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Colombo’s Unseen: Living Besides A Railway Track

Colombo, as we see it today, is all shiny and new. The vertiginous skyline, sparkling new malls, and numerous high rises are designed to play a vital part in establishing the city’s aspirational aesthetics — one of upscale modernity. Reality however, is quite different; over 50% of the city’s population lives in ‘shanties, slums, or dilapidated housing schemes.’

In an attempt to change this, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has been relocating some of these underserved communities over the last few years — mostly to low-income flats such as those in Wanatamulla, Dematagoda, and Sahaspura. Each of these communities had developed organically, and had its own unique history. Take Slave Island for example, the neighbourhood’s history was shaped by a close-knit community of Malays descended from Ceylon’s colonial era. Today, the community has dispersed and the area’s historic architecture is all but gone.

The reasoning behind the drive to beautify the city is to ‘transform Colombo into a world recognised city with a clean and pleasing environment’. In practice, what this translates to is that spaces previously occupied by underserved communities are rapidly being reconstructed. A prime example for this is the demolition of Castle Hotel, a landmark of Slave Island.

However, there are pockets of communities who continue to live in some of the city’s forgotten places — such as on the edge of railway tracks.

We visited Wanatamulla, where as many as a hundred homes have been built next to a railway line. With plans underway to expand the track from Baseline station to Nugegoda, these residents are due to be relocated soon. While some of the residents seemed enthusiastic about moving to brick-and-mortar homes, others were on the fence.

This photo essay is an attempt to document one of Colombo’s oldest neighbourhoods before it disappears.

The railway track runs parallel to as many as a hundred makeshift homes. Made of wooden planks and topped with roofing sheets, these homes sometimes accommodate families of six or seven, living in the constricted space.

For most of the residents in the area, the railroad doubles as a space for casual evening chats.Well-attuned to the sounds of oncoming trains, and knowing the schedule by heart, they simply move aside when they feel the first rumble.

This little shop has stood near the rail gates for the last six years. The owner, Sepalika Dilrukshi, will be given a new home in Maligawatta near the Samantha Hall, along with everyone else who will be relocated. She intends to continue her small business selling short-eats and drinks after her move.
Oncoming trains are of no concern for residents, and they continue with their business until they absolutely have to move. However, the adults are protective of their children and ensure that they are kept clear of the tracks. From a young age, children are taught not to cross a threshold, to keep them clear of the tracks.

An elderly man idly watches as a packed commuter train whizzes by in the evening. The homes running parallel to the lines, located just an arm’s length away, are a normal sight for the passengers as well.

At peak hours, multiple trains pass through Wanatamulla every day.

Many residents we spoke to were not sorry about leaving their homes. On the contrary, they were happy to be given fully-constructed houses, and saw it as an opportunity for their children to lead better lives. Extremely practical about the move, they told us that no one would complain about losing wooden shanties and getting a bitthi-simenthi [brick and mortar] home instead.

B. George has an aura of mystery around him. With his family originating from Kandy, George moved to Colombo in the early ‘70s and planted himself in the bare land that eventually evolved into Wanatamulla. Quickly plotting out a piece of property for himself, he built a roof over his head and then planted banana trees and raised swine. Eventually, more and more squatters started doing the same, until the area became populated. Despite being a man of very few words, he is acknowledged as the founding father of the community.
J. Aloysius Ranjan Basil speaks perfect English, and says he’s a Burgher who moved to Wanatamulla during his adolescence. With a quirky and friendly personality, he spoke freely — even if he was quite vague. We learnt that after a few years in Wanatamulla, he moved to Mahiyangana and lived there for 35 years. He also established a village called Siyambalagaswewa for palm-reading gypsy women. Although he was unclear why, he eventually returned to Wanatamulla. His niece looks after the village now.

Accidents and deaths are common occurrences. While human deaths—often suicides—happen every few months, those of fowls and domestic animals occur more often.

This hut is rented out by 32-year-old Dulaj Susantha, who lives in it with his wife and two children. The small space is barely enough for their shared mattress, which stands up against one end when it is not in use. Dulaj is one of the few people unhappy about the relocation — because he has nowhere else to go. “The owners of this home will be given a new home because this is theirs, but tenants who are on rent won’t get anything.” He said he works ‘in buses’, but did not want to mention in what capacity. The owners of this hut live at the opposite end of Wanatamulla, in another shanty.

Photo Credits: Roar Media / Nazly Ahmed

Residents who will lose their homes here have been promised that they will be relocated to a new housing unit in the vicinity, near the Maligawatta Samantha Hall. You can read more about the lives of families who were relocated to housing schemes, here.

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