After just over an hour of driving on a Sunday, Padukka offers a level of bucolic bliss that belies the fact that it is so close to Colombo. The drive is absolutely stunning in the morning, just after sunrise. A selenic mist embraces vast, verdant paddy fields. The road winds through villages, and often through lush green forest areas. The languor of buffalo is offset by the flurry of birds feasting on the rich pickings off fertile earth; children in white stream into temples. Dogs own the roads and don’t always move for oncoming traffic. Driving through the area with the shutters down, the air smells, feels and is very different to Colombo and its suburbs. Conversations between neighbors, and sometimes instructions from opposite sides of the roads, are loud enough to waft in as one drives through. This is still a very rustic, beautiful part of the country. Being surrounded by, for the most part, vast rubber estates and wild nature may seem particularly appealing for anyone from the city. Despite this, I couldn’t live here over the long-term.
Turns out I am not alone. In 2014, the UN noted that 54 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a proportion that it expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. Existing borders, geo-physical as well mental or imagined, between village and city, have blurred to a degree that the once clear distinction is often meaningless. The village is dying and is being, literally, left behind. The city is booming. But in a country like Sri Lanka, the heady pace of urbanisation hides a multitude of growing social challenges.
Seeing a city by way of elevation helps understand some of the issues associated with an urbanisation that is ill-planned and unsustainable. The view from the top floors of a commercial high-rise, or penthouse level of an apartment, far above the ground and with a wide, unimpeded field of vision, gives an appealing perspective of the city. At the ground level, things are fundamentally different – from the noise, congestion, waste, pollution and throngs of pedestrians to a field of vision entirely shadowed by an essentially oppressive, inaccessible, alien architecture that towers above and around. At this level, looking at what’s above can get someone killed, and so you don’t. The view from below looking up is an aspirational perspective, of wanting to ascend and through upward mobility, a better life. The view from above looking at what’s beneath is a gaze of power and wealth, giving a distinct identity to an address but also strategic distance from any specific location.
The owner of a multi-million-rupee luxury apartment can say they live in Colombo. But in fact, the Colombo they live in is a space of European fittings, marble and luxe, coded and restricted entry, where just an extra parking lot costs upwards of a million rupees, the electricity never goes off, the water pressure never dies down, is climate controlled, without humidity, offering views that render everyone below, quite literally, invisible. There are interesting – if that’s the word – exceptions. The view from the State built apartments many of the city’s poor have been often without any real choice relocated into also offer great views. However, in a perverse and indeed violent inversion, the terrible squalor and austerity the new apartments have forced upon residents is a far cry from the relatively large spaces, wealth and freedom they enjoyed at ground level, in homes and houses they once inhabited which have been razed to the ground by governments interested in urban development at whatever cost.
In Padukka as in many other villages, close, daily social interactions remain anchored to physical meetings at specific loci like well, shop, junction or temple – where anyone can go and get to. In Colombo today, spaces to meet and interact increasingly price out those who cannot afford the cost of a beverage or meal. During the war, and largely on account of it, Colombo was an affordable city. It no longer is. Prices are now comparable to London and New York, which is absurd, considering the often-terrible quality of what one consumes or purchases.
The greening of Colombo attempts to bring the best of the village into the heart of the city. What is happening in reality is the privatisation of public spaces. Aside from the bizarre rules about playing, running and walking on the grass that are the result of an invisible militarization that already pervasive in public authorities, public spaces in the future will very likely be outsourced to, owned or regulated by private entities – corporations, or collectives managed by a privileged few. On paper and in computer renderings, these spaces will look utterly beautiful. And yet, access to and movement within them will be strictly regulated – from opening and closing times to the manner of dress and appropriate behaviour. What is sold as the creation of Galle Face type spaces around the city is in reality the construction of socio-economic exclusion zones. The poor may, a few decades hence, have no place to play.
Around 32 years ago, I recall going with my parents to see the then newly opened Majestic City. We were in awe. Liberty Plaza was the only mall around till then. ‘Akasa Kade’ scaled incredible heights, with only the awe-inspiring ‘pittu bambu’ tower of the Bank of Ceylon rising above it. Flower Road was almost like an urban forest – green, lush, not a commercial establishment, apartment or office in sight. From the top of Hill Street in Dehiwala, you could easily see a large stretch of the sea, unhindered by concrete or construction. The arc from the tip of Mount Lavinia to the tip of the Colombo harbour was almost flat terrain, at most two storey houses and seashore – no Marine Drive, no high-rises, no sea-front hotels. The Oberoi was where the very rich at the time held their weddings, till the Hilton came up and we marvelled at its size. All this seems rather quaint now, in a Colombo defined by the dust and debris of construction. My fear is this. One of the main roads to Padukka is also the main access road to the E01 highway, entering it at Kahatuduwa. In the years to come, areas like Padukka will become more quickly accessible, pushing up land prices and basically doing to the countryside now what has happened in the immediate suburbs of Colombo over the past couple of years.
That would be a great pity.
If urbanization is inescapable, and indeed, perhaps even desirable, it needs to be done right. Public transportation, communications, network infrastructure, housing, electricity, water and sanitation are all easier to manage and deploy in a city as opposed to vast swathes of countryside. But the hardware of a city needs to be in harmony with the software – the people, the communal relations, the spaces for unexpected meetings between widely varying socio-economic groups to take place. China for example is building entire cities, but no one is moving into them. They are surreal, modern ghost cities. Just build, and inhabitants won’t always come. Padukka has a very strong sense of community, and of a collective responsibility to protect the village from harmful forces. Colombo and other cities just don’t have this beyond most front gates. Entire neighborhoods where the sense of community was strongest have now given way to high-rises, and the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala families who once all lived adjacent to each other, are now dispersed and displaced. This breakdown of a city’s oldest social fabric is what so many luxury apartments have been built on. It is pure violence. I worry that with the slow creep of urbanisation, what I love about Padukka today will be gone 30 years hence.
Question is, will anyone but a select few really miss it?