While the Colombo city beautification project continues, the government has turned its attention towards Bauddhaloka Mawatha and the residents around the proposed new Russian Embassy complex are facing eviction.
The Sri Lankan Government has sold nine acres of prime land to the Russian Embassy, for its upcoming project, bordering Bauddhaloka Mawatha, in the most sought after location of the country. It is learnt that the government has promised the Russians that it would be clearing the areas in the vicinity in order to create a feasible environment for the embassy.
If this happens, around one hundred families, who have been living in the area for over 100 years, will face eviction from their ancestral homes. And what’s more? An equally old mosque, built with the hardwork and sweat of the Muslim families living in the vicinity, will be destroyed.
UDA conducts census
Recently, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) had gone from house to house gathering information from the residents. They had sought information on the number of members in each family and their livelihood.
While the UDA claims it was an ordinary census that had been carried out, the residents claim that the census was in preparation for the eviction process that would take place.
Ironically, some of the residents are more than willing to move out if sufficient compensation is being paid to them. Yet, there is another section that does not want to move.
A.R.M. Haniffa (82 years), who claims that he and his forefathers have been living in the area all their lives, says the people who are ready to move out are those recent settlers who are hoping to obtain luxury homes from the government. In his case, he holds around 50 perches of land and all his children and grandchildren live on the land. His sister, Abdul Rahuman Sidique (75), also lives in the same compound and she holds around 44 perches of land. She claims her mother and grandmother all lived on that land, which has been in the family for over 200 years.
All those living in the area are Muslims, who claim to have settled down there during the colonial rule. Haniffa, who is also the head of the committee managing the mosque, claims they have documentary proof that the land belonged to them. He claims the land was crown land when they settled on it as early as 1909. “It was all crown land and my forefathers settled on the land after clearing it of dense vegetation,” he said.
He held documentary proof that their forefathers settled in those areas during British rule. According to the documents, the land belonged to the Victoria Golf Club and had been leased to the settlers in early 19th century.
Interestingly, the people, who have settled on the land leading to the mosque, are willing to move out if sufficient compensation is paid to them. Haniffa claims that those people had come and settled very much later than the original settlers and for them it would be favourable to move. However, he and his sister, Sidique, have lived there all their lives and do not want to move.
He is gripped by fear that the mosque he manages and treasures will be demolished by the government, which is extending its hold on all prime land in the city in the name of beautification. “If the people leave, the mosque will stand vulnerable and the government will come and demolish it,” he says.
Haniffa questions the Russian Embassy’s need for so much land and says they have already acquired enough land. “They want to evacuate us claiming we are a security threat. We are peaceful people,” he says.
“The proposed Russian Embassy has a 30-foot-high boundary wall separating it from the mosque and we cannot see how the settlers could be a security threat, he says.
Haniffa adds that Muslim Ministers, Rauf Hakeem and A.H.M. Fowzie are in talks with the government regarding the demolishing of the mosque and he hopes a favourable decision will be taken by the government.
“Despite this, if they go ahead and demolish, then it would turn into a testing period for President Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he said.
Haniffa says the mosque is a convenient prayer station for many dignitaries who visit the Bandaranaike Memorial International Commemorative Hall (BMICH) for various functions. “Even during CHOGM many dignitaries visited our mosque for prayers,” he says.
Considering the importance and the strategy of the place, Haniffa calls on the government to develop the mosque and the pathways leading to it so that it will serve as a prayer station for many who visit the BMICH in the future. “If President Rajapaksa takes such a decision we will support him,” he says.
Russian Embassy says…
Govt. promised to clear the land
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy says the government had promised to clear the land in the vicinity of its up and coming new complex. “The government promised to clear up the land under the city beautification project,”he said.
He added the Soviet Union had bought that land in 1986 and according to the agreement they had the legal right to buy the land when it is cleared. “We hold the preferential right of purchase,” he said.
However, he said that the people around are harmless and do not pose any security threat to the Embassy. “They are peaceful citizen,” he said. Nevertheless, he said, he only knows that the government has promised to provide alternative residences to them. “It may happen it may not but we will not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.”
UDA, Director General, Nihal Fernando
They are all
“We have not served any notice on the residents. It was just a census done of the number of families living in that area. They are all unauthorized settlements. There are 1,499 shanty areas in the city of Colombo with 68,000 families. It is to prevent double counting that we are having tags pasted on the walls of those homes. There is no eviction taking place, but we will be providing better homes to these people with electricity, water and better toilet facilities. Many of the people, we have moved out, are very happy. The people in the Dematagoda housing complex are happy with their present homes.”
The mosque, a modern two storey building with an elaborate prayer room, stands out among the shanty homes. A..R.M.Haniffa, member of the Mosque Management committee claims that the mosque was built 60 years ago with the sweat and hard work of the residents living around the area.
Senior Minister M.H.M. Fowzie says…
We have taken it up with President
The Russian Embassy wants the government to evacuate the people. There is a mosque in that area. The mosque will also be affected. They say it is for safety reasons. We have taken it up with the President and a five-member committee has been formed to look into the matter. Discussions are on and we will have the deliberations of the committee in another two weeks.