When Worlds Collide #63: Looking for Real Cities in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 21 April 2013

Colombo Harbour & part of Fort at night - Image courtesy SriLankan Airlines

Colombo Harbour & part of Fort at night – Image courtesy SriLankan Airlines

I enjoyed the mid April traditional New Year holidays for a very practical (and selfish) reason.

When much of the country shuts down, traffic congestion on Colombo and suburban streets disappears, as do crowds in most public spaces. For a few days, we natives of Colombo and suburbs have our city for ourselves…

Curiously, though, many friends and colleagues pity me for not having a village (‘gama’) to return to. When one called me ‘rootless’, I protested. Born and raised in Kotte, just south-east of Colombo city, I’m attached to the place. My roots are just as real as anybody else’s…

A city-dweller’s loyalty to her place of origin can be just as authentic as any villager’s. Sadly, this isn’t widely appreciated in Sri Lanka where too many urbanites harbour real – or imaginary – affinities to a supposedly idyllic village.

Our society’s relationship with cities is a bit like how travellers relate to airports: a necessary facility, but not a place to stay on for any longer than necessary. Everybody is coming from or going to somewhere else.

In 1994, travel writer Pico Iyer spent a week actually living at Los Angeles International Airport, studying it both as a community within itself and as a metaphor for the city at large. His insights are shared in a chapter in his travelogue, “The Global Soul” (Knopf, 2000).

Treating cities like transitory utilities is not helpful if we want to evolve them into safe, productive and enjoyable places to live.

And whether we like it or not, urbanisation is a fact of modern life.

UN-HABITAT, which tracks global trends in how and where we live, announced in 2008 that half of humanity was now living in cities – for the first time in history.

The Nairobi-anchored UN agency also projected that within two decades (by or before 2030), nearly 60% of the world’s people will become city dwellers. Much of this growth is happening in the developing world, where cities gain an average of 5 million residents every month (new births plus many migrants).

How urban are we?

Just how many among Sri Lanka’s 20.27 million people (as counted in March 2012) live in cities?

It all depends on definitions, about which there is no consensus. The Economic and Social Statistics of Sri Lanka 2012, issued by the Central Bank, refers to 21.5% of our population being urban (with 72.2% rural and 6.3% estate sector). Other documents cite 30% urban and 70% rural.

But as experts like town planner Prof Ashley L S Perera of the University of Moratuwa have pointed out, these figures are misleading. When the new local government unit called Pradeshiya Sabhas was carved out in late 1980s for political expediency, it totally ignored the urban rural divide, he says. This has led to much confusion about ‘urban areas’.

I see this everyday. I am served by the Kotte Muncipal Council, counted as urban. Less than two km from where I live, with no significant change in infrastructure or landscape, the Maharagama Pradeshiya Sabha area is defined as ‘rural’!

Such surreal demarcations are found all over the island – lulling some people into believing that we still live on a predominantly rural island. But do we, really?

Whatever the administrative definitions, people keep voting with their feet: moving in search of better citizen services and opportunities. Recent projections suggest that over half of all Lankans would be living in cities or towns by 2025 – or sooner.

This will have major implications on infrastructure, economy and society. Are we ready for this physically and emotionally? When will our society awake from its ‘rural romance’ and confront reality?

Sri Lanka’s Urban Vision, as defined in the government’s development policy framework (Mahinda Chintana) is “to develop a system of competitive, environmentally sustainable, well-linked cities clustered in five metro regions and nine metro cities and to provide every family with affordable and adequate urban shelter by 2020”.

Technocratic planning is necessary, but not sufficient. Government diktats and spatial growth alone do not make cities.

A city, at its most basic, is a collective state of mind. And by that philosophical definition, we cannot find a single city in Sri Lanka!

Village Mindsets

It’s not simply a matter of size, density, history or level of prosperity. As Manu Joseph, Indian journalist and novelist, argued recently, our giant neighbour may not have any real cities either.

Manu Joseph

Manu Joseph

He wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times: “India is essentially a village, and because it is a village it is a woman’s ancient foe. Even the country’s apparent cities are overwhelmed by deep and enduring infestations of rural tradition and the fellowships of the conservatives who hold women in low esteem. The Parliament and legislative assemblies are largely confederations of village headmen.” (See: ‘City Setting, but Village Mentalities’, 2 January 2013)

He was commenting on public agitation across India for greater safety and respect for women in cities. These demands elicited a backlash from some politicians and policemen, who blamed attacks on women on the women’s own modernity.

“If the idea of a city, as evident in the world’s greatest cities, is the very opposite of the reality of an Indian village, if a city is supposed to be a liberal, broad-minded place that is a young woman’s best friend, then does India truly have even a single city?” Joseph asked.

He quoted the primary author of the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, who said over half a century ago: “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic. … What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?”

The debate on what makes real cities unfolds among the argumentative Indians. And as the world becomes urban faster than ever before, this question is sparking off discussion in other countries. We should have our own.

Real Cities

Beyond urban infrastructure and administrative designations, what makes an urban area a city: bohemian culture, bustling nightlife, defiance of authority, secularism or other factors? How are these and other intangible qualities nurtured, and by whom – elites, merchant class, artistes or intellectuals?

Cities are where many worlds collide, but in a liberal and pluralistic setting. Real city dwellers learn to navigate through contentious issues without aggression or violence. It’s the pseudo urbanites who merely transplant their village mindsets, along with feudalism and intolerance.

The idea of a city can and must be explored at many levels, by sociologists, anthropologists, writers and filmmakers. Issues of culture clashes, sub-cultures, affinities and identity, among many others, make cities a veritable treasure trove for our researchers.

First, they must give up their obsession with the now mythical ‘Village in the Jungle’. And stop demonising or trivialising urban realities.

For open-minded scholars, there is plenty to probe in our prospective cities. For example, I’ve always been curious why distinctive subcultures have emerged in certain suburban towns like Moratuwa and Negombo, but not in others.

Anuradhapura, now in ruins, was once a great city of the ancient world - and not just physically

Anuradhapura, now in ruins, was once a great city of the ancient world – and not just physically

Or what made Anuradhapura a great (and proper) city of the ancient world for nearly a millennium? Why did subsequent seats of government fail to match that standard? Have we had any real cities since?

There are research topics for the future-minded too. Is the city as we know it becoming outmoded? Will communications technologies render such hubs less important in economic or utilitarian terms? Will future cities matter more in social and cultural spheres? What might city 2.0 be like?

And while at it, can we also resolve a minor but important terminological matter? Despite five centuries of habitation, there seems no agreed term for a resident of Colombo.

Colombian and Colombite are already taken. A quick Twitter poll threw up six suggestions (some harder to pronounce than others): Colombar, Colomboan, Colombuvans, Colomboid, Colombish, Colombese.

What do you prefer?

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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