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FeaturesNewsMilitarising Public Space And Silencing The Vulnerable – State Defence And City Development Ministry

Militarising Public Space And Silencing The Vulnerable – State Defence And City Development Ministry


Jude Fernando
All institutions representing city development are now under the purview of the State Defence and City Development Ministry – the new name of the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Defence is a top-down command driven institution, while the development institutions are expected to be democratic.
Their respective systems of governance and accountability are different. Will this arguably uneasy security-development merger, that mimics ‘new urbanism’ typical in cities around the world, replace public spirited behaviour and deliberative political choices with selfish interests, authoritarianism and militancy?

The argument that all that is necessary for sustainable urban development is liberating the urban space from the threat of terrorism, criminal behaviour and inefficient public institutions, results in misleading, misplaces and distorts the historical reasons for security development convergence. Security as a response to law and order completely overlooks the socio-economic marginalisation and segregation experienced by the poor in a city of extremes. Colombo is polarised between malls, gleaming high towers, skyscrapers, casinos, night clubs, entertainment parlours, luxury housing complexes and Collywood glitz (Sri Lankan version of Bollywood and Hollywood), and the slums and crowded tenements where janitors, labourers, rural immigrants and the urban poor live.

The efficiency argument is primarily about taking over land, property, education, health, water sanitation and transportation, and selling them to the highest bidder, or simply transforming those into commodities accessible based not on need, but ability to pay the highest price, and thus have the appearance, etiquette and civility as conceived by the investors and the middle class.  Such urban development mimics the division of the world by developing two classes: the haves and have-nots.  Security and efficiency combination is about replacing social welfare efficiency with market efficiency, and it only serves to compound the dispossession, marginalisation and insecurity of vulnerable urban communities. Since the colonial period the state responses to these inequities have progressively resulted in silencing and criminalising these communities.

Since the colonial period the urban centres have been vibrant public spaces for intense intellectual and political activity where inequalities were debated, contested and resolved, and the relative tranquility in the urban areas has been maintained through the state welfare system.  Since 1977, the rolling back of social welfare policies, and the deregulation and liberalisation of the economy forced the state to assume the responsibility of reclaiming and privatising urban commons to provide flexibility and stability for urban development.  Land, property and social, political and cultural institutions had to be flexible enough to follow the interests of urban developers and investors.  Stability meant suppressing dissent against urban reforms and cleaning the city of less-desirable activities such as begging, homelessness, loitering and free enjoyment of urban space. Merging security with development provides a method for resolving the paradox of a neo-liberal state.  Increasing the role of the state in response to both objective and subjective insecurities, hence its increasing power is a direct result of it transferring its resources away from social welfare to the service of the markets. The state power expands as a safety network for the investors than the masses. New urbanism as a way of resolving this “big state-small state paradox” (also known as rolling in and rolling out of the state) inevitably involves reclaiming the urban space. This may include the privatisation of urban services and social safety networks, the acquisition of private property, novel architectural design of buildings, lifestyles and culture, the securitisation and surveillance of and an active involvement in the urban informal sector and underworld in the urban affairs. Outcomes of these interventions are unpredictable and contentious because society cannot keep pace with, nor are they willing to be passive victims of new urbanisms’ demands for change and their consequences. As far back as the 1920s, class, race and ethnicity played a critical determinant in how the state sought to develop the urban economy and address social and economic inequalities.  Although the redistributive social welfare contract prevailed until 1977, anti-minority social mobilisation riots and new policies were evidence of the increasing importance of race and ethnicity over class to the politicians who sought to deal with urban inequalities.
 Following the 1983 riots, property developers, including those from the Sinhala and Tamil Diaspora, invested in gated communities, high-rise apartment buildings, luxury houses and malls. Their  main patrons were both urban and rural rich Diaspora, particularly Tamils.  The large concentration of Tamils in the well-fortified, newly built apartments was evidence of their dispossession, marginalisation, insecurity and anxieties.

Real estate development and financial capital in the form of foreign direct investments are two important pillars of new urbanism.  The urban landscape is transformed into complexes where production, recreation, housing, cultural and religious experiences, and open green spaces are all integrated and secure.  Individuals with private automobiles could escape from the cold realities on the streets by moving freely from their fortified housing complexes to malls.  The products of the village are now brought to the mall so anyone could enjoy traditional village food cooked in clay pots, banana leaves and village environment, without actually living in the villages.
 Villagers now supply traditional vegetables and fruits to the urban population, and in turn, the urban supermarkets provide them higher prices that they could use to purchase other necessities.  Rural food insecurity and unhealthy consumption habits are often a direct result of the “supermarketisation” of food distribution and the lifestyles promoted by the urban areas.  Urban rich consumers eat organic food and experience green lifestyles, while the poor consume contaminated food and live in unhealthy environments.  New shopping complexes and malls continue to displace local businesses and street vendors, and subsequently increasing the cost of living for the urban poor.

The redevelopment of Colombo as a fantasy and entertainment city (known as ‘Disneyfication’, in which the aesthetic production and consumption are intertwined) was about leveraging and marketing culture and history to enhance the competitiveness of the city. The hardships caused to local businesses that had been there for generations by the renovation of the Dutch Hospital in Pettah for tourism, and alleged interests in removing the Bandaranaike statue adjacent to the former military camp, now sold to Shangri-La Hotel Ltd., were primarily about subjugating urban icons to market forces. New urbanism deprives the nationals of their urban commons. People are now realising that city fathers are collaborators of the imperialist and Western projects that they despise in public (thanks to WikiLeaks and the internet). As the victory over the LTTE becomes a distant memory and the global war against terrorism as a legitimising factor of the militarisation of urban space rapidly losing its public appeal, people begin to focus on the failures of the state.  Awareness of the people around the world that “the emperor has no clothes” is now leading them to reclaim the urban commons through solidarity groups that realise their power lies not in the national space, but in transnational networks of marginalised and vulnerable populations.


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