o make space for others is one of the noble principles in the vision of deep unity in diversity where we not only protect and promote diversity but also celebrate it. Thankfully this is also a part of the foundation of the new National Government, whatever the sectarian critics or cynics may say. The government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe has repeatedly pledged its commitment to build a new Sri Lanka based on multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-cultural traditions.
Next Monday, Sri Lanka will join the international community in marking World Habitat Day with this year’s theme being, ‘Public Space for All’.
According to the United Nations, the main aim of the World Habitat Day is to reflect on the state of our villages, towns and cities and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter. With world poverty alleviation also being given top priority and Pope Francis giving exemplary leadership for this goal, most analysts believe the mission must begin by giving every family adequate shelter and a plot of land from where they could begin the journey of restoring their human dignity.
World Habitat Day is also intended to remind us that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our villages, towns and cities. All countries have marked this day since 1986 with different themes for each year. According to the UN, these themes often promote one of UN Habitat’s focal areas, such as inclusive housing and social services; a safe and healthy living environment for all -- with particular consideration for children, youth, women, elderly and the disabled; affordable and sustainable transport and energy; protection, promotion and restoration of green urban spaces; safe and clean drinking water and sanitation; healthy air quality; job creation; improved urban planning and slum upgrading and better waste management. These goals go far beyond charity and touch the dimensions of justice.
In Sri Lanka we are fortunate in having today the Housing and Construction Minister Sajith Premadasa, who appears to have inherited from his father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a passionate mission of providing houses for all or making space for all. The government has declared the week from October 5 to 12 as Habitat Week. On Monday the popular Mr. Premadasa told a news conference he had obtained Cabinet approval last week to provide aid to some 25,000 families which had started building houses but lacked the money to plaster the walls. Each family -- some 1,000 in every district -- would be given ten bags of cement so that living conditions, especially for the children and elders, would be much better.
This project, much in line with the goals of World Habitat Day would hopefully be completed by December this year. In the coming weeks and months, the National Government also needs to reconsider the policy -- launched mainly by former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa -- of building a multitude of high-rise apartment complexes. The Daily Mirror investigative teams in June visited the 12-storey Methsara Uyana housing complex where apartments had been given to hundreds of shanty dwellers after they were evicted from their shanties at the St. Sebastian South canal bank in Wanathamulla. These so- called luxury apartments had been opened only seven months ago but most apartments already had cracks on the walls, the complex was dirty and in need of repair, the elevators smelt of urine and phlegm and the trash rooms were overflowing with garbage.
Lalitharaja Muthukumarana, a senior architect and the first chairman of the UDA, said moving the people of these shanties to the 12-storey housing complex was inhuman. Mr. Muthukumarana, who designed the new city of Sri Jayawardenepura from 1977 to 1982 said that according to internationally recognised standards, living in a building of more than four storeys high was not healthy for residents.
“This is cruel. It is a crime. People become cold-blooded and hostile to each other when living in buildings more than four storeys high. It is a well-known fact. I can’t believe that the so-called architect who designed this complex did not know this,” Mr. Muthukumarana said in an article published in the Daily Mirror on June 24.
This raises serious questions about the multitude of high rise condominium flats being built in the cities and the suburbs with more coming up, though there are doubts about the legal validity of the title deeds given to them. So instead of setting the house on fire we need houses where the well-being of residents forms the foundation for healthy living. Then only will the Habitat days, weeks months or years