The Orange Line Metro Train Project – a 27-kilometre rapid transport line running through the heart of Lahore, being built at an estimated cost of USD 1.6 billion – is still to be completed. As one of eight mass transit lines proposed for the rapidly expanding city of over 11 million people, the project aims to improve public transport provision in the city, particularly as the existing network frequently suffers from overcrowding, delays and breakdowns. Due to a combination of the chosen route and the cut-and-cover technology used for construction, however, several residential and commercial areas have been affected. In one neighbourhood, residents, many of whom had lived there since Partition, only found out about the planned evictions when officials from Lahore Development Authority placed a mark on their doors and later demanded that they vacate their homes. The residents put up significant resistance but were, ultimately, evicted. While many were given some monetary compensation, several were left with no such recourse. Having lived together for generations, expanding and consolidating their housing over time, affected residents are now living in different neighbourhoods across the city. While some have been able to purchase their own homes, others have been forced to become renters, or have had to move in with extended family. Many have moved to neighbourhoods as much as 5 to 8 km away from their original place of residence, no longer able to rely on social networks formed over three generations.
Following the end of Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war in 2009, the government, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, envisioned transforming Colombo into a ‘world-class capital city’. From 2013 onwards, under the ‘Urban Regeneration Project’, this resulted in the relocation of a significant proportion of working-class communities who were occupying what was deemed to be ‘prime commercial property’, but living in what was described by the Government as ‘slums and shanties’, or later ‘underserved settlements’. A majority of the communities, however, had been allocated land or housing by the state under its various housing policies, or at the very least had a ‘green card’ from Colombo Municipal Council recognising their residence. They lived in permanent, well-built houses in which their families had invested and which they had built incrementally over time. As in Lahore, many of the families had been living in their communities for generations. Many had title deeds or government issued ownership cards. Regardless, most of the communities were given 1 to 3 months’ notice before their homes were demolished, and families relocated to state-built tower blocks located on the outer periphery of northern Colombo. From 2010 to 2014, the Urban Development Authority (UDA), the implementation agency of the Urban Regeneration Project, functioned under the newly created Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. During this period, many of the relocations and forced evictions took place following harassment and threats by military personnel, when communities resisted the move to the high-rises. Relocated communities were not compensated for their homes even if they held title deeds, and instead had to make a down payment of LKR 25,000 to LKR 100,000 and eventually LKR 1,000,000 over a period of 20 to 30 years in order to get a deed to their flat. By ‘liberating’ the ‘underutilised’ land that these communities occupied in the heart of the city, the state under then President Rajapaksa’s regime as well as the subsequent Maithripala Sirisena government, were able to hand this property over to local and foreign investors to build luxury high-rise condominiums and mixed development projects.
Property ownership, with its decidedly bourgeois roots, appears as a middle-class phenomenon. Yet, as we conducted fieldwork on housing among a range of aspiring and working-class communities in Colombo and Lahore, we found that the longing for a place to call home is present across Southasia, and in all demographics. Nowhere does this become more obvious than when the right to this cherished ideal comes under threat, as it did for our interlocutors who were evicted and relocated from their homes due to state-led infrastructure projects. Their experiences and articulations of loss bear witness that, as the scholar-activist Gautam Bhan often reminds us, housing is not just about houses, but representative of and anchoring to life itself. In doing so, the home comes to stand for life, death, and all that occurs in between. At the heart of our essay is a concern with the politics of grieving, and what Judith Butler calls ‘grievability’ – that is to say, which populations and groups are allowed to grieve and, in turn, whether their loss is recognised as grievable by others. Within mainstream state and development discourses, the economic considerations of marginalised groups dominate in a way that often erases what it is that makes their existence a life.
Although our research largely focused on the impact of this dislocation in terms of destruction of kin support networks and resettlement patterns, our interviews also made us reflect on the fabric of life that had been destroyed. Lahore and Colombo are markedly different contexts, but in both places, people talked about the loss of their homes in relation to experiences and rites associated with life and death.
Seema bibi, now in her 70s, spoke about the pain of being dislocated from Anarkali, a neighbourhood in the heart of the city of Lahore. In Anarkali, Seema bibi lived with her children and grandchildren in a four-bed, 900 square-foot home, which she had invested in and improved over time, as and when she had money. Like many other families in this neighbourhood, she had arrived after Partition in 1947, in the influx of refugees across the newly-formed border. I was a girl here, one or two years old when I came from India, and I became an old woman here. Talking about her neighbourhood, she reminisces,
All of us were here, 25 to 30 houses … Some relatives, some neighbours who feel even closer than family. We were born in the same place, grew up in the same place. We were like sisters … about 15 girls from these 20 houses.
For Seema bibi, Anarkali was home, not just because she owned a property there (purchased during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s) but also because of all the daily rhythms and special events that make a person’s life-course recognisable as a life. It was where she got married, where she was able to build a home, where she had children and grandchildren, and where she sat outside, every evening, with other elderly women from the neighbourhood. Every evening, recalled Seema bibi with some nostalgia, felt like Eid, every day like Shabarat.
Seema bibi’s family has been able to procure another house, a few kilometres away from their old neighbourhood, in this way more fortunate than most evictees who have struggled to buy alternate properties with their compensation money, often living on rent in nearby accommodation. But separated from her neighbourhood, Seema bibi is unable to feel happy. She feels anonymous and alone in this new environment, and her new neighbours are not interested even in learning her name. She says that she has become sick in her heart, filled with sadness, and feels she has aged since she moved away. One evening, when she fell ill and, according to her son, appeared on the verge of death, all the children started yelling as they brought her downstairs. In the old neighbourhood, such commotion would have brought other residents running to their house but, here in the new surroundings, no one came. Even if we were in slight pain there, someone would come, remembered her son. Seema bibi added: Over there, when someone died – even if no relatives came – there would be 150-200 people from the neighbourhood. Who will come when I die, here?
As in Lahore, in the dislocated communities in Colombo – who find themselves in unfamiliar high-rises with new neighbours – the loss of a home is never articulated as forfeiture of a physical structure. It is a loss of a way of life, a community and a trajectory of a life they had aspired to or built on. People came from wattes or settlements in which they had lived together for generations, seeing each other’s houses and families grow over time. A windfall, a bonus, or a promotion meant a new coat of paint, new furniture, and savings towards renovations or additions to the house. People can trace lifetimes of hard work and aspiration even in the physical construction of their homes, which have been built incrementally, sometimes over generations. While modifications and additions are impossible in the new apartments to which they have been moved, it is also the inability to leave and live elsewhere, owing to the restrictions the state places on ownership, that adds to their frustrations. In their old neighbourhoods, not everyone lived together in harmony; however, despite their share of fights and problems, there was security in the familiar. Now, living in apartments that they were randomly allocated, across various housing complexes/tower blocks, women in particular struggle to feel a sense of security.
Thirty-eight-year-old Malathi’s family had lived in Kompannyaveediya (or ‘Slave Island’) for decades. It was where Malathi was born. Having lived in central Colombo all her life, where everything was within walking distance and she knew everyone around her, Malathi explained the change in her daily routine after she was relocated to a ninth-floor apartment in a newly built UDA high-rise complex in Dematagoda, around ten kilometres away from her original home. Previously her children walked to the local school, but now her day started much earlier, with her rushing to ensure they got to school on time, using public transport. The rest of Malathi’s day was spent doing housework. This mainly involved doing laundry and fitting the rest of her chores around it, until the children came home from school.
What may seem like a normal day in many people’s lives, was now a burden for Malathi, and many women like her in the complex. As there is no space to dry clothes in the apartment, she had to dry them in the public corridors. Over time, druggies, according to Malathi, had started stealing clothes, which meant that residents who put their laundry out had to be vigilant. According to Malathi, if you had the bad luck of living on a lower floor with less ventilation and light, drying clothes could take days. Given the gamut of issues the relocated families face in these apartments, ranging from debt to overcrowding to loss of livelihood to insecurity, it is telling that issues around laundry form one of their first complaints. For women, it seems to encapsulate much of the loss and alienation they feel in their new surroundings. The complex to which Malathi was relocated has around 700 apartments, while other complexes have over 800 and smaller complexes around 500 apartments. That people did not have a say in the allocation of apartments and entire communities were broken up and spread across floors and sometimes complexes, is a significant contributor to the sense of alienation they feel.
In their old homes, women relied on kin and neighbours to keep an eye on their laundry or help with childcare. The ‘druggies’ who stole clothes were known entities, so women would be vigilant of the familiar and also the unknown. Relationships built over a lifetime gave women mobility and security. In the apartments they say they feel like chickens in a coop. Even in cases where entire communities had been moved to a single high-rise complex, women spoke of how day-to-day interactions with neighbours had changed dramatically because they no longer met each other on a daily basis as they did their grocery shopping, hung out their laundry, or accompanied their children to school. Even where a single street had moved onto one floor, women complained that it was not the same. Visiting each other in their homes was not how women from these communities had interacted or maintained social relations. Rather it was through the day-to-day interactions outside their homes – sitting on their porches, sweeping their part of the road, and also participating in religious and cultural festivals – that women built social networks.
The non-material qualities that define ‘the good life’ include, according to Edward Fischer, aspiration and opportunity, dignity and fairness, and a commitment to a larger purpose. These non-material qualities highlight how the good life is an on-going aspiration for something better, which gives meaning to life’s pursuits, underscores the importance of hope, and emphasises how people everywhere try to live a life that is deemed meaningful and worthy. Aspirations are brought to life on a day-to-day basis not only through ‘doing’ – i.e working hard, improving the home – but also through ‘being’ – enacting the rituals of life.
Now in her mid-40s, Krishani and her family had lived in one of the oldest garden tenement communities in central Colombo for over 50 years. In 2014, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) gave them notice to vacate their homes, part of the initiative to reclaim commercially viable property under the Urban Regeneration Project. All community members were told to submit the necessary paperwork and down-payment (LKR 50,000) if they wanted a flat allocated in the newly constructed high-rise buildings. Within a span of three months Krishani, along with her two sons both in their early twenties, had to relocate from a community they’d known all her life, to a 400 square-foot flat with new neighbours on the second floor of Methsara Uyana.
Krishani had become a single mother of two boys in her late 20s. By working as a waitress for a caterer, Krishani managed to educate her two sons and buy a small plot of land close to her parents’ home, on which she built a single storey house with a living room, one bedroom and a kitchen. By placing a concrete slab on top instead of a roof, Krishani had hopes of expanding the house ‘one day’ so that her sons would each have a unit of their own when they married. I only had a one-storey house there, but I had put a slab so that I could build two more floors for my sons when they got married. Her sons were in their early 20s and had just entered the workforce – the older son had joined a private hospital as a clerk, and the younger son had joined the navy. Krishani had been hopeful that with two additional incomes, she would be able to fulfill her dream of expanding her house. I was planning to build when we were evicted. I had even made inquiries about the costs. The move to a high-rise flat, however, had completely thwarted her hopes for the future. Krishani was both angry and dejected about the eviction. Now what expansion can we do here? Krishani asked. She then got up from her seat and punched the ceiling and the walls to indicate how flimsy the building materials were. Imagine trying to expand here? The building will fall on our heads. It is already collapsing.
She was deeply upset about there being no space to place a dining table in the hall area. How will I provide a meal for my sons’ in-laws when they decide to marry? […] I cannot expect them to eat with their plates on their laps. It’ll be so shameful! Krishani then reflected on her own future passing and how her body would not be kept at home until the cremation, due to the lack of space. I feel so sorry for my sons. When I die, they will have to keep my body in the community centre. They won’t have me close to them. They will sleep here alone knowing my body is downstairs.
‘Home’ for Krishani meant a place where the rituals of life and death are enacted – where duty to kin and obligations of care are fulfilled. In her new home relations of love and care could not continue in their usual forms, not only because of the lack of physical space, but also because her hopes for the future had been thwarted. The move to a flat represented a contraction of life for many of the residents who had been forcibly moved to the flats. Disconnected from family and community, with no hope of expanding the home, life had become tenuous and more precarious; people felt they were no longer ‘living’, only surviving and dying alone.
Being taken out of the daily rhythms of their familiar neighbourhoods, thwarted our interlocuters’ sense of self and identity – now unable to commemorate what they achieved over the course of lives and with little space to aspire for more. Life in the old neighbourhoods, or wattes of Colombo, had, by no means, been ideal – we do not intend to reproduce a romanticised vision of the bonds and community of the poor. In Anarkali too, despite a rose-tinted image recalled by some evicted residents, there were many local antagonisms and resentments, arising out of differences in social status, religious and political worldviews and personal tastes. One evicted resident once said to us, the thing with closed and tight neighbourhoods is that there is no place to hide your secrets and filth, everyone knows everything about everyone, ready to pounce on any new bit of information. Yet, it is perhaps precisely these kinds of frustrations and antagonisms, along with the comforts and strengths of the familiar that add texture to an individual life and give it a specific, recognisable form.
In a multi-site study conducted to understand how various ethnic communities living in rural Sri Lanka conceptualised wellbeing, one key finding was the importance of ‘home’ in people’s vision of the good life (PADHI 2008) – honda gedera-dorak – translated as ‘a good house with a door’. In tandem, in envisioning the ‘good life’, women talked about the importance of a ‘good home’ in bringing up good children and their own need to contribute to their communities to experience a sense of self-worth. Relocation here undermines a way of life: relations once valued for their sturdiness in space and durability over time – staying in the same home and neighbourhood for generations – have been dismantled overnight. Infrastructure projects take for granted that ‘development’ will lead to improving the quality of life for all people. Within this hegemonic postcolonial vision, politicians, policy makers and planners assume that the rewards of development will always outweigh its risks, banking on the teleological optimism of an ultimate trickling down. Sacrifices must be made in the short-term for long-term benefits. Moreover, they assume a uniform meaning and value of development. While even those relocated were open to the idea of sacrifice in the name of development, they have a very different sense of how the gains of development will flow to them.
Butler’s theory about ‘grievable lives’ – how all human life is not equally valued – is applicable in this context. Whose lives are put at risk and who is asked to endure sacrifices? In the case of Colombo and Lahore, the lives of the urban working-class poor are regarded, by the state and established social groups, as somehow less ‘grievable’ than others, politicians and policymakers callously defying or disregarding that a sense of home is built not through bricks and mortar, or monetary compensation, but through human connections and belonging. Yet the ‘poor’, like other social groups, experience the desire and aspiration to build lives for themselves that exceed their present, along with and for others around them – their economic vulnerability does not override this. When politicians offer (what they consider) generous monetary compensation for a home or relocate families to (what they classify) a more ‘modern’ environment, they can also undermine what makes a life liveable.
This article is based on research supported by the project ‘Rebuilding kinship and care after dislocation: Lahore and Colombo compared’, funded by the British Academy and Global Research Challenges Fund’s Cities and Infrastructure Programme. Informant names have been changed to protect identities and reported speech is here given translated into English.
Asha L. Abeyasekera is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo, and coordinates the MA in Gender and Women's Studies. Ammara Maqsood is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at University College London. Her book The New Pakistani Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2017) was awarded the AIPS 2019 Book Prize. Iromi Perera is a Colombo based researcher and activist. She is the curator of the Right to the City Sri Lanka initiative. Fizzah Sajjad is an Urban Planner based in Lahore. She works as Research and Policy Director at the Mahbub ul Haq Research Centre at LUMS.