Are squatters to blame ? | Sunday Observer
3,000 unauthorised structures on KV line

Are squatters to blame ?

22 January, 2023
Illegal settlements along the KV Line
Illegal settlements along the KV Line

Though vastly outclassed by roads and highways in scale, trains are still among one of the popular modes of travel in Sri Lanka. Established over one and a half centuries ago by the British to transport cash crops from the island’s interior, our nation’s railway network boasts scenic locales which attract thousands of tourists every year. But for all the picturesque routes through misty tea mountains and breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean, there is the unavoidable eyesore of urban railway infrastructure.

There are four major railway lines that bring commuters in and out of Colombo. There is the Puttalam Line plying North through rapidly industrialising centres of Kandana, Ja-ela, Seeduwa, Katunayake and Negombo city.

There is the Coastal Line plying South along the city’s West Coast through many commuter stations like Slave Island, Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya, Dehiwala, Mt. Lavinia and ending in Kalutara. The commuter services heading East alongside the upcountry goes as far as Rambukkana. But the route entirely used for commuter services and identified as the one needing a complete overhaul is the Kelani Valley Line, better known as the KV Line.

The 60 km-long KV Line starts from the Maradana Station and ends in Avisawella plying through densely packed areas in Colombo and the adjoining boroughs. The KV Line was introduced in 1902 to serve the rubber plantations East of Colombo. One Government study identified the KV as the one with the weakest infrastructure among the four major commuter lines. The KV line has only 18 trains during morning and evening peak hours, has a single track and is subjected to many speed restrictions.

Peak hours

Colombo’s High Level Road carries 44,000 vehicles per day at an average speed of 10-15 kmph during peak hours. This demand is predicted to double by 2035 if no alternative is provided. In Sri Lanka, road capacity is increasing at 2-3 percent annually while the year-on-year increase in road vehicles is at 10 percent. Given the circumstances, the most feasible solution is shifting commuters to rail. The KV line runs parallel to the Baseline and High-level Roads through heavy urbanised areas such as Kirulapona, Nugegoda, Navinna, Maharagama, Pannipitiya and Kottawa. The line crosses 53 main roads and 9 km of parallel roads leading to houses and villages.

Sri Lanka Railway Department’s chief engineer of Way and Works H.M.K.W. Bandara said although unauthorised structures are found in certain places, there are only a few instances where they actually damage the tracks. “One is the KV Line; the other is on the mainline towards Ragama and the Colombo to Wadduwa section of the Coastal Line. Some occupations have been legalised and they don’t pose a threat to the locomotives but some do damage railway infrastructure”.

Squatters have always occupied railway lands and there are 3,000 unauthorised structures on the KV line, he said.

“This happens because vacant railway property is the most accessible to the homeless. But they are not the ones to blame, since this happens due to oversight. Desperate people will always try to survive and it’s hard to take legal action against squatters due to pressure from multiple local political factions”.

We asked him how squatters damage railway infrastructure.

Train drivers

“Unauthorised settlements damage tracks with runoff wastewater and sludge. These slums also attract criminals who vandalise and steal implements like grates and clips. Unauthorised settlements have also forced trains to run much slower on the KV line. It’s hard for train drivers to control speed when there are people walking about on the tracks”.

We spoke to one squatter near the Udahamulla Railway Station. Her house is a rusty shack made out of old roofing sheets. There were no rooms; her few belongings were arranged along the wall. She said she has been living alongside the tracks for nearly 40 years. “I fear for my life every day,” she replied, albeit with a smile on her face, when we asked if she felt any danger. We also asked her if she was asked to move out by the authorities but she said there is no compulsion. We noticed a bright red sticker on her door placed by the Colombo Suburban Railway Project (CSRP) mentioning that she is due for eviction.

The CSRP falls under the Ministry of Transport and is a program funded by the Asia Development Bank. As the name suggests, the CSRP is involved in preparation of a feasibility study and detailed design for developing the four railway corridors of Colombo’s sub urban areas.

“CSRP is ADB’s first railway investment and Sri Lanka’s first multilateral investment on railways. Multilateral investments have policies like safeguard and procurement which we have to follow and the ADB closely monitors our progress,” CSRP’s Project Director M.U. Mallikarachchi said.

Through this project, a proposed elevated, double-track line from Maradana to Paddukka will be built on the KV line. The elevated track would circumvent vehicular traffic and make commuter services more efficient with added speed and number of trains.

He said that there was 1 billion US$ in the pipeline for the Kelani Valley project. “But, before we can start building anything, 50 percent of the land needs to be cleared. Accordingly, Rs 9,600 million was set aside by the Government to resettle people on the mainline”.

However, he said that resettling people is no easy task. “We decided to buy 1,244 housing units from the UDA under an agreement. The housing project would be in close proximity to the squatters’ former settlements so as not to fully remove them from their social ties”. According to the policies agreed to, the project must alleviate the people’s quality of life and never inconvenience them.

“Although most of us don’t see it, these squatters do a large service to society. They are janitors, maids, short order cooks and food vendors. On average, a maid works two hours a day in three Colombo homes earning 3,000 rupees. Without these service sector jobs, the city would not function properly. Most of their children go to national schools and some have even gone to graduate university. So the problem here is the space they are living in and not their society,” Mallikarachchi said.

Railway lands are occupied by both authorised and unauthorised persons. The KV line has 4,160 occupiers and the project will directly impact 1,600 people who need to be resettled, he said.

Mallikarachchi said that the CSRP first conducted a socio-economic survey of squatters with the help of the UN Habitat Organization and compiled an entitlement plan according to the data gathered. “This data includes details such as family size and socio-economic status which is used to determine compensation”.

Field officers

The CSRP has told all project-affected persons through an awareness campaign, and its field officers were sent to collect supporting documents for their occupancy before the cut off date.

After all occupiers were documented, the CSRP said that anyone occupying the designated Right-of-Way after the cut-off date will not be compensated to prevent encroachment while the project is ongoing.

The freed railway boundaries on the KV line are subsequently used to construct tenements as the project progresses, he said.

The project has already resettled squatters in housing schemes in Maligawatte, Dematagoda and Kalinga Mawatha. The UDA is building a new housing project in Colombage Mawatha. The resettlements begin from the centre of the city moving towards the outer boroughs and are done as soon as the UDA builds new housing schemes from freed spaces.

Mallikarachchi outlined the CSRP’s field work in the resettlement program.

“We send our officers on visits to raise awareness and hold multiple community-level discussions on the project. The community can also forward their concerns to an independent grievance redress committee or submit them to a complaint box”.

The Cabinet has appointed an eight-member Entitlement Assessment Committee (EAC) to look into the reparations. This committee includes the Divisional Secretary, Additional Secretary of the Land Ministry, Representatives of the Treasury, Valuation and Railway departments and a community leader chosen by the Divisional Secretary and the Project Director and Assistant Project Director - Social Safeguard.

The committee analyses the relevant documents and decides what the entitlements would be, according to family size, livelihood, vulnerabilities, and other needs. The agreements for UDA houses are signed by the project affected persons after the EAC approves these entitlements.

Orientation program

We asked how well do former squatters integrate into living vertically and Mallikarachchi said that the project includes an orientation program.

“Railway squatters have a subculture that we don’t understand. We won’t enter these parts because we are scared of being mugged but the squatters say that their homes are the safest place they know. This is the challenge we face when relocating them because most didn’t feel safe with their new accommodation. They are a close-knit community and band together to protect themselves against external threats. They live that way to protect their limited resources. There is also the problem with crime and other social ills, but the CSRP did not interfere because we would have surely got rejected if we did”.

The CSRP showed us files of resettled families. The file photos show many have successfully integrated into new life in their condominiums. There were pictures of families leading lives of material abundance in meticulous homes; a far cry from the shacks they used to live. Mallikarachchi said the pictures are a testament that the former squatters had an issue of living space and their problem was not a social one.

However, Engineer Bandara expressed concerns that any delay in the project’s implementation could only bring more squatters to vacant railway lands.

The project faced some roadblocks in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. However, the President and Trade Ministry have instructed officials to ensure that the project is fast-tracked as the benefits of refurbishing aging railway infrastructure can uplift the economy in the long run.

With financing for the project still pending due to Sri Lanka’s financial crisis, there are suggestions that it could be continued with a public-private partnership or an alternative form of investment.

Sri Lanka’s 150-year-old railways need an imminent facelift to meet the needs of a modern economy and improved commuter lines to Colombo, the country’s financial capital, is a welcoming boost to commerce and trade.

Developed countries are investing billions of dollars into railway infrastructure because they are the most energy efficient and fast transport solution next to all other modes. A modernised light rail network could cut down congestion, conserve fuel and bring more people in and out of the city, saving the country millions each year.