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Sea view from a slum

Trapped between the sea and the train station, the residents of Bambalapitiya live without water or electricity. Politicians only visit during election season.

30.07.2018  |  

“I came here in search of a job but never got a proper one. I was wandering here and there without food and a place to stay. My friend helped me to get to this place,” says the dark and lean woman who looked about 65 years old but says she is only 45. She has neither an identity card nor a birth certificate. She can speak fluent Sinhala and Tamil.

To get by, she says in Sinhala, “I sell my flesh.”

In the coastal area of Bambalapitiya, in Colombo City, near the railway station, this woman lives in a slum called Pelpath Nivasa where a group of poor people live without any basic amenities. They live with the roar of the sea on one side and the noise of locomotives on the other.

Sea water often splashes into residents’ homes.

“About 26 families have lived here for nearly 30 years,” the woman told The Catamaran. She said that they have come here from different parts of the country due to various reasons and circumstances. There is no caste, religion or ethnic differences here. They all speak both languages, yet they are deprived and desperate.

Naufer (65) ended up here for very different reasons: “I am from Ratnapura and ours was a love-marriage. Both my family and hers opposed our love affair. So, we came to Colombo in search of livelihood. We did not have a place to stay and we are here with the assistance of a friend of mine. I am a petty labourer. I was able start a small shop and my wife is looking after it. The mosque nearby is helping my only son with his education,” he said.

There are more women here than men. Fourteen children live here, five are students. The average daily income of a family is about Rs. 750 (USD 5) but their expenses triple this amount, according to the residents.

Some of the houses in Bambalapitiya are lit by vehicle battery power. Sometimes waves enter the houses because they are so close to the coast. They rarely cook in their homes and rather get their food from outside the slum. There are even pets in these houses, some of expensive varieties.

“I have three children. They are with my relatives and studying. Only a son is with me in my house,” said 20 year-old Priyanka. “My husband works far away and he comes home only once in a while.”

Some of the residents perform odd jobs in apartments such as cleaning. Some collect waste paper and cardboard, scrap iron, etc and sell them. Some are beggars. They do all types of physical jobs for a meager income. Many of them say they don’t have identity cards and therefore cannot find a permanent job.

Empty promises for fake citizens

“Many of these people do not have their birth certificates, they know neither their date of birth nor the names of their parents,” says Nadeeka Sandamali. “During election periods politicians come and give us temporary identity cards. They take the ID cards back once the election is over.”

Politicians hand out temporary ID cards during election periods. Then take them back after the election is over.

“We are aware that politicians come here and give us lots of promises. Every promise will be forgotten once the elections are over. They have done the same this time too. We heard last week that we will be evacuated from this place. We hope we will be provided with an alternative place to live,” said Gamini, 65.

A Sri Lankan law that prohibits buildings from being erected within 200 meters of the seashore. Yet the houses in Bambalapitiya are just a metre away from the shore. Many here wonder if the houses were permitted for political benefits?

The people in this slum are considered citizens only because of their votes, yet the have no access to drinking water, no electricity and no toilets.

“I love writing but grandma does not allow me to go to school,” says the boy who was playing with his friends, carrying a notebook and a pencil. His grandmother told The Catamaran that the boy’s mother had gone off somewhere and had not returned for a long time. “There is no one to take the boy to school and look after his educational,” she said.

An officer told The Catamaran: “Even after we provide these people with alternative places to live in, they sell them and come back.”

by  M. Newton and V.Priyadharshan Video By: Upul Thammita