Thursday, May 20, 2010

Living in unauthorized places – a possible resolution to an age old problem - a current topic due to the flooding related displacements

There are many people who live on land illegally, some of whom have deeds that are fraudulent but they don’t realize they are fraudulent as lawyers have provided them with false deeds. People live and squat on land that are usually parts of river, canal, sea, road or tank reservations, and therefore do not have legitimate deeds. The Govts. over the years have ignored this, as no one wants to incur the wrath of these people, who will either ask to be re-housed or be provided with alternative accommodation. As elections loom, they are even given water and electricity, in return for a vote. We in Sri Lanka have a ridiculous system where electricity and water services are supplied to unauthorized and illegal constructions, like my neighbors who live on a river reservation in Polonnaruwa, while I don’t have and find difficult to get electricity to my property, which I lawfully occupy.

This issue is timely due to the recent floods. Many people living on such lands have suddenly lost their homes to the raging waters, and are seeking help to be re-housed, or have their homes rebuilt. It is simply nonsensical to have them rebuilt in the same location, as a reservation is made just for this occasion in case of flood, and accordingly should not be occupied. In many cases people have lived for generations and are loathe to move. When the Tsunami struck, many people were re-housed inland elsewhere in homes built for them. They then rented out those homes, and moved back into temporary homes built in the very places where their homes washed away. Look at the line of homes in the Moratuwa, Koralwella area for example. It is because they prefer to live in an area they have known and where their business, legitimate or not is conducted from, or for other reasons.

Further in the case of Colombo, cost of land is so outrageous that squatting is the only option if they are to live in a place close to employment as renting a place is out of the question on their incomes. Building of housing schemes to provide shelter for these people is fraught with political interference, as influence is also used to get housing due to the demand for such accommodation. There is no guarantee that alternative land or housing will be permanent due to the misuse of anything that is free, and all they will do is rent the housing they receive and go back to the same place where they were evicted from.

I suggest that using the electoral rolls, and electricity board information, some idea of the longevity of these tenancies is first established. Then a temporary monthly stipend be given them who have established that though illegal they have occupied a location for a considerable period of time usually in excess of 5 years. This is as a measure for them to find alternative accommodation of their choice, in areas of their choosing or the provision of state housing in areas that the state chooses, where they agree to inhabit, or lose if vacated. This grant can be a monthly one for say 6 months, and the state housing is an alternative, and not in addition.

This same scheme should also be applied to shanty dwellers who sometimes occupy state lands or squat on private lands, where private landowners are also fighting battles to get eviction orders on them. The intractable problem of people wanting to live near the homes they previously occupied as they consider the area their neighborhood, is one that is not easily solved, especially in land scarce Colombo. Furthermore giving free land to squatters is a license to encourage squatting and not discourage it.

We now come to the enforcement and prevention of illegal occupation, which is part of the state responsibility of policing all these reservation lands to ensure that no unauthorized construction takes place on such lands. If this is not done with regular frequency, someone else would just take the place of the evictee, and one is no nearer a solution to this issue.

One must also remember anything given free is unappreciated, and in many instances, land obtained freely is sold and the money spent, and people claim landlessness and lay claim to further areas by squatting yet again. Whether landlessness is either out of choice or circumstance is hard to determine, and the answer lies in assistance with housing, and not a complete subsidy. Thus given a stake in a property that is subsidized, one is more reluctant to sell or abandon, such a place, and accordingly is more likely to live and develop this property.

Poverty is a very cruel fate, and while not wishing to be harsh on those most disadvantaged in a community, one has to have an enlightened plan of providing living accommodation that permits labor mobility to areas of employment as well as security of ownership. How one reaches this delicate balance can be by providing rental accommodation to families at a reasonably subsidized rent, which nevertheless requires the tenant to contribute a portion that gives the tenant certain rights of security, which also goes along with adhering to conditions.

Highlighting the current predicament is an occasion from which to begin assessing the problem of unauthorized living, and alternative accommodation can then be offered with strings to asses the take up rate, making quite clear that squatting is not an option. The Disaster Management Ministry should work closely with the Housing and Construction Ministry to find suitable alternative accommodation, none of which should be provided without some sort of cost sharing.

1 comment:

Stephen Jones said...

The point is that the only land that doesn't belong to individuals is that by the side of the railways or the side of the canals. So, you'll see a shanty right next to the railway line and almost empty countryside all around.