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Towards a World Class Colombo Development Without Democracy

Towards a World Class Colombo Development Without Democracy

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Published by Thavam

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Published by: Thavam on Jul 11, 2013
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June 16, 2013,
Today, we invite The Collective for EconomicDemocratisation in Sri Lanka to shed some light on Sri Lanka’s post-warurban development and its implications for the wellbeing of the public. TheCollective for Economic Democratisation strives for a historically groundedand socially relevant political economic analysis in solidarity withprogressive struggles. Its articles and other resources can be found onwww.economicdemocratisation.orgBy the Collective for Economic DemocratisationColombo’s urban development is driven by the idea of transforming it intoa "world-class city" and a "preferred destination for international businessand tourism", according to the Secretary, Defence and UrbanDevelopment.Therefore, many of the Urban Development Authority’s (UDA) initiatives,apart from those related to flood control or road improvements, havefocused on enhancing the image of Colombo by building urban landscapesand spaces for consumption that are ‘world-class’, such as the DutchHospital and the Race Course, and providing sweeping incentives to realestate corporations and investors to build luxury apartments and hotels.What is the place of the poor in a world-class metropolis?A key question that arises is what is the place of the poor in a world-classmetropolis? Currently, the Western Province, the most urbanised in SriLanka, is not only the most prosperous but is also home to the highestproportion of Sri Lanka’s poor.The spiraling costs of living and lop-sided and non-inclusive growth willprovide Colombo with more cheap labour to serve the elite. This is alreadyevident from the number of the city’s poor and elderly who now work longhours under adverse terms for private contractors keeping the streets
clean.Over the next few years around 70,000 families, largely from poor low-income communities from the inner city areas, are to be displaced andrelocated, freeing up prime land for commercial exploitation.There has been little public discussion and scrutiny, let alone the activeparticipation of these communities, in deciding on the need for, or thegoals and terms of relocation, which will have profound implications fortheir rights and well-being.Bringing the UDA under the Ministry of Defence was indication enough thatthe urban development agenda did not include democratic and accountablelocal governance.Rather than address shortcomings on the accountability and effectivenessof the Colombo Municipal Corporation by deepening democraticparticipation, the UDA, backed by the enormous human and technicalresources of the military, has effectively sidelined it, and with it, localdemocracy itself. When the military does the work of the municipality, it isnot just the physical but also the political landscape that is altered.While hundreds of millions of dollars of loans are being contracted withmultilateral and bilateral donors, including for projects that are merely of symbolic value, like the Lotus Tower project, there has been littleinvestment in substantially enhancing public transport, upgrading lowincome settlements and quality low-cost social housing. The latter moreoften than not comes with forced relocation and is driven not by a vision of safeguarding rights and entitlements but of freeing up lands forcommercial exploitation and investment.Current development plans such as Mahinda Chintana propose to create amarket for "pro poor" loans.The attempts to resettle communities are to be matched by offeringcollateral and housing loans to displaced residents.These loans tie into the broader attempt to incorporate the poor intoofficial banking institutions, while a seemingly benign goal of development,such transformation of housing finance is also connected to removing land
market restrictions for commercial developers.The state tenancy and land development laws are being revoked orreshaped in order to promote the private market. In a context of pre-existing inequalities, the market differentially benefits those with access topower and privilege. Thus in a certain sense the poor are being asked toparticipate in the very mechanisms of their dispossession.The spate of high profile land deals involving global investors and capital isbeing touted as a sign of development and a promise of prosperity tocome.However, it is well known that urban real estate is but a temporary parkingplace for speculative capital, which in the long run creates instability andpotential for crisis. Successive financial crises, including the most recentone of global proportions, have been connected to the bursting of realestate bubbles.Moreover, even market insiders are expressing skepticism over possibleoversupply of high-end real estate with a number of overpriced projectscoming on the market at the same time. However, even if demand is borneout, the crucial question is whether this is a sustainable path to inclusiveurban development?Military-Market nexusThe current trajectory of urban development in Sri Lanka cannot bedisconnected from the military-market nexus, which is narrowing the spacefor rights while expanding the footprint of market and financial interests.In such a context, claiming the right to the city is central to the struggle toreclaiming social and economic democracy in Sri Lanka.None of this, of course, in a certain sense is "new." Historically, fromcolonial times to the recent neoliberal decades, problematic political andeconomic transformations have had a major impact on the development of Colombo. In 1978, the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC)was created along with the National Housing Development Authority andthe Urban Development Authority. Under the GCEC, Sri Lanka became oneof the first countries in South Asia to establish Export Promotion Zones,which promoted tax incentives for foreign companies in the interest of 

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