Lanka.

The common assumption that the apartments were gifted free to the poor is way off track.

  • those being evicted have to pay over a million rupees to the state over the next 20 years, including more than 1 lakh  (100,000 rupees) within the first 3 months,  irrespective of whether people have the deeds to their previous dwellings or not.
  • The majority are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

and the residents have many issues:

  1. Lack of Space: Each apartment is around 400 square feet and many of those who were relocated had houses that were twice as big and with space for more than one family.The ‘one apartment per house’ policy also resulted in some apartments where there are up to 14 people or more and that some families have been forced to live on rent, elsewhere simply due to lack of space.
  2. Cost of Utility bills: residents complain of irregular electricity bills and of very high charges for water; for example people who used to pay less than Rs 200 a month for water in their previous homes were now being given bills of Rs 5000 per month, and for some, even higher than Rs 10,000.
  3. Many residents have been used to carrying on their livelihoods form home. However, the lack of space is an issue as those who took on catering jobs, made large amounts of food items per day or did tailoring work for example, say that they just don’t have the space required. Many women say they can no longer engage in their previous work.
  4. Moving also meant that for many they now have to commute from the outskirts of Colombo back into the city centre. For a poor family even the cost of 10 or more bus journeys a week is too much.
  5. Children now live much further from their school. Some have had to change school. Some no longer attend school, and the pre school infants no longer have the choice their parents once could have expected.
  6. Many complain about the poor lighting and ventilation, the emergence of graffiti and the poor standard of maintenance; lifts which are slow or break down for example.

Possibly worst of all is the  break down of community cohesion. This again from the CPA report 2015

In the relocation process, there appears to be a deliberate attempt to break up the communities as communities are not allocated apartments adjacent to one another on the same floor. Apartments are allocated randomly which means that families from the same community are now living floors apart most often, and for some, buildings apart. This has meant a significant change in their every day routines – for instance securing childcare for households where both parents work. Given that the new apartments are quite a distance away from the schools, families have had to arrange transport to drop and pick up their children or accompany the children themselves, arrange for after school care at a relative’s or neighbour’s house- all of which incur expenses they did not have to bear in their previous accommodation.

The outcome is that residents don’t act as a community; no-one seems to have a sense of engagement with or responsibility for their surroundings. The informal controls that keep everyone in check are no longer in place. All of which is depressingly similar to the experience of the urban working class in the UK during the second half of the twentieth century.

The tower block estates in the UK and elsewhere were never a success, quite the reverse.They may have even contributed to the polarisation UK society. Many certainly became “no go” areas during the latter part of the last century. Whether the Colombo estates (for that is what they are) will go the same way remains to be seen.

Progress is coming for Sri lanka, and not before time , but the question remains; who is it for?

Recommended Reading: http://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/High-rise-living_report-FINAL.pdf

 

 

 

 

A profile of underserved settlements in Colombo

When it comes to developing world cities, Colombo is one example of a city that does not fit the usual text book models; no massive sprawling slums on the periphery of the city, no rampant in migration to the city and very few houses which could be classed as extremely poor.

 So terms like “squatter settlement” and “shanty” don’t really apply to Colombo.

A better term for low income settlements might be Underserved Settlements or USS; and underserved is a term that applies to the houses of the urban poor wherever you go.

Text book examples are helpful up to a point, but what students get are generalisations. What students need is hard facts from real examples, whilst understanding that what they see is the result of a set of circumstances which is some ways is unique to a particular country.

This is the first of two short articles looking at the situation of the urban poor in Colombo Sri Lanka. It focusses on the nature of the underserved settlements. Most of the information is taken from a report by the NGO Sevanatha ( featured in an earlier article )

Brief History  

According to the first census of population in 1871 the city Colombo had a population of just under 99,000. By 1911 this had risen to just under 200,000 and it rose steadily throughout the 20th century  at rates between 1.5% and 3 %.  It now stands at 642000. ( The Colombo district is of course much larger with the 2012 census putting the population at just short of 2,310,000.)

There was never a period of explosive growth or in migration.

According to the literature underserved settlements ( USS) in Colombo date back to the time of colonial rule when the British brought in workers from surrounding rural areas, and from India, to work in offices, factories and the port itself.

They were housed in Northern Colombo mainly in rented accommodation. These areas in what we will later call district 1 became a focus for new migrants entering the city. Over time the supply of housing began to lag behind the demand and so as the low income population continued to grow people began to encroach on marginal areas such as canal banks, along railway lines, in marshy areas and abandoned paddy fields.

Land was also set aside for new settlements in the East and South of the city.  For various reasons these settlements were never provided with basic urban services so jsut as with the USS in District 1 they remained lacking in basic service provision and that is the way things have remained.

Over the years there have been a number of improvement schemes. Even so, it is thought that around 50% of the population of Colombo city can still be classed as low income living in underserved settlements.

Sevanatha ; the survey

The NGO Sevanatha undertook a detailed survey in 2012 of all the USS in Colombo. In order to do that, the city was divided into a number of districts; see map below.

district map

Map 1: Enumeration Districts

Researchers from Sevanatha then visited all the USS in the various districts located them on a map and used a scoring system based on a range of poverty/deprivation indicators to classify settlements into one of 4 groups; see table below:

Score % Assessment Category Priority level
> 41 Extreme poor settlement needs immediate attention 1
41-60 underserved; needs improvement 2
61-80 upgraded; but can still be improved 3
< 81 fully upgraded 4
  • priority in this case means priority for improvement

and these are the types levels of service provision we are talking about

Priority 1: unauthorized settlement; houses are temporary, self built, lack of all basic services; water, electricity, individual toilets, proper access roads. In this case the railway line is the only access point. Typically there would be around 100 houses and 134 families living here.

d06-sri3-480

photo 1; railway settlement

Priority 2: this is an underserved settlement. Most of the community have freehold status. Around 75% of the houses are permanent; built with brick/cement block with tiled roofs. Most will have electricity but water supply, individual toilets/bathrooms will be lacking. There will br no connection to the main sewage system.. no proper access or internal road. Typically ther might be 50 families living here.

j09-sri1-480

photo 2

Priority 3; This is an upgraded settlement and it is much bigger; maybe 1500 houses and 3000 families and a population of around 6000. The land is owned by a government agency (National Housing Development Agency). The residents all have permits to live here. nearly all houses are of permanent construction; 80% will have electricity, and water meters and some of the inner roads will be paved. Many will have their own bathrooms.

type 3

photo 3

Priority 4: these are fully upgraded and are probably similar to lower middle class housing elsewhere in the city in terms of electricity supply, water connection, connection to the mains drainage, good standard access and inner access roads. These are often the oldest and most established USS in the city. This one has been in existence for over 30 years.

type 4 improved

photo 4

Low income housing  in Colombo

There are currently 1735 USS in Colombo, the majority of which are small; the following are the main points to note

  • 22% – under 10 houses
  • 32% – 10 – 20 houses
  • 30% – 21 – 60 houses
  • so 84% of USS have 60 houses or less;
  • only 5% of USS have more than 100 houses

When you look at the distribution of the settlements on map 2 below you can see that they are scattered throughout the city; however,

USS map

  1. there is a clustering of settlements in the north of the city  District 1, 2a and towards the Eastern boundary Districts 3 and 4
  2. Districts 1 and 2a hold 72 of the population and 74% of the USS
  3. there is a secondary cluster towards the South East District 4
  4. The western central area is relatively free of  USS District 2b and District 5
The data
  1. Settlement categories by district

Settlement Categories as a % of the total

Area Location total .houses Ex poor underserved upgraded full upgrade % total
1 North 382 0.8 10.7 51.0 37.4 22
2a Central 522 0.2 2.3 43.1 54.4 30
2b Central 376 0.3 5.6 75.0 19.1 22
3 Borella 264 0.4 6.1 56.4 37.1 15
4 East 131 0 3.8 56.5 39.7 8
5 West 60 0 13.3 31.7 55.0 3
total 0.3 5.9 54.4 39.3 100
  • So most settlements have been upgraded to some degree. Only 0.3% are the lowest level; priority 1.
  • The only district with significant numbers of priority 2 settlements  is district 1; the north of the city
  • Fully upgraded USS are similar to lower middle income households. if those are excluded the number of USS reduces down to 1053
  1. Land ownership in the USS   breaks down as follows
  • owned by occupants:             40%
  • owned by govt:                      32%
  • owned by CMDC                    16%
  • privately owned                      7%
  • unclear                                    5%
  • 22% possess user permit
  • 43% own the freehold
  • overall it is estimated that 57% of occupants do not enjoy security of tenure
  1. Housing conditions

more than 84% are classified as permanent

  1. Water/Toilets/Sewage
  • overall 41% of settlements have to make do with common toilets
  • 8% have no toilet facilities
  • 33% of USS have n0 metered water connection
  • 33% either use common facilities or rely on outside sources
  • 5% of communities are in need of safe drinking water and levels of service are rated as a serious problem in 8% of USS
  • 28%  of settlements of USS have serious problems in respect of safe disposal of sewage; only 50% are connected to the city’s sewage network
  1. Electricity supply

 most USS (98%) have electricity connection so not really an issue, BUT lack of street lighting is an issue for 34% of USS communities

  1. Garbage collection

15% of USS report irregular or no collection

author’s note: not sure how reliable this figure is; It is quite common to see mounds of garbage in the USS and there have been problems with garbage collection city wide over the last few years.

  1. Road conditions in settlements
  • 40 % have well maintained tarred roads/pavements with good width access
  • 41% have poorly maintained tarred roads
  • 19% do not have tarred roads
  • adequate drainage is non existent on 83% of internal roads leading to local flash flooding and waterlogging of internal roads

8.  Income levels

  • in only 22% of USS do the majority of households earn more than 20000 lkr (lkr is the sri lankan rupee; 200 to £)
  • in 50% of USS  2/3rds of households earn less than 20,000 lkr
  • overall monthly income in 63% of USS communities is rated as inadequate
  • in the majority of USS less than 10% are in receipt of samurdhi payments; (a kind of state welfare benefit forthe low income/unemployed)
  • in 15% of USS more than 50% of households are single parent households

Other points

  •  community based organisations do not exist in 83% of USS
  • 86% of USS don’t not have community centres
  • community savings programmes are only available in 8% of settlements;
  • there are only 23 setllements where more than 75% of households are engaged in community savings
  • 31% of USS are classified as being in high risk/vunerabilty situations.. particularly flash flooding
  • more than 60% of USS are in the municip[al rate paying category

what this means is that residents are not organised or empowered to negotiate with local or national government agencies to improve service provision and living conditions.

What do USS residents identify as issues and problems

  • need for connection to city sewage network
  • need for private toilets
  • lack of play spaces for children
  • 20% feel social environment could be better
  • 49% feel level of services is inadequate
  • common view is that there is no consultation with residents where major redevelopment schemes are concerned
  • low status and lack of legal identity of the USS makes it hard to enrol children in schools, getting service connections e.g. power and obtaining state benefits
  • where rehousing is concerned, 28% favour on site low rise development, and most wanted any future housing developmentt to take place within their USS

The view of Sevenatha is that these communities need to become  organised and therefore empowered, and to that end this NGO works with local communities to equip them to improve their local environments; see Sevanatha the work of an NGO

Conclusions

If you want to understand the nature of low income settlements in the developing world you need to understand that the conditions in which they grew up in each major city is to some degree unique. That makes generalisations about  low income settlements of limited value.

Most of the urban poor in Colombo have solved the basic need: shelter. Not only that, in many cases they have gone much further in terms of improving their individual homes although this has taken them a fair amount of time to acquire the funds to do it. This is a pattern you see across the developing world.

What has been lacking in Colombo is any real drive by the authorities to support the efforts of the USS residents by adding in mains water supply, connections to the sewage network, and improving access and internal roads.

Once again the residents have realised that they have to do this themselves which is why the efforts of  Sevanatha and the women’s cooperative bank  (see earlier article) have gained traction

next up:

The government response has been different.

I was around in the 1960’s in the UK when comprehensive redevelopment and slum clearance brought in the hi rise urban council estates.. and we maybe can reflect on how (un)successful that was..think of Hulme in Manchester, (thankfully now bulldozed away) for example.

Sadly the authorities in Colombo seem bent on making the same errors..so the next article is all about the current rehousing scheme or enforced resettlement depending on your point of view.. what, where, how and the likely impacts.

 

 

Challenges ahead for the Sri Lankan garment industry

Many see Sri Lanka as the next “tiger economy” in Asia. It is not hard to see why. The country has stabilised after the end of the conflict in 2009. Economic growth has been around 7% for a while now. However, exports have been in decline recently. In 2000, exports stood at 30% of the Gross Domestic Product. By 2014, it had gone down to 15%, indicating a reduction of 50% percent.
The issue is that the manufacturing sector is lagging behind, according to  the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. In his November budget statement he seemed also to suggest that the apparel industry should no longer be seen as the mainstay of the manufacturing sector, calling instead for a diversification which could include car assembly and car component manufacture as well as high tec manufacturing.

So where is the emphasis going to be? Well according to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe:

I see Sri Lanka’s economic future as a services hub;  a niche manufacturing destination to produce goods which plug into regional and global value chains, particularly light engineering; and a location for high-value agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables and dairy, both to service the rapidly growing tourism sector and for exports, especially, to the Middle Eastern and Indian markets”.

Exports need a boost and it seems that this is targeted to come from the development of “light engineering”, not something Sri Lanka has much experience of. So whether this will turn out to be a wise decision is something that will come out in the wash.

 An emerging economy

Sri Lanka has a lot going for it right now,  and the pre-conditions for strong economic growth look to be in place.

  • increasing political stability
  • the undoubted quality of the labour force,
  • high levels of literacy amongst the workforce
  • a strong business culture
  •  the emergence of a new breed of young ambitious entrepreneurs
  • a go-ahead government with ambitious plans to fast track growth and with  a clear vision for the future

So it isn’t that surprising that Sri Lanka plans to achieve an economic growth beyond 8% in the next three years.

The Megapolis project (see my blog posted 24/02) is a further example of the ambition of the current government as it seeks to leverage a number of locational advantages:

  1. Location; Sri Lanka is perfectly placed to come a transportation hub. It is equidistant between Europe and Far East,  on the major East-West shipping lanes and with easy access to lucrative Middle Eastern markets and rising African markets. India the major industrial player in the region is just 20 miles to the North.

lanak location

credit; sagt.lk

2. Improving trade relationships with its neighbour, India, with the EEC and the USA ( see the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement for example.)

3. High levels of support and investment from China

So where does that leave one of Sri Lanka’s traditional stars; the apparel industry?  Is it in danger of being ignored? What part, if any, will it play in the development of the new economy?

The garment industry has long been a standard bearer for Sri Lankan manufacturing. So what price it can make an increasing contribution to export performance and economic growth? The portents are not promising.
Prospects and Challenges for the Sri Lankan Garment Industry

A note on the role of the textile industry in the development process:

The textile industry often plays a part in the development process for a number of reasons

  • the technology is relatively accessible and affordable
  • there is a large global market to compete in
  • the industry is price sensitive so emerging economies with lower labour costs enjoy a comparative advantage
  • textiles/garments are labour intensive and create significant employment
  • the industry develops industrial/manufacturing skills in the labour force
  • it also makes use of existing skills in the population and draws on existing cultures

The garment industry is already a major industry in Sri Lanka; the question is how can it evolve to help drive the economy forward?

Some key facts

  • In 2014 Textiles and garments accounted for 44% of exports (Export Development Board (EDB) Sri Lanka) and 39% of industrial production
  • it employs nearly 1 million workers both directly (300,000) and indirectly (600,000)
  • the industry accounts for 1 in 5 of all industrial establishments in the country
  • In 2013, earnings from textile and garment exports were 4.5$billion  making it the highest foreign exchange earner
  • Exports to the EU and the US, the two main markets recorded annual growth of 6.8 and 21 percent respectively.
The World Bank View

Accounting for $4.4 billion of its exports, Sri Lanka’s apparel sector outperforms other South Asian countries in terms of quality, lead time, reliability,  social compliance and sustainability.  Although its apparel prices are higher than competitors, Sri Lanka produces more sophisticated products. As China gradually scales back its apparel manufacturingSri Lanka stands to gain market share, but currently not as quickly as some Southeast Asian countries.

However, In order to maximize its competitiveness, a new World Bank report recommends that Sri Lanka should:  

  1.  Enter into more trade agreements to help diversify export destinations for existing products, such as active wear and intimate apparel
  2. Expand into new products such as formal wear and high-end outerwear that require higher skills,
  3. position as regional apparel and textile trade hub taking  advantage of its infrastructure advantage
  4. Attract foreign investment through adopting clear investment policies, which currently remains at only 2 percent of GD Increase integration with South Asia and reduce tariffs for the import of man-made fibers, which accounts for 50% of Sri Lanka’s industry inputs, while encouraging domestic growth
  5. Promote industrial relocation
  6. Attract more female workers to relieve its labor shortages

The main players

The industry has some big players notably MAS Holdings and Brandix plus a number of small and medium factories make clothing for a number of global brands: the list is impressive: Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Next, Gap, Speedo and Tommy Hilfiger; and it supplies major supermarket chains such as Marks and Spencer and Tesco.

 

textile-industry-in-sri-lanka-7-638

The Location of the Industry

30% of all factories are located in Western province (around Colombo and Gampaha), especially the larger enterprises whilst the small and medium enterprises tend to be more dispersed. There is also a significant presence in the industrial export zones; see maps below

western-province-map

Western Province

source: Maps of the World

 

zones

Export processing zones

source: BOI Sri Lanka

The Garment Industry: a SWOT analysis

Strengths; 

  • location ; situated on the main sea routes is an attraction for manufacturers.
  • Availability of skilled labour, educated and trainable work force
  • Some of the most modern factories to be found anywhere in South Asia
  • a significant competitive advantage in terms of certain garment types: The lingerie, swimwear and sportswear segments, which require a high degree of skill and utilisation of advanced technical fabrics for manufacture, stand as Sri Lanka’s main apparel strengths.
  • ability to handle high volume orders
  • a reputation for quality short lead times and on time delivery; Sri Lankan manufacturers are now leading the way in terms of reducing  design – to needle – to delivery,  down to a matter of weeks rather than months: this from Sriyan de Silva Wijeyeratne, managing director and CEO of Textured Jersey Lanka.

“It is also about speed.  Brands are now moving towards fast and reactive fashion models. Where lead times were six months a few years ago, they are now six weeks. This makes supply chains much more compressed, and hence the challenge to be nimble.” This is where Sri Lankan companies expect to maintain their  advantage, thanks to a history of fulfilling orders to deadline for international brands and sourcing agents.

  • a reputation for conforming to the highest standards of working practices, working conditions and labour laws (although this last point has been challenged by two visiting EU commissioners recently).

see Daily mirror article 27/04

Listen here to Sami Bandara, general manager of a medium sized apparel company based in Colombo on the strengths of the industry

Weaknesses

  • Lack of marketing skills and a low level of marketing information, and knowledge about export marketing.
  • the need to import all raw textiles
  • high absenteeism and labour turn over.
  • availability of employment in other industries and foreign employment opportunities
  • too concentrated in Western province; needs to decentralise into rural areas, but a factory culture has not yet established among workers in rural areas
  • low labour productivity and Increasing labour cost
  • the absence of a growing “local” market in neighbouring countries which would provide an alternative or addition to the USA and Europe
Sami’s view on weaknesses

The labour leakage/shortage is a critical issue because it means that factories are working at maybe only 70-80% capacity. It makes meeting delivery targets that much harder. At present the leakage rate is anything between 3% and 7% per month depending on the company according to Sami Bandara

Sami again; this time on possible solutions

Cultural factors are at play here plus there is a stigma attached top working in factories. In addition women are harrassed on their way to and from work by men, which is both unpleasant and unnecessary. The long hours and often poor conditions in workers’ hostels are also factors which it seems discourages women from working in factories.

Opportunities
  •  re-instatementof GSP+ now looks to be a a strong probability. This will  allow Sri Lankan garment manufacturers to export to Europe without incurring taxes or quotas
  • the major players like Brandix for example look set to expand textile production in Sri lanka, thus reducing reliance on imported textiles. The country already supports four main fabric mills, with companies like Textured Jersey – a subsidiary of Brandix – having expanded regionally in recent years. and this is necessary because the GSP+ scheme mandates that apparel exports be manufactured using regionally sourced fabrics, meaning Sri Lankan garments made with fabric from major source markets in East Asia will not benefit from GSP+.

    A note: 

The EU’s “Generalised Scheme of Preferences” (GSP) allows developing country exporters to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU. This gives them vital access to EU markets and contributes to their economic growth. the standard/general GSP arrangement, which offers generous tariff reductions to developing countries. Practically, this means partial or entire removal of tariffs on two thirds of all product categories.

GSP plus: the “GSP+” enhanced preferences mean full removal of tariffs on essentially the same product categories as those covered by the general arrangement. These are granted to countries which ratify and implement core international conventions relating to human and labour rights, environment and good governance.

Threats

  • increasing competition especially in terms of lower labour cost from Bangladesh, Cambodia Laos and Vietnam Myanmar
  •  Sri Lanka’s labour costs are increasing at a faster pace than productivity
  • competition for labour with other emerging industries especially in Western Province ( see Prime Minister’s commets re manufacturing “mix”
  • the necessity to reduce lead time from the manufactures to the shop, and the distant suppliers’ inability to deliver the value added garments on time
Capturing the Niche Market
  • Large companies like MAS Holdings and Brandix are now moving to a complete integration of the manufacturing process where design, manufacture and packaging are all sourced “under one roof” which cuts costs but more importantly cuts down the time iot take sto bring new designs to market
  • They are also moving to establish own high quality brands
  • increasingly Sri Lankan companies are developing niche products which gives them a competitive advantage in the global market place

Sami’s company Textile Lanka occupy a specialised niche in the market which gives them a competitive advantage. Listen here for a run down of the way his business world

The Future

It seems inconceivable that Sri Lanka should ignore one of its most successful industries as it continues its march towards higher levels of prosperity. Hi Tec industry will come to Sri Lanka but as yet there is a shortage of highly trained and qualified personnel for the communications and IT industry. Similarly where are the engineers? Developing them will take time.

And in the meantime Sri Lanka needs to nurture is garment industry. However, where are the state of the art garment research institutes? Is there a college or institute specifically aimed at creating the next generation of marketeers and entrepreneurs? Should more emphasis be placed on developing home grown fashion designers and should fashion design be given greater status within the education system? How about a bringing major international fashion show to Colombo? Finally how about the government getting behind the industry both in words and deeds. The garment industry is a real “gem” that deserves recognition and support from senior ministers.

Solving the labour shortage is also a key issue. Quite why the industry has such a low status is a puzzle but a long term campaign to win the hearts and minds of potential workers needs to be undertaken. Perhaps TV programmes which don’t show the  industry in such a negative light will help, as would encouraging words from senior members of the government. In the meantime harassment of female workers has to be stopped.

Plus,  pay and working conditions need to be improved. Although many owners argue that they pay a competitive wage they may need to review  their approach. 27,000 rupees per month is not a high salary. If it was men and women would be clamouring to work in the factories rather than leaving in droves which is what seems to be happening. Sami argues that people driving tuk tuks would be better employed in the garment factories. However, if they can earn as much or more driving a tuk why would they work in a factory?

The garment industry has the capacity to evolve to meet oncoming challenges, and it will need to do so if it is to remain viable. The UK lost its textile industry 100 years ago because it did not move with the times. The same does not have to be true for the Sri Lankan garment industry.

Listen here to the full interview

Megapolis Colombo: the drive to create a new Global City

In an earlier post I looked at how Colombo was attempting to rebrand itself with the dual aims of becoming:

  1. The garden city of south Asia
  2. A world city

That was 2013 under initiatives led by the previous government. It is fair to say that a lot of good things were accomplished by the last government, and if you walk or drive around Colombo today you can see that a great deal has improved as a result. What is also noticeable, however, is that two of the keystone developments; Port City and The Lotus Tower, have ground to a halt.

Why? Well change of governments mean, quite often, a change in direction.

In 2014 a new president was elected and along with that the restoration of parliamentary, and after a year where not much has happened the Prime Minister Ranil Wickermasinghe, and the main government party the UNP have launched an ambitious new plan Megapolis which takes the concept of creating a global city much further than the original plan. Port City and the Lotus Tower project are to remain but the Megapolis plan promises much more.

But first.. what is a World City? How does a city, like Colombo, become a world city?

Well there are many links you can access to help you work that one out. I picked up this one from City Metric but there are many others; New Geography is also a good link;

The characteristics required to qualify for this label are simple enough: it’s all about (sorry, this is a horrible word) “connectedness”. To be a world city, you need

I like the Wikipedia definition because it is easy to understand and helps you evaluate a city quickly. So to be a world city, Colombo ideally needs to match the following;

  1. A variety of international financial services,notably in finance, insurance, real estate, banking, accountancy, and marketing
  2. Headquarters of several multinational corporations
  3. The existence of financial headquarters, a stock exchange and major financial institutions
  4. Domination of the trade and economy of a large surrounding area
  5. Major manufacturing centres with port and container facilities
  6. Considerable decision-making power on a daily basis and at a global level
  7. Centres of new ideas and innovation in business, economics, culture and politics
  8. Centres of media and communications for global networks
  9. Dominance of the national region with great international significance
  10. High percentage of residents employed in the services sector and information sector
  11. High-quality educational institutions, including renowned universities, international student attendance and research facilities
  12. Multi-functional infrastructure offering some of the best legal, medical and entertainment facilities in the country
How many of the above does Colombo score yes to?

1, 3, 4, 5 (yes to Port but major manufacturing?) 7 maybe, 9 partially, 10; no doubt some will argue for more but ranked against Singapore, KL, Hong Kong Colombo has a way to go.

Which is where the Megapolis plan comes in.

Setting the scene

Before the troubles Sri Lanka was set to emerge as possibly the leading player in the South Asian economic zone. Ok so 40 years on it has a lot of ground to make up BUT Sri Lanka has a lot going for it;

  • Location; look at where Sri Lanka is located; slap bang in the middle of the main trade routes around southern Asia; both maritime and airborne,and much better located than any of its Indian neighbours.

indian-ocean-sea-routes

source: chellaney.net

  • workforce; Sri Lanka has a skilled and literate workforce
  • education; the island also can boast high levels of education; the literally rate is 98%, one of the highest in Asia
  • strong entrepreneurial culture
  • key institutions in place: stock exchange, strong central bank
  • increasing political stability

The Megapolis plan aims to build on these strengths

Megapolis; the concept and plan

The plan is to create a large modern conurbation with Colombo at the core.

Within the grand plan focus is on modernization of the city and decentralization of industry to satellite towns plus zoning of activity; so creating major secondary growth poles.

In all 10 “mega projects” are planned covering transport, water supply, power supply waste management and housing together with zoning of development

Cost                             $20 billion

Time Scale                  30 years

  • Tourism hubs at Negombo and Avissawella
  • Industry Hubs at Mirigama and Homagama
  • Aero/Maritime hub; Colombo – Katanayake in the north; global transport and logistics and trading Centre
  • CBD growth which will incorporate Port City; international trade, finance commercial devt, high end residential devt and tourism
  • A science and technology hub to the east of Colombo at Malabe and further out at Homagama

images-1

source; daily news.lk

and for Colombo  the proposal includes

  • business centres in the financial districts around Pettah,
  • a cruise centre,
  • a marina and waterfront promenade, which will eventually be developed into a harbour front district.
  • The project also includes a recreation and entertainment district around Beira Lake
  • a shopping complex district around Slave Island.

Unknown

source: Sunday Times.lk

Why

  1. Megapolis is envisaged as a focus for economic growth for the country: a growth pole if you like, with the benefits of growth trickling down to the rest of the country
  2. To deal with major problems eg congestion, movement, waste management, power supply,
  3. It will provide the wholesale modernization of infrastructure needed to create a “global” city;

The key goal is to transform the entire Western Province by:

  1. improving/developing essential infrastructure, such as ICT, transportation, communication, power and energy
  2. creating “the most exciting and liveable cosmopolitan modern city with an all inclusive development plan spanning more than three decades.”

According to the project details, the proposal also includes a comprehensive plan to address the shelter needs for Colombo’s shanty-dwellers. A multi-storied housing complex for both low and middle-income families has been proposed with the assistance of experienced architects and town planners of a Singaporean firm named CESMA. ( sounds a lot like the Singaporean HDB developments ) This is Bukit Batok public housing in Singapore. Is this the future for the urban middle/lower income groups in Colombo?

Bukit Batok Public Housing Singapore; credit Wikipedia
photo credit Wikipedia

 

The initial plan maps out a detailed long-term development project estimated for a population of two million.

The Smart City

The WRMP does not end with improvements of conventional physical connectivity but will encompass making the cities within the region, Smart – Digitally Smart.

The aim is to  bring Colombo into the 21st century; big time by providing business and the community with;

  • Smart parking,
  • an integrated transport system,
  • real-time traffic information and management,
  • smart power grids to provide the necessary amount of electricity depending on the demand, which will increase the efficiency of utilization,
  • smart street lighting,
  • smart city maintenance and many other modern technology-related characteristics will be incorporated by primarily the enterprises, which will operate or provide services within the WRMP area.

Obstacles

But there are significant obstacles to overcome

  • Funding; it is easy to say it will be funded by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) but harder to pull it in, and at what cost both in terms of economic and political independence?
  • Planning framework strikes me as still being quite weak on skills and expertise; there is a major need for investment in training the next generation of town planners
  • Much of construction technology will have to be imported along with the hardware and possibly skilled labour
  • Political stability is not guaranteed: there is a strong opposition which still attracts significant support and which could  get back into power: so all of this could change. If so would this be discouraging for potential FDI?
  • Culture/attitudes maybe will need working on; corruption and a grindingly slow bureaucracy  at all levels are still an issue.. will put off potential investors?
  • Education and skills levels in the country need to be upgraded especially in IT, finance and so on
  • The country has lost significant numbers of skilled and educated  people to Canada, Australia, UK and Europe; can they be persuaded to return?
Implementation

The implementation of this flagship project is to be entrusted to a newly formed ministry backed by a  professional team of Sri Lankan advisers and supported by government legislation.

The Colombo Port City Project,  The Lotus Tower and the commercial developments along the Galle Face frontage (Colombo One) are already in place. (see earlier blog) and it is hoped that this will attract a large number of foreign investors to buy, lease or rent the business and residential facilities to be created under this Colombo Port City Development.

So many of the original developments proposed by the previous government have been assimilated into this plan and will give the project a useful “kick start”.

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has the potential to become a major transport hub and financial centre but questions remain:

Final Questions
  1. Will it ever happen, or is it as one newspaper put it, just another pipe dream? A sure sign of intent would be for the Port City development to recommence but as yet that isn’t happening.
  2. Exactly who will benefit; will the 50% of Colombo’s population even notice any real difference apart from being relocated to high rise apartments. Or is this a development scheme to benefit the wealthy and well placed?
  3. And what about the rest of the country; exactly how will it benefit? How will the benefits of economic growth pan out for the other provinces? In the UK we have seen how damaging the dominance of London is to the rest of the country. Will Colombo just become another primate city dwarfing the rest of the country and will that lead to another round of migration to the city region? If so how will Colombo cope?

Sampoor Power Station; dead in the water? environmental impact case study

The Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy has decided not to go ahead with the construction of the Sampur Coal Power plant, see Daily Mirror report 14/09 in what many will see as a victory for environmentalists. 

In November 2015 The Sunday Times also reported that the new power plant earmarked for Sampur near Trincomalee was a non starter. The main reasons given were that:

  • the plant has failed to meet the Environmental Impact Assessment criteria laid down
  • Sampur has been earmarked for 800 returning IDP Tamil families (internally displaced persons) who do not wish to see a large power station built on land so close to them.

On the face of it you can see why.

The Sampur plant

The proposal is to build a 500 megawatt coal fired power station on the east coast at Sampur across the bay from Trincomalee.

Trincomalee.8

Trincomalee: Location

SM71812

source: Ministry of Power

The power station is proposed to be built on 500 acres of land currently sectioned off as a high security zone by the Sri Lankan Navy but was formerly land belonging to the local Tamil population driven from their lands during the final months of the war which ended in 2009.

It will be a joint venture with the National Thermal Power Company of India using low grade coal imported from India.

The Case against 
  1. Damage to the marine environment of Shell Bay: Shell Bay is home to 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates including the rare giant clam. The Mahaweli Ganga ( river) also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

1357318175_0!!-!!Hikkaduwa coral reef

Negative impacts will likely include the following:

  • when operational the discharge of cooling water from the power station will raise the water temperature of Shell Bay by 4 degrees celsius; sufficient to result in bleaching of the coral which will then die
  • contamination of the water from sulphur. and mercury as a result of the burning of coal
  • chlorine  will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a major impact on the food chain

2. Air Pollution

If the plant uses imported Indian coal (coal with a high ash content) then engineers suggest that significant amounts of air pollution will occur locally resulting in:

  • acid rain (from nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide  carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere)
  • significant amounts of ash/dust particles and unburnt hydro carbons which can cause lung damage
  • ash and sludge which will have to be buried in large landfill sites

3.  Social Issues

The new government have already begun the proceed of resettling tamil families back into the Sampur area and, as the Sunday Times recently pointed out:

“the unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.” ...

… not without reason you might think.

It is also suggested in some areas that the land set aside for the plant in fact belongs to displaced families and so should not be used for industrial development.

4.  Political Issues

  • The Tamil National Alliance are firmly against the project and see this ( the high security zone) as an a attempt to keep out the Tamil population. They allege:

” a hidden agenda to the project to permanently evict Tamils from the Muttur east region.”

  • The restoration of lands taken from the Tamils features high on the agenda of many external governments,
  • At the same time  Sri Lanka is under pressure from foreign governments to show it is making progress in this aspect of post war reconciliation and in the field of human rights

So for these reasons it was politically expedient to reconsider siting the plant at Sampur.

5.  Power exports

Some of the power would have been sent via a new grid to Southern India; Sri Lanka would not get the full benefit of the new generating capacity although it would suffer all of the disadvantages outlined above.

So you might think the case against is overwhelming. But it is not that simple

The Case For
  1.  Sri Lanka needs power

The Sri Lankan economy is growing at around 7% annually; fairly impressive when compared to the  low growth economies of the developed world. However, continued growth in the manufacturing and business sector is going to drive up energy demand, particularly electricity demand. Some are even predicting that Sri Lanka will be in energy deficit by 2017.

current projections (see page 282) suggest that electricity demand is likely to increase by around 5% per annum but meeting this target may prove difficult and expensive given that the Island is not self sufficient in terms of energy production.

The country has no domestic production of coal, crude oil, or natural gas, and as a result all the fossil fuel demand is met through imports.

At the moment that means oil which now accounts for just over 50% of power generation.

BUT relying on oil-fired power comes at a heavy price pushing up the cost of electricity to the consumer.

(How lucky then that the recent fall in oil prices allowed the government to reduce electricity prices and the cost of petrol.. trouble is it won’t last. Prices will go up again!)

Sri Lanka needs to move from a dependence on imported oil is an urgent issue for Sri Lanka’s power sector to address, but options are limited:

  • hydro electric power is already at close to full capacity
  • nuclear power as an option is not under serious consideration yet and in any case would be way too expensive and take too long to get up and running
  • solar/wind/geothermal/wave power; are all in their infancy

Which means the only viable option for developing large “base line” energy supplies in the short term, is to build new coal fired power stations.

So far one major plant has been built on the west coast at Norochchalai which will generate around 17% of Sri Lanka’s energy.

 

Noracholai_3

The Norochchalai  Power Plant

However it won’t be enough; That is why the Government entered into an agreement with  to build a large 500 mega watt power plant at Sampur near Trincomalee.

2. Cost:

It is argued that the current site incurs the lowest development cost; environmental protection and pollution mitigation measures plus consideration of alternative site would add to the cost already standing at $512 million

3.  Politics

The the Sri Lankan government agreed to partner an Indian company in the development of this power project. It has already “disappointed” the Indian authorities by not co-building the Norochchalai complex with them but going with the Chinese design and build. Reneging on this agreement could further damage relations between the two countries

Something has to happen

The question is: what happens now? Sri Lanka cannot build sustainable economic growth on the back of rising oil imports, nor can it squeeze more energy from existing renewables like HEP.

Nuclear power is not an option either.

That leaves wind and solar as alternatives, unless of course the government simply decide to build a coal fired plant somewhere else (maybe less environmentally sensitive?)

The energy clock is ticking and if the plant is not going to be built in Sampur, energy will have to come from another source; and with major growth projects such as the Megapolis plan for Western Province already under way the decision on how to generate more energy needs to come soon.

 

 

Welcome to Geo Sri Lanka: case studies for A level geographers

Hi, my name is Phil Brighty. The title for the blog Geosrilanka comes from the fact that I lived and worked in Colombo  for nearly 7 years, and came to really love the country and its people. You will find case studies focussed on geographical  issues in a developing country: Sri Lanka. Up until recently South Asia has been a neglected are for study; however, it is a rich area for study geographically and,  just as importantly, offers new material for students. As a teacher I was always on the lookout  to get away from the same old examples everyone uses…which is why I set up this blog. I hope you find the case studies useful.

List of articles; click on this link to see the full range of  articles

Dengue in Sri Lanka:
Dengue fever in Sri Lanka is reaching epidemic proportions: check out the latest Dengue update.

Apart from Geosrilanka I write mainly for for GeoFactsheets.. However, I have also published in The Geographical Review, and Geofile Online.

Before that I was Head of Geography at The Sixth Form College Colchester and then was based at Colombo International School as HOD and Head of Secondary School. In the past I have been an A level examiner for OCR, AQA and also an examiner for IB diploma geography.

 Fieldwork in Sri Lanka;

Sri Lanka is a great place to undertake fieldwork for A level geography..most places are accessible and value for money; plus for students it can be the trip of a lifetime because with careful planning they get to experience what regular tourists never can:

If you are interested click on the live link above to find out more..

Feedback; would love to have some

What would be interesting to know is how people are using the case studies..are students being referred to the site? are teachers using them in class or as research and prep for lessons?

The blogs are very much summaries of often large numbers of links, websites etc. If anyone wants to know more, wants help with resources, especially with Sri Lanka in mind, then I would be happy to respond.

There is an opportunity to comment so do send comments in and I will put them up.

Stop Press: Just added

Making sense of the Sri Lankan monsoon

Dengue Update; dengue cases could top 150,000 this year!

Colombo Garbage Dump Collapse

The Indian Ocean Monsoon part 1: is the monsoon becoming less predictable?

Plus 2 articles have been updated

Dengue Update

Challenges ahead for the Sri Lankan Garment Industry

more… 

Next Up: 

The Monsoon, Drought and Global Warming in Sri Lanka; prospects and problems

 

Colombo; progress but who is it for?

Colombo is modernising fast, and many would argue ; not before time.  In 2010 although the Sri Lankan economy started to grow rapidly in economic terms at least Colombo was not pulling its weight.

A lack of inward investment was the main cause and the reasons for that were fairly obvious. The image of Colombo was a negative one. Colombo was a city:

  •  prone to flooding,
  • suffering increasing levels of traffic congestion and chronic air pollution;
  • with garbage choked waterways
  • with high levels of deprivation and relative poverty often focussed on the pockets of underserved settlements you can still find all over the Colombo
  •  that looked “down at heel” and in need of a major makeover
  •  that seemingly went to bed by 8pm
  • with a very limited home domestic market and a small tourist base

and of course this was a country still emerging from a brutal period internal conflict.

Contrast this with the glitz of the major Asian cities; KL, Singapore and Hong Kong and it isn’t hard to see why  foreign companies were not too keen to come to Colombo given a commercial environment typified by an out of date and unattractive  commercial environment a shortage of land, and lack of modern business facilities in the city.

Garden city

Not surprising then that the last government saw the need to “rebrand” Colombo as it embarked on a major regeneration exercise, post 2010.

This is what Gotabaya Rajapakse had to say in  2013:

The focus is on developing clean, green, people friendly cities and towns that will foster an efficient working environment and a relaxed living environment….conducive for knowledge workers and other professionals to live and work in Sri Lanka. (who) expect to maintain a high quality of life for themselves and their families…. it is also extremely important from the perspective of attracting Foreign Direct Investment.”

Out of this was borne the concept of The Garden City of South Asia with its emphasis on greening the city, opening up urban spaces and creating high quality recreation spaces such as at Waters Edge.

z_p-18-Restaurants-01-1

7-copy

pics taken from Sunday Observer

A lot of good came from this.

  1. Flooding ( a regular problem) has been brought under control and the cities drains and spillways have been improved.
  2. Canal sides have been cleared of the sprawling and messy underserved settlements and the rubbish that piled up within them. Beira Lake has also been cleaned up.
  3. Garbage collection improved and the environment generally got a lot better. Colombo in 2014 was a lot cleaner city than London that’s for sure.
  4. The city has at last got properly paved sidewalks; there is even a degree of traffic taming in some parts of the city.
  5. Ugly walls have been knocked down and the city space is opening up.
  6. Major landscaping along the Diyawanna river,  at Waters Edge and in other locations around the city make for high grade recreation space that everyone can use.
  7. City nightlife is on the up; The Dutch Hospital complex and the multiplex cinemas, bars and up market eating places are evidence of growing investment in leisure within the Sri Lankan community.
  8. Many beautiful old historic buildings have been restored to their original glory; none better than the town hall and the old auditor general’s building.
  9. Independence Square is an attractive urban area used by many and Viharamadhevi Park has been turned into a beautiful open space.

IMG_4222-600x400-1

credit: YAMU

So there are many positives and the plans go far beyond the simple environmental uplift the city has enjoyed.

Projects

Ambitious projects like Port City, The Lotus Tower, Krrish Square, the Galle Front Shangri La development  are planned to shoot Colombo into the 21st Century.

note; you can find videos of all of these on U tube via google

The image of Colombo as a vibrant modern city is one that has been promoted; and why not after so many years of hardship?

Clearly government policies are driving this development  but there are other forces at play.

  • you could argue that there is  an emerging middle class with more money to spend and the ambition to live in a more modern city
  • at the same time we live in a global world; TV and the cinema, facebook contacts with friends and relatives living abroad, and holidays abroad; all of that serves to make people aware of what the cities of Singapore, KL and Hong Kong have to offer.. and they want to have a slice of that.. all of which is quite understandable.

However, the major force at work is commercial pressure.

As I wrote at the top of the article  the government believed in 2013 that Colombo needed to attract a great deal more inward investment.

The idea goes.. attract in investment (mainly from abroad) which will drive up tourism, and possibly increase the presence of multi national companies, retail chains and the like locating to Colombo..the development will open up business opportunities, and create jobs which will trickle down to the rest of the city  in terms of jobs and per capita income; everyone benefits.

But do they really or is it a few well placed individuals and foreign corporations who will take most of the rewards from whatever growth occurs?

True, everyone in Colombo benefits from better roads/pavements, more green spaces and a cleaner environment but how relevant are the proposed commercial developments in downtown Colombo to the average joe?

The fact is that around 50% of the Colombo population is on low incomes; the average urban income ( which takes into account all the high earners in the city) is only just over Rs 60,000 whilst outgoings are around Rs 50,000 and that is with at least 2 and maybe more in the family working. (In fact the median income; the most common income, is just Rs 30,400 per month)

So  once rent/ food etc are taken into account what else is left and how many visits to enjoy the high life in Colombo can you make? ( see 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey)

Port City is justifiably a source of some national pride even among the lower income groups BUT how relevant to them is Port City and all the other developments in downtown Colombo?

Port City (if it ever gets finished) is not really for Sri Lankans is it? The only low income people in Port City will be the tuk and taxi drivers or the housemaids. the same goes for all the hotel developments; This is also true of the new shops and restaurants in the old Auditor General’s building close by Independence Square. They are lovely buildings but how many local people can afford to visit the shops and restaurants there? They are for tourists both business and recreational; something for them to spend their money on.

So is it a case of two Colombo’s are being created: one for the rich, mainly wealthy foreigners and one for the rest?

Not that Colombo is alone in this regard. It is pretty much the same in all the world’s major cities.

Forced evictions; the ugly face of beautification

Commercial pressures were also behind the forced evictions of large numbers of families from the underserved settlements under the guise of urban regeneration and beautification. In all it was planned to evict 65,000 families; around a quarter of a million people and relocate them in high rise blocks like this one:

Mihindu_Sethpura_mega_housing_20131118_06p2

this from the Centre for Policy Alternatives second report:

The rush to relocate communities to high-rise apartments was not done with the uplifting of people’s lives foremost in mind, but with the intention of freeing up property with high commercial value. What made the Urban Regeneration Project of the Urban Development Authority more problematic was the means used to acquire land. Military force, intimidation and harassment were used to evict people from their homes and the process did not follow Sri Lanka’s laws related to land acquisition.

Communities… face many hardships. Residents are forced to pay Rs 1 million for the apartments over a period of 20 – 30 years. They are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

Winners and losers

A common concept that has been used in geography over many years is that  whenever economic/commercial development takes place there will be winners and losers.

If London is anything to go by the future for Colombo’s lower income groups is bleak. Ongoing development will most likely result in soaring land values; the lower income groups will be priced out of the city and forced to the edge of the city from where they will face an expensive commute back into the city to their place of work. Central London has already been bought up by rich foreign investors who in some cases have bought property with no real intention of living in it; just an investment. The average worker can’t afford to live in London now. Prices in restaurants and bars are obscene in some cases.. and so it goes on.

The accepted view (at least amongst governments and politicians ) is that the capital city drives the economy. London has become a monster dominating the whole of the UK; London is not a place for Londoners these days. Colombo will go the same way.

Note 1

The drive to Singapore style development has taken a step further with the launch of the government’s Megapolis plan. This is really an extension of the Port City, Skyscraper City concept mentioned before in this article. It is a grandiose plan; you can check it out via the Sunday Times (Lanka) report at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110918/News/nws_19.html

Initial thoughts:

  • It relies totally on foreign direct investment; so where is it going to come from and with what strings attached?
  • how much of the existing architectural heritage will be retained?
  • What will happen to Slave Island and Pettah? I am betting those vibrant multi-cultural communities will be broken up and their residents forcibly evicted
  • what will we be left with? Singapore glitters but it is soulless..is that really what Sri Lankans want..
  • how if anything will it change the lives of the majority urban poor/middle income groups.. who will only be able to afford to stand and stare
  • how much of any growth will trickle down to the Sri lankan people?

Colombo is a fascinating, and in places, beautiful city but much of it will be buried by this project and in terms of the country as a whole I wonder what real good it will bring.

How relevant will Colombo really be to people in the rest of the country? Are the policy makers in ganger of creating 2  countries: Colombo and the rest?

Finally will Colombo become such a magnet for growth and development that it becomes a true primate city dominating every aspect of Sri Lankan economic life and what effect will that have on the rest of the country?

Note 2

There is another view of city life though which is worth a look; check out the vision of Jan Gehl on U tube who believes that city growth and regeneration needs to be organised around the needs of people as much as economic priorities.