The case of Colombo, Sri Lanka

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  • sion. Monsoon rain, which is the dominant type, occursin two monsoon periods per year. These two seasonshave been identified as the south-west and north-eastmonsoons. Convection rain and depression rain occurmainly during the inter-monsoon periods. The annualaverage rainfall varies between 1,000 ml in the arid partsof the north-west and south-east of the island to over5,000 ml on the south-western hill slopes. Relativehumidity varies generally from about 70 per cent duringthe day to about 90 95 per cent during the night. In theDry Zone these values are about 5 per cent lower.

    2. DemographicsSri Lanka's first population census was taken in the

    year 1871, and was repeated every 10 years thereafter.According to the first census, the total population of thecountry was recorded as 2,400,400 people(Department of Census and Statistics, 1871). 100years after the first census, in 1971 the country's popu-lation had increased to 12,698,900 people (Departmentof Census and Statistics, 1971). The subsequent pop-ulation censuses were taken in 1981 and 2001 (no cen-sus was taken in 1991 due to civil disturbances in north-ern and eastern parts of the country). The total popula-



    1. Location and ClimateSri Lanka is an island situated in the tropics, between

    the latitudes of 6 and 10 degrees north just at the south-ern tip of India. It covers an area of 64,454 km2 includ-ing the large inland water bodies, which constitute about1,156 km2 The island is pear-shaped, the maximumnorth-south distance being 435 km and the greatesteast-west width being 225 km. The mountainous area inthe south-central region, which rises to 2500 metres issurrounded on all sides by coastal plains, narrow in thewest, east and south, but broadening to an extensivearea in the north. The coastline of the country is about1,600 km long (Mendis, 1998).

    Climatically, Sri Lanka falls into two distinct regions The Wet Zone and the Dry Zone. The Wet Zone corre-sponds mainly to the south-western quadrant of thecountry, which covers about 30 per cent of the land areawhile the remaining 70 per cent of the land area formsthe Dry Zone.

    A distinct variation in temperature can be observedbetween the Central Hill Country and Low Country withminimum and maximum average temperatures of 17.6Cand 25.8C in the Hill Country and 24.3C and 31.5C inthe Low Country respectively.

    The country receives rainfall throughout the year iden-tified by three types: monsoon, convection and depres-

    The case of

    Colombo, Sri Lanka

    by Sevanatha


    Urban Resource Centre14 Schol Lane, Nawala Road, RajagiriyaSri LankaTel/Fax: 94-1-878893






  • tion of the country according to the population census of2001 was 16,864,687 (Department of Census andStatistics, 2001).

    It was revealed that particularly from the 1980s to thepresent, the annual population growth rate has beenbelow 1.5 per cent (Department of Census andStatistics, 1981). According to the Human DevelopmentIndex, life expectancy was 71 for males and 76 forfemales (Central Bank, 2001) The country has a litera-cy rate of 91.4 per cent, 94 per cent for men and 89 percent for women, indicating the benefits of equal oppor-tunities in education (Central Bank, 2001) .

    3. Racial Composition of the PopulationSri Lankan society is a multi-racial one in which a

    majority Sinhalese and several minority racial groupshave been living together for centuries. The racial andreligious composition of the population according to the1981 census is indicated below.

    4. Economic TrendsSri Lanka being a developing country, its economy

    relies mainly on agriculture and service sector activities.Its GDP growth rate has been fluctuating over the yearsand observed varied between 6.9 per cent in 1993 and4.7 per cent in 1998 which was moving up to 6.0 percent in the year 2000 (Central Bank, 2001).

    With continuing a war situation in North/Eastprovince, since early 1980s , the country's economywas managed to maintain a GDP growth rate of above5% . This was reflected in the per capita GNP whichhas ranged from 804 US$ to 841 US$ during the period1997 2000 (Central Bank, 2001).

    As indicated in the above table, it is clear that thecountry's GDP is still dominated by the service sectoractivities and the agriculture sector. The manufacturingsector, although it has received a great deal of attention,particularly since the early 1980s (when the economicliberalisation policies were introduced), its contributionhas not yet even reached a quarter of the country's GDP.

    5. The Urbanisation PatternAccording to the census of population, the country's

    population is concentrated into three major economicsectors. These include Urban, Rural and EstatePlantation sectors. According to the 2001 census, 72.2per cent of the country's population live in the rural sec-tor, 21.5 per cent in the urban and 6.3 per cent in theestate plantation sector (Department of Census andStatistics, 2001) This provides a clear picture of the spa-tial distribution of population, which is predominantly arural bias distribution.

    In Sri Lanka, there is no clear definition of urbanareas. The urban status for an area is statutorily con-ferred purely for local administrative purposes by theminister in charge of local government. The urbanadministrative areas are identified by two categories,municipal council areas and urban council areas.Presently, there are about 18 municipal council areasand 37 urban council areas in Sri Lanka. The rest of thecountry falls under rural councils, which are known asPradeshiya Sabhas (PSs) "local councils". There areabout 254 such PSs in the country. (Source :Sri LankaInstiute of Local Goverance,2002) The municipal councilareas include most of the districts and provincial towncentres located throughout the country. The Colombo

    Urban Slums Reports: The case of Colombo, Sri Lanka

    Table 1: Racial and ReligiousComposition of the Population

    Source: Economic and Social statistics of SriLanka 2001, Central Bank of Sri Lanka

    Table 2: Economic Statistics / National Accounts

    1978 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

    Per Capita GNP US $ 175 587 651 709 747 804 826 813 841

    Real GDP Growth% 8.2 6.9 5.6 5.5 3.8 6.3 4.7 4.3 6.0

    GDP by Sectors

    Agriculture %30.5 24.6 23.8 23.0 22.4 21.9 21.1 21.3 20.5

    Mining and quarrying %1.8 1.9 2.0 1.9 2.0 2.1 1.9 1.8 1.7

    Manufactu-ring %20.0 15.2 15.4 15.7 16.2 16.4 16.5 16.8 17.4

    Construction %4.9 7.2 7.3 7.4 6.9 7.0 7.6 7.6 7.0

    Services %42.9 51.1 51.5 51.9 52.4 52.6 52.8 52.9 53.4

    Source: Economic and Social Statistics of Sri Lanka 2001, Central Bank of Sri Lanka

    By Ethnicity % By Religion %



    Sri LankanTamils 12.6


    Indian Tamils5.5







  • work as self-employed people and or running their ownbusiness usually earn more than Rs. 500.00 per day.Thus an average unskilled worker could earn about Rs.4,000.00 to Rs.5,000.00 per month while a skilled work-er can earn more than Rs. 6,000.00 per month. It wasfound through recent investigations carried out in urbanpoor settlements where SEVANATHA have beenengaged in improvement work, that self employedurban poor earn over Rs. 8,000.00 per month(SEVANATHA, 2001). In this context, it can be said thatthe informal sector activities in Colombo provide reliableopportunities for the urban poor to earn a reasonableincome.

    However, many of the informal sector activities in thecity face problems of integrating into the city's formalsector activities. The pavement hawkers are not allowedto operate in some busy streets. The UrbanDevelopment Authority as well as the ColomboMunicipal Council are making arrangements to providethem with alternative spaces to operate. In the mean-time, the municipal council has launched a programmeto introduce movable carts with roofs and spaces foridentified pavement hawkers to operate their businessactivities in a manner acceptable to the council. Thus,the need for integrating the informal sector activities intothe city's formal system has been recognised inColombo. Therefore, large-scale evictions and hostileactions by the city authorities towards informal sectoractivities have not taken place so far in Colombo. It wasalso evident that a majority of people who do engage ininformal sector activities have organised themselvesinto some form of associations so that they canapproach the officials and politicians to discuss theirproblems.

    In the absence of recent official studies, the viewsexpressed above are based on the experiences of theproject staff of SEVANATHA.


    Colombo was built by the colonial rulers of the island,who included the Portuguese from 1505 to 1656, theDutch from 1506 to 1796 and the British from 1796 to1948. The country gained independence in 1948 fromthe British rule. In building the city, the colonial rulersseem to have paid greater empjhasis on the port andport related activities to support their trade activities andadministration. They built a canal network, a rail androad network connecting Colombo with the hinterland toensure transportation of commodities from the country-side to the port. The development of city activities in thepast seem to have been mainly concentrated in thearea around the port (presently Pettah and Fort areas)and towards the northern highland area of Mattakkuliyawhere housing and warehouses were located. The east-ern flood plain remained undeveloped while the south-

    Municipal Council functions as the country's primateurban centre accommodating a residential populationof about 642,000 (2001)