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Sri Lanka's 'homeless' fight for basic rights

Fishermen and women from marginalized communities appeal to government to fast-track 'Shelter for all by 2025' policy

Sri Lanka's 'homeless' fight for basic rights

Shelters made from woven coconut palm leaves provide a shanty existence for marginalized fishermen and other landless and low-income people on a beach in Negombo, on the west coast of Sri Lanka. (Photo by A. Fernando/ucanews.com)

Published: October 18, 2018 10:26 AM GMT

Updated: October 18, 2018 10:31 AM GMT

Sadayan Kuweni, 31, was not allowed to perform traditional funeral rites for her father at her rented house because her landlord forbade it — one of a number of "unfair" rules marginalized people must endure in Sri Lanka.

Activists say they are stripped of even the most basic human rights due to their lack of land ownership. Many are not eligible for state welfare or other entitlements as they lack a permanent address, a prerequisite for government support.

"Lack of land ownership and property are central to the problems that marginalized people like fishermen and us womenfolk have to deal with in poor communities," said Kuweni, who lives in Munnakkaraya, a fishing village that is home to 8,500 people in Negombo on the island's west coast.

"We can't even invite friends over for a party unless we get permission from our landlord," she added.

Undeterred, she carries the flag for her community by rallying for greater protection for their rights.

On Oct. 1, which marks the United Nations' World Habitat Day, Kuweni joined a demonstrated organized by the Negombo United People's Organization (NUPO), an alliance of landless people.

Over 500 fishermen and low-income earners marched in the rally, hoisting banners with slogans like "Where shall we dine tonight?" and "No permanent place — no address, no school for our children, no voting rights."

Theresa Fernando lives in a government housing project in Kadolkale, another small village in Negombo. She told ucanews.com she has a "license" instead of a land title and has to share her cramped, two-bedroom property with three other families.

"It's almost impossible to get any privacy, which is more of a problem for women," said Fernando, who lives with her four grown-up children.

A housing project in Munnakkaraya, Negombo. Due to insufficient space, people are forced to live in cramped, overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.(Photo by A.Fernando/ucanews.com)


Moreover, reports indicate that as of 2017 there were 1.5 million people in the country who did not own any land. 

Negombo is a commercial hub on the west coast known for its long sandy beaches and fishing villages that have retained the same traditions for centuries. It has been a Catholic-majority city since the Portuguese arrived in 1505.

The NUPO has been working for years to improve the lot of poor communities there, pushing the government to give houses to the extremely poor.

"The population of Negombo is exploding at one of the fastest rates in Sri Lanka due to all the garment factories there, which draw internal migrant workers, foreigners, and even asylum seekers," said Manel Fernando, a coordinator at the agency.

The government has set a goal of achieving "shelter for all by 2025," according to Sajith Premadasa, the minister of housing and construction.

Premadasa, who also serves as deputy leader of the United National Party, recently told the media that 41 percent of the population do not own a house or land.

The goal is get that 41 percent down to zero within the next seven years.

The vast majority of marginalized members of Sri Lankan society are unable to escape the poverty trap. Some are able to rent cheap properties but many eke out existences in shanty houses built on beaches from wood or beside railway lines. The government calls them "unauthorized dwellers."

Despite this, the authorities make handsome profits from regularly parceling out huge swathes of land to property developers, hotel owners, and other businesspeople, according to Vincent Bulathsinhala, a prominent human rights defender and lawyer. 

"The government has failed to establish a national policy for housing as a basic right," he said. "Fishermen and low-income earners have had to endure this situation for generations."

According to a survey recently carried out by Janawaboda Kendraya, an activist group working for the poor, 18 percent of children from families that do not own their own homes don't attend school in the Negombo area.

The group submitted the survey as part of a larger report to Susil Siriwardana, a former senior adviser to the National Housing Development Authority, on Oct. 1.

"We keep advocating and trying to influence the authorities to formulate a proper housing policy to ensure everyone has access to safe shelter," Bulathsinhala said. 

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