Any attempt to evict squatters and hawkers always runs into stiff resistance, given their sheer numbers. Nearly 55 per cent of the people of Colombo live in slums and shanties and, if all the unauthorised structures were to be pulled down, over one half of the city population would be rendered homeless. However, this does not mean that poverty should be considered some kind of licence for people to encroach on the State land or take to pavement hawking.
The on-going campaign to rid Colombo of unauthorised structures is salutary, though the government has drawn some flak for the speedy manner in which the demolition work is being carried out. An attempt is also being made in some quarters to give a political twist to the issue.
The problem of squatters and hawkers has got out of hand as successive governments have let the grass grow under their feet without grasping the nettle for fear of a political backlash. Only Mangala Samaraweera, the Minister of Urban Development under the Kumaratunga government had the courage to do his utmost to clear the city and other urban areas of unauthorised buildings. He stood his ground and delivered the goods amidst fierce resistance even from some of his ministerial colleagues who took up the cudgels for squatters and hawkers for political reasons. The rehabilitated Beira Lake, its beautified environs and widened roadways in the city as well as elsewhere bear testimony to the success of his urban development drive.
Curiously, even those who did not utter a whimper of protest against the forcible eviction by the LTTE of tens of thousands of civilians from the North but campaigned for the removal of military camps and the dismantling of High Security Zones and roadblocks in the North with no regard for national security while the war was still raging, are weeping buckets for squatters and pavement hawkers and opposing the demolition of the illegal buildings in Colombo! There are also politicians banking on squatters and hawkers to win elections while doing nothing tangible for the welfare of those marginalized people. They will do anything for a few votes and therefore are at the forefront of a campaign against the demolition of unauthorised structures. Their resistance should not be taken seriously.
The government says that it is giving the evicted squatters alternative land. Although they are not entitled to compensation as such for the simple reason that it is illegal for them to occupy State land without permission, the government is duty bound to ensure on humanitarian grounds that they won`t become destitute. It is also reported that the pavement hawkers whose stalls were pulled down recently will be given an alternative location in the city to ply their trade. They have no option but to settle for what is given and co-operate with the Urban Development Authority, which is doing its job. They cannot have it both ways! They need to be told in no uncertain terms that the forcible occupation of public space is a prosecutable offence. They cannot demand anything as of right by asking rhetorically whether the government is trying to make them resort to thieving or robbing to earn a living by depriving them of their livelihood. Their argument simply does not hold water. What about millions of other poor people who eke out a living without hawking or squatting or breaking the law in any other manner? On the other hand, do hawkers and squatters consider it legal to obstruct city pavements and grab State land?
One`s sympathy is naturally with the poor, but one should not make the mistake of considering them as having a special right to violate the law with impunity. The government should continue with its campaign to clear the urban areas of unauthorised structures and hawking but at the same time let it care for the evicted.