Less than twenty minutes away from Colombo’s most prestigious suburbs is a completely different world: one with narrow lanes, dirty drains, and tiny houses crammed haphazardly along and around these lanes and drains.
Sometimes it’s hard to fathom how the slums of Colombo can share city spaces with the same roads that are home to our favourite coffee shops. The settlements are the neighbourhoods that we forget exist, or sometimes simply don’t want to think too much about. The few times we do pass by them, we either drive past in a hurry, or spend a few moments feeling bad for the people who have to live there, and grateful for our own comfortable homes.
But, like all other places in this city ‒ perhaps even more so ‒ these settlements, home to many of the city’s low-income families, have their own stories to tell. Our visits to low-income neighbourhoods in Wanathamulla, Grandpass, and Dehiwala gave us a greater insight into their daily struggles with the lack of basic facilities, how difficult it is to find a job, or the troubles they face thanks to unsavoury neighbours.
Nazeer, 43, and his wife Sareena, in their living room, which spans less than a perch. “It’s impossible to live here when it rains, the kids sit in a corner while my wife and I pour the water out the front door. I’ve tried fixing the roof with whatever materials I can source, but it keeps collapsing when it rains heavily. I hope the government sees this and provides us with a better place to live. I’m looking for employment, but no one is willing to give me a job.”
Children pose for a photograph outside their home.
Mohammed, 29: “This place smells terrible when it rains, and if it rains heavily then the canal floods and all the sewage waste gets onto the road. A lot of children fall ill because of that. There are over 100 families living here, including pregnant mothers and infants. I hope it will be better for the future generation.”
Stace Road, Grandpass: multiple families bathe and wash clothes at a common water pipe along the canal.
“This area is full of drug peddlers. The youth who don’t get jobs end up learning bad habits from the other good for nothing fellows. It ruins their lives. What else am I supposed to tell you? I’m just sick of this place.”
This is the man who guides me deep into the slums of Wanathamulla. At this point, I am genuinely worried that my equipment may get stolen.
We arrive at his little house where he explains to his sister, “They’re here to listen to our story.” The sister, who doesn’t want to be photographed, tearfully tells me: “We used to live in a much better house just at the top of the road, but our neighbour was the local don. He forcefully evicted us from our own home and expanded his house. I didn’t give up. I fought back, and they pushed me into a drain. We went to the authorities but even they’re scared to do anything. Please help us.”
He listens quietly as his sister narrates their plight.
Slums alongside the Dehiwala Railway Station. Wanigasuriya and his colleague (who didn’t want to be photographed) explain how miserable the living conditions in the area are.
“This is the lavatory which almost 100 families use every day, including school children in the morning, men, and women. There is no privacy for the girls. The municipal council cleans this up once in a blue moon. It’s useless. We clean it up whenever it gets blocked. It smells awful.”
“The water here is very polluted, and lots of mosquitoes breed in here. Many of us have fallen sick.”
“The government built a few houses along this stretch towards Wellawatte, during the election time. But the people don’t move out of their houses and into the new ones. They give those houses on rent and continue to stay here. It really annoys some of us who don’t have electricity or a water line. There is inequality in terms of facilities in here, there are a lot of fights because of this too.”
A child looks out through a hole in the side of her home.