Colombo, Sri Lanka

by Sevanatha


Slums came into existence with the expansion of export trade associated with the rubber boom after World War II, especially during the Korean War in 1953. The character of Colombo changed in keeping with the new economic demands for warehousing, workers’ housing and road networks. Colombo became more congested and the city elite moved out into more spacious residential areas in the suburbs. The central part of Colombo became characterized by predominantly low-income residential areas, mainly slums, and the northern and eastern parts contained most of the shanties. Slums and shanties are the most common types, with slums on the high lands of the old city that consist of the oldest low-income housing – mostly from the 1930s and with a definite legal occupancy status. Shanties along canal banks and road reserves have emerged since
independence in 1948 onwards, and consist of unauthorized and improvised shelter without legal rights of occupancy of the land and structures.

Although there are no formal definitions as such, four
categories are recognized:

Slums: these are old deteriorating tenements or subdivided derelict houses. The slum tenements, built mostly of permanent materials, are very often single roomed and compactly arranged in back-to-back rows. The occupants have a definite legal status of occupancy.

Shanties: these consist of improvised and unauthorized shelter, constructed by the urban squatters on state or privately owned land, without any legal rights of occupancy. The areas are badly serviced and very often unsanitary.

Unserviced semi-urban neighbourhoods: these are badly serviced residential areas in the suburban areas of Colombo and secondary towns. One difference from the squatter areas is that residents of these settlements have definite legal titles, and the sizes of the plots are relatively larger than the shanties.

Labour lines: these are derelict housing areas that belong to the local authority or government agencies, and that are occupied by temporary or casual labourers. These settlements are in an unsanitary and derelict condition due to lack of maintenance over a long period of time.

About half of the urban poor have no security of tenure (unauthorized occupation or user permit only), 37 per cent have freehold and 13 per cent have leasehold.

Under the impacts of strong political will and effective housing improvement, regularization, community development and self-help efforts, the growth of slums and shanties has been brought under control, and clear impacts have been made in improving the general housing conditions
of the urban poor.

Close to half of Colombo’s urban population consists of communities that have been living in inadequate housing conditions for many years, and 16 per cent of the urban poor depend on poverty-relief assistance. Most economically active slum dwellers are unskilled workers or petty traders or hawkers. Youth unemployment rates are around 60 per cent, and some 20 per cent of households receive public financial assistance. All slum dwellers are subject to serious discrimination.

Prior to 1970, there was minimal government intervention as the housing of the poor either concerned private owned or illegal property. Between 1970 and 1977, the government recognized and took action regarding the housing issues of the urban poor, including interventions in ensuring housing rights, direct housing construction and the provision of tenure rights. Between 1978 and 1994, a shift from provision towards enabling, recognition of the role of local authorities, promotion of community participation, and self-help and establishment of nation-wide housing programmes occurred. In this period, the One Hundred Thousand Houses, the One Million Houses and the 1.5 Million Houses programmes were established with strong political support from the central government. The post- 1994 period saw interventions including the private sector in housing provision, urban renewal programmes and urban settlements improvement programmes.

The principles of the One Million Houses Programme clearly promoted an enabling environment (legal, institutional, financial and technical support) for people to improve their own houses. In particular, the institutional mechanism created by the government to implement the national housing programmes was very effective. The establishment of the National Housing Development Authority under the Ministry of Housing and Construction, with district offices of the authority for each administrative district of the country, and the linking of programme activities at local level through urban and rural local authorities, were notable initiatives in this context. Bottom up information flow and decision-making processes were encouraged. Numerous shanty settlements have been regularized and improved, and very few shanties have been built in Colombo over the past 20 years.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh