The Southern Expressway, Sri Lanka’s first highway, is wonderful (toll cost notwithstanding): you can drive fast, travel comfortably, enjoy amazing verdant scenery, and cut your travel time by approximately half. Ten years in the making, the Southern Expressway (E01) was cause for much elation and pride among Sri Lankans as they took their first highway journey. Bordered by lush paddy fields, rubber estates, hills and forests, the expressway offers a scenic drive that belies the years of hardship and loss that lie under its tarred surface.
The enormity of its length and breadth indicates the vast amount of land on which the expressway is built. Land is the essence of a lifestyle; it defines our livelihood and our culture. What we do for a living, our associations with our neighbours and friends, and what we do in our free time often depends on the characteristics of the area and the land on which we live. Along the trace of the expressway there lived ordinary families much like ours, in structures they called ‘home’, whose comfort they sacrificed for us to have our convenience – for a smoother, faster, scenic journey. This article presents some of the stories of those who were affected by the construction of the expressway, and how they coped and recovered, and emphasises the need to build infrastructure through an equitable process, where those affected by it can also benefit.
The Southern Expressway connects the capital of Colombo to Galle, a coastal city in the south of Sri Lanka. The road traverses urban, semi-urban and rural geographic settings and cuts across land with a population density of 940 per square kilometer (much higher than Sri Lanka’s national average of 351). The project, then known as the Southern Transport Development Project (STDP), displaced close to 1338 families, with about 4000 families losing their agricultural and commercial lands to the project. On average, households that lost a house had access to 20-50 perches (330-835 sq.ft) of land (urban and rural alike), and a living space of an average of 3-5 rooms. In the semi-urban and rural areas they had access to a home garden that was a vital part of their daily food consumption. Houses with an extension to agricultural land had adjoining tea, rice or rubber plots averaging 2.5 acres. This space permitted them to have extra livelihood activities such as livestock rearing. A significant number of people lost their traditional and ancestral lands and the lifestyle that went with it. The plots of land they were given as compensation distanced them from their familiar localities and they also felt a loss of identity.
The households made up cohesive communities, where the community functioned as an extended family. Often, a woman would leave her children in the care of neighbours when she went to work, who were also a source of security when she walked home late in the evening. These communities were scattered when land was acquired and the expressway constructed. Because many people defined themselves in relation to their homes, families and communities, their displacement disrupted the foundation of their social life and productive activities. As Amarapala, a farmer aged 58, explained,, “We had about 2 acres of land. It was a huge house with a courtyard. The floor was made of cement and the walls were made of 16” large clay bricks. There were floral pattern carvings on its wooden ceiling bars on which was engraved that the house was built in 1900 by my grandfather. This land has been with us for generations, for about 200 years; we were born here. We had a variety of fruit trees in our garden. The garden was full of jackfruit, coconut and breadfruit trees. We didn’t need a salary to live there. My grandfather was the first one to bring a car in this village, and he was one of the first people to speak English. We were well-respected in society.” Sirinahamy, an elderly lady of 85, spoke with nostalgia of her former home. “There was a lot of togetherness among villagers. We used to get together and go on pilgrimages. When I was sick, all the neighbours would come to see me, and in an emergency, people gathered. When I was about to come here, the boy who worked in the nearby shop cried and asked me not to go. I feel imprisoned here. I could step out from the house and just walk to the shop when I was there, but here it’s not so easy.”
One group most vulnerable to the packing, moving and restarting process was the elderly. Many had lived in one place for generations and the disruption that went with displacement was difficult to adjust to. Previously, they were part of an extended family living with their children and grandchildren, as is common in village communities. The resettlement process made changes to these living arrangements and extended families were broken up into smaller units. Jayathissa, a middle-aged shop owner, had a particularly distressing experience. “When we were half way through the construction we were asked to vacate and then we immediately came here. My mother could not handle the breaking down of the house. She got a stroke and was paralysed. This was her land for a long time it was difficult for her to give it up. My sister took care of her ever since.”
Once the road trace was finalized and their displacement confirmed, the process essentially included informing those affected, negotiating compensation, taking over the land and resettlement. The project made available two options for displaced persons to relocate: firstly, to relocate on their own, which was encouraged by monetary allowance, and secondly to relocate to a plot of land developed by the government implementer, often within close proximity to their homes. Those who relocated on their own did so on remaining land, or on other land which they owned. However, very few decided to move away from the vicinity of the original locations, choosing to live within the resettlement housing schemes. This choice had long-term impacts due to its proximity to the expressway and its construction.
A crucial period in the displacees’ timeline was the time between the date of leaving the land and the date of settlement. About three quarters of the displaced population spent time in a temporary location for about a year and a half before moving to their new permanent residencies. The temporary residencies were very often poorly built, with only basic amenities. This was a disruptive and traumatic experience, both physically and mentally.
Households with members who needed special care and attention, including young children, the elderly and the sick, found this period very challenging. Most relied on the helping hands of their extended families who provided accommodation and care during the difficult period; this was the most common coping mechanism. Households that were going through critical life events during this period were also particularly vulnerable. Sunil, a young shopkeeper of 29, was asked to demolish his house or risk losing his compensation. At the time, his wife was pregnant with their second baby. Concerned about her safety and well-being, he found it difficult to comply with the request.
Some of the impacts were beyond physical discomfort. Gunaratne, a rice mill owner aged 47 explained how his daughter was unable to graduate from high school because of the upheaval. “My daughter could not complete her Advanced Level examination. She sat for her exams for the first time when we were moving house and then after we came here to the temporary location in the same land, everything was disorganized and she said she could not do the exam again.“
Displaced families faced many difficulties including theft of their household goods, building material, cash and jewellery during the transition period, as their assets were stored in different places. Also, their temporary residences were made out of wood planks or tin sheets which could not be secured well. Charlese, a farmer aged 64, faced a lot of problems with thieves. “I was not at home during the day, and they would take things from the hut. Even the last compensation cheque I got for Rs. 91,744 (702 USD) was stolen by someone.”
The new houses:
Everyone took the opportunity to build better. A majority of the people built or acquired housing and amenities superior to the ones they left behind. They also used their compensation to enhance the outer appearances of their homes and gardens, which had not been a priority up until then. This was perhaps an outcome of the grand new highway that exposed their backyards to travellers. The percentage of brick houses increased from 74% to 94%, and houses with electricity improved from 68% to 94%. Squatters on state land benefitted most. They moved on to have a land ‘owned by them’ and improved facilities in their houses. Ganga, a self–employed seamstress aged 33, was a former squatter who got lucky. “It was a government land and we resided there as encroachers. Later the government gave us deeds. My parents gave me that piece of land and when I married and we built a wattle and daub house too. I was used to the area and my parents were also living close by in the same land. That land was too small and was not enough to divide among my two sons. The highway acquired 14 of my 28 perches (231 out of 462 sq.ft) of land, and with the compensation I was able to buy 20 perches (330 sq.ft) from an adjoining block. I built a better house, and I built it exactly as I wanted with electricity and water.”
Compensation for housing structures was given at the cost of its replacement, considering its market value and the transaction costs. Additionally, it included the cost incurred in replacement of utilities such as electricity or water, temporary house rent and other allowances such as livelihood allowance and vulnerability allowance.
Often, people took the opportunity to build their “dream home” rather than a more practical house, which resulted in huge structures that cost more time and money than anticipated. Some went into debt, or had to use up their savings to complete construction. For those who lost a business along with their house it was a particularly difficult process, because they had to prioritise shelter before income. A consultative process of how to utilize a large sum of compensation would have assisted the displaced. Mohommad, a middle-aged mill owner, overspent excessively for his new home. “I bought this land and built my house from the compensation. I spent 58 lakhs (44,400 USD) for the house and 14 lakhs (10,717 USD) for the land. All the compensation is Rs 68 lakhs (52,000 USD). In addition I spent money which I have saved. I wanted to build the a nice house because I have two daughters ready to get married and it will be good to them if the house is in good condition.”
Losing a house in this context is not limited to the physical structure, but also the lifestyle associated with it. Many of the displaced had frequently engaged in backyard home-gardening and livestock rearing. The surrounding greenery, fresh air and wildlife were assets that could not be monetised and the value of these spaces was realized only after their loss. The project established mechanisms to replace community spaces such as waterways, community wells and community halls, but this took place much later. Sirinahamy, the elderly lady who detailed her close ties to her former community, did not settle well into her new home. Her daughter Sama, a 67 year old housewife, explained that “Amma [My mother] doesn’t like to live here as there is no large space in the garden. She says that it is like living in a box here. And she says the water is not good because we had wells and small streams there around the house. She says that when she takes a bath here, her hair falls off”.
Losing the place you call home is a difficult experience. Having to give up your home involuntarily for the country’s development is especially hard if you don’t have the economic means to make use of the infrastructure yourself. According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (2011), 78% of the vehicle usage in the Southern Province consists of three-wheeler taxi and motorcycles, neither of which are allowed on the highway. This means only a small minority can access the expressway. It is only justifiable then, to treat with respect those who sacrificed their land for someone else’s benefit.
The evidence from the southern highway resettlement in Sri Lanka suggests that having adequate safeguard mechanisms and an equitable process in place are helpful for affected persons when rebuilding their houses. Providing land and adequate compensation has been especially helpful in recovery. Squatters, who accounted for a fifth of the total displaced population, benefited greatly from getting ownership of developed land. This is a step forward from Sri Lanka’s existing law on land acquisition, in which non-title holders are not recognised as eligible for compensation.
The transition period remains the most challenging of the displacement and resettlement process; this is particularly difficult for households with people needing extra care. Having an allowance for disturbance is helpful, but people tend to cope as best they can and save the money for a ‘better house’ at the end.
While housing conditions improved for a majority of the people, a consultative system on how to best utilize the compensation would have been helpful in managing unnecessary spending which resulted in delays in resettlement. Loss of green spaces and the green environment is an indisputable concern for this group, and something that money alone could not compensate for. Providing lands in advance for people to start their ‘greening’ would have been helpful, so that the spaces would be adequately ‘green’ by the time they moved in, but these are often details that get compromised as big construction deadlines undermine people’s priorities.
The experiences of Sri Lanka’s first highway have provided many insights and set a blueprint for how development-induced displacement should be handled in the future. It primarily highlighted the need for an advisory process among those who are displaced to ensure that the community does not feel helpless in the process.
This post is part of a series on Sri Lanka’s first expressway.
The information presented in this blog post is based on the findings of the Independent External Monitoring of the Resettlement Activities of the Southern Transport Development Project, which was carried out by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Colombo, Sri Lanka. The monitoring was funded by the Asian Development Bank under TA TA 4748 SRI and was conducted over four years 2006-2010. The names given in quotes have been changed to protect anonymity of the respondents. Mansi Kumarasiri and Tehani Ariyaratne are researchers attached to CEPA. Mansi was a team member of the study and development induced displacement and resettlement is one of her key research interests. Tehani is a member of the communications and policy team with a focus on alternative communications and gender research. All photos in this post were taken by CEPA staff.