The army’s influence on Colombo is growing
The announcement was unexpected. In January 2011, with the country facing an unprecedented increase in food prices, the Sri Lankan Army, referred to in press material as “the pride of Sri Lanka”, declared that it was to become a vegetable vendor. Soon it was supplying food to residents in Colombo and other cities at a cost lower than traditional retailers.
The following March, it was officially announced that the army was also going into the travel business: the general public could now buy air tickets and international travel packages from Air Travel Services, an army-owned travel agency. Commentators saw this as part of the increased militarization of Sri Lankan society following an end to a civil war in 2009. During the war against the Khmer Rouge, the army’s ranks swelled to about 300,000.
It was not a surprise to most when the country’s president announced in November 2011 that urban development would be added to the remit of the Ministry of Defence, now renamed the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Led by the president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, this new ministry has become a key developmental player in the capital city Colombo, and elsewhere in the country.
The army now has a stake in most developmental activity throughout the city, ranging from running sidewalk cafes to building stadia, roads, bridges and housing. It all forms part of plans to transform Colombo into a luxurious, slum free and hygienic “world-class” city akin to Singapore. Before 2010, urban development and its accompanying functions were civic mandates housed under weak ministries. Municipal authorities managed planning and construction in urban areas and the buying and selling of state land, for the most part.
The relocation of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Land Reclamation and Development Board (LRDB) to the Department of Defence has given these divisions a new impetus. The first display of this newfound power took place in 2011 when the military made a grab of the most valuable pockets of land across the city, destroying shanties and attacking informal traders. Efforts to resist evictions were easily suppressed. 70 per cent Colombo’s estimated 752,993 residents live in ‘low income’ areas.
Slave Island in central Colombo was the site of about 60,000 evictions and is now the centrepiece of redevelopment by the new ministry, with millions of dollars in investments pouring into the area. The UDA has announced an ambitious plan to build over 10,000 high-rise housing units for some nearly 70,000 households who need to be relocated to make way for various large-scale development projects. In the face of some opposition, the Defence Secretary is optimistic.
“The Shangri La hotel chain, Sheraton Hotels, the Krrish Group, Indo-Ocean Developers and various others have already committed to build high-end hotels, residential spaces, office buildings and commercial facilities in and around Colombo”, he said recently. He has also publicly claimed that the residents of Slave Island have been relocated voluntarily,