From 54 Watte, into the fire | Sunday Observer

From 54 Watte, into the fire

25 March, 2018
‘Sirisara Uyana’ Housing Complex opened in October 2014
‘Sirisara Uyana’ Housing Complex opened in October 2014

The forceful eviction of Colombo’s low income families by the UDA in 2013/2014 to pave the way for Colombo beautification projects was controversial enough. A recent fire in one of the apartment complexes built to accommodate the evictees has now raised serious safety concerns

When they were controversially evicted from their old homes in 54 Watte and forced into a high rise apartment by the Urban Development Authority run by former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2014, Thanjula Sanjeewani and H.A. Ananda Premasiri thought, things could not get much worse. But then, on March 15, 2018, the fire happened and their entire apartment was completely destroyed.

“Thankfully, nobody was at home when the fire broke out. But, all my hard earned money and belongings have been destroyed,”40-year-old Sanjeewani, the owner of the apartment said.

She had recently returned from Cyprus after being employed as a housemaid there for six years. Sanjeewani’s husband, H A Ananda Premasiri, (60), a vegetable vendor and her 12 year old son had been living in the apartment since 2014.

The recent fire that engulfed Sanjeewani’s apartment unit in the 12-storeyed housing complex in Wanathamulla, Dematagoda has raised serious concerns about the safety of hundreds of residents who occupy the flats. While the fire was thankfully contained to one apartment unit and did not result in human injuries or death, the frightening experience has intensified fear among residents who now shudder at the thought of a worse scenario.

“In case this floor catches fire, we are sure we would all die,” says Fathima Begum, a heart patient who along with her husband and two kids, reside in the top floor of the ‘Sirisara Uyana’ complex which houses 480 housing units.

Relating the incident which happened on March 15, (Thursday) around 7.45 pm, she says, they weren’t aware of what was happening until residents from the neighbouring complex alerted them.

“At first, we thought it was a fight. Then, when we heard it was fire, around 100 people from each floor including the elderly and children gathered around two working lifts. Some tried to run for their lives which meant down the narrow staircases, which got jammed. It was a nightmare” said a resident.

Declared open in November 2014, the ‘Sirisara Uyana’ in Wanathamulla is now home to around 500 families who were relocated from places like Thotalanga, Glennie Street in Slave Island, Dematagoda, Apple Watte, 34 Watte, 66 Watte, 63 Watte and 51 Watte, under the controversial Urban Regeneration Project of the Urban Development Authority. The project, overseen by Sri Lanka’s former ‘all-powerful’ Defence Secretary, forced hundreds of families in low income neighbourhoods out of their homes – sometimes overnight and under army guard – and into hastily constructed apartment complexes and housing units, each less than 450sq ft in extent. The evictions were aimed at smoothing the way for Colombo’s beautification drive, and land previously occupied by families like Sanjeewani and Premasiri was cleared for sale to foreign and local investors interested in constructing integrated development projects.

Activists such as, Iromi Perera, a former researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives have cried foul over the eviction and relocation process since it first began to happen, saying that in some cases families had lived on their land for generations and owned land deeds, and were still subject to UDA eviction orders. In many cases, residents were also relocated far away from their sources of livelihood, creating severe economic challenges for the evicted families.

Now it appears, the high-rise solution offered by the UDA, comes with its share of security risks.

Though the massive complex has three locations to access staircases and three elevators – albeit one being dysfunctional, it was observed that the narrow common spaces like corridors would not be able to quickly mobilize even half the residents to safety, in the event of an emergency. Moreover, this housing complex where more than 1,000 people live does not have a single fire detector.

“When we attempted to make use of the high-pressure fire hose to extinguish the fire, we realized that the pipe in the floor unfortunately did not have water and was of little use. Even the fire alarms didn’t go off despite repeated attempts to press the warning buttons” another resident said. After a lapse of an hour, the Colombo Fire Brigade arrived at the scene and took control of the situation.

“We sent our vehicles as soon as the fire was reported. While people complain of delay on our part, what actually happens is, people take a lot of time to report incidents. I can assure you, we have made arrangements to ensure our vehicles set off within minutes of a fire being reported,” Chief Fire Officer at the Colombo Municipal Council, P.N. Rohantha Fernando said.

On the other hand, residents said, despite the existence of fire hose reels on each floor of the building, they were not aware of the safe usage of the fire fighting tool as they had not been exposed to routine fire drill exercises.

The residents also complained of poor maintenance of public spaces by the authorities and neglect of essential services, such as, routine garbage collection.

“This place is fast turning into a ‘high rise’ slum. It’s been only three years since we moved in, and the place is already stinking, with dirt everywhere and drug peddlers roaming free at night. How are we supposed to live with our children in this place, all our lives?” an irate resident wondered.

Responding to criticisms, Director of the Urban Regeneration Project (URP) at the Urban Development Authority (UDA), Brig. Ranjith Samarasinghe claimed that it was the officials of the UDA who had helped to douse the fire.

“Our officers along with help from members of the public were the first to respond, breaking through the door of the apartment that caught fire.

The only support we received from the Fire Brigade was their loud sirens from vehicles but our UDA officials made sure the fire was contained,” Samarasinghe said.

Squashing allegations that residents of ‘Sirisara Uyana’ had not been provided with any fire evacuation training or fire drills, the Brigadier said, a comprehensive training which included subjects such as, maintenance of public spaces and fire was in fact provided at the time the project was initiated during end 2014.

“They (residents) showed little interest then to participate or even listen to them. On the question of maintenance, we spend around Rs. 600,000 monthly but these residents do not want to use public spaces without vandalizing them. So what can we do? ,” he questioned.

He highlighted that what residents needed was a sea-change in their attitudes towards the use of common facilities which would make the work of maintenance officials much easier.

Iromi Perera, an Independent researcher exhorted that the UDA must address the lived realities of the residents, take into consideration the involuntary nature of their move to the apartments and take measures to rectify their relationship with the affected people in order to avoid the current situation going from bad to worse.

“By continuing to blame the residents for the state of the buildings and therefore not maintaining them, the UDA continues to create ‘vertical slums’,” Perera said.

She noted that although for years residents have been complaining about the quality of the apartment complex with visible cracks appearing on the outer walls as well as inside apartments, this fire had only intensified the fear among residents, about how livable and safe these high-rises are in the long run.

“The disconnect between the residents and their built environment is evident in the badly kept public spaces and vandalism that takes place,” Perera pointed out. Highlighting that around 65,000 families will be living in one of these apartments on the completion of the Urban Regeneration Project, she said, a proper assessment should therefore be conducted of the buildings to ensure that the apartments are compliant with building standards.

“Awareness meetings must be conducted in order to inform residents as well as answer questions they have about the building.

“Not only is it problematic that the UDA continues to see densification as the only way to house the working class poor, that basic standards are not being met despite residents’ continuous complaints is equally problematic,” she said.

Pix: Chinthaka Kumarasinghe