Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who cares about Marina?

Marina* is our 'Cleaning lady,' an attractive, dark, late thirtyish Muslim woman, with a sweet and humble smile,  who glides around the place keeping things clean and silently goes away dressed in black. She is the only person in office who doesn't have her clique, dosnt eat with us at the lunch table, the usual office rules don't apply perhaps since she is considered  a 'menial', or uneducated...but she's used to that. She never fails to make a delicious wattalappan on Ramzan day, for the whole staff.

She is in her late thirties I imagine, and has a son​, who is the most important person in her life​
. The main people in her life are her son and her sister, who is the only sibling. This sister has a son, and this tiny family have only each other.  14 years ago, her husband and her sister's husband were caught in a train accident, while going in her husbands three-wheeler, to distribute wattalapan on Ramzan day, I assume. Since then they have been widows, and in typical traditional style, they have lived to bring up their sons, without thinking about themselves. They live on two sides of a road, but at dinner time Marinas sister and son come to her dwelling and have dinner and watch TV, and they do their homework together. That wont happen anymore.

Some mahattayas from the government are asking  Marina and her sister to leave their homes and say they are giving them "high rise apartments" instead. This sounds nice on the surface of it. Except that…Marina has to give up her home, for which she has deeds, and go to some strange place, and live on the third floor of a cramped apartment, and pay rent for it- for twenty years. A rent which will be about a fifth of her income. And her sister has to go and live in some other apartment in some other block, with strange neighbors and won't be able to walk over again to meet the only family she has.

And these apartments have rules. You cant hang clothes to dry, you cant keep rubbish outside the door, you cant make noises, you cant put the TV loudly, you cant put your kids outside, they have to be inside. Its not clear what happens if you break those rules. Its not clear what happens if you cant pay the rent
​, they were told they woud have to pay interest.

There are 35 houses to one floor, in the building Marina's sister has been sent to. You have to pay a deposit of 50,000/=  and you have to pay rent for 20 years, and only then will you get the deeds to these flats. Marina along with a number of other residents in her area have objected and filed a case against this.

"Why do we have to pay rent, this house is mine. I worked hard for this, for years in the Middle East. I don't want to go to a flat. I want my son to have a place to stay, what if something happens to me?  20 years is a long time. We have never asked anything from this government, not even a bag of rice, why are they making trouble for us?" asks Marina. Her sister has had to go, because she didn't have clear deeds to her house. She has borrowed the downpayment from loan sharks and has to pay a large interest for that too, on a monthly basis.

​According to Marina, a Chinese national visited the group of her neighbours in behalf of the donors ​and told them that they dont have to pay any money, the new flats have been a gift of a foreign government. However after the man went away, the government mahattayas again returned to talk about the payments. Marina's sister is not only terrified about the large loan she has to take and interest and rent she will have to pay, she worries about losing the only family she has.

"My sister dosnt even live at home, she works till late and she just comes home to sleep only. Now who will look after her son, when she is out?" Marina asks. Marina's sister has spent the last few days with her belongings  packed into cardboard boxes and plastic bags, crying almost continuously. Her teenage son will be torn from his familiar surroundings and left unsupervised in a high rise slum with every potential for trouble in future, while his widowed mother slaves at two jobs daily to pay rent and interest, for almost a third of a life time,  in the name of the beautification of Colombo.

read more about forced evictions here 
​* Not her real name ​

Update February 20th 2015
I spoke to Marina this afternoon.
Unfortunately the change in Government was too late to save her sisters house. They have to live in a high rise building where 4 elevators service almost 400 apartments (the smell in the elevator is terrible she says, what with all the garbage too having to be brought down through it) There is no turning back as her house has been demolished and she did not get any compensation or rights to the land.