Samir Shah reports on how an architect-driven community effort has seen a new village take shape
Kalametiya reborn
When asked how he got involved in the reconstruction of Kalametiya, a small fishing village of about 140 people, a long pause ensues as Madhura Prematilleke, a Colombo-based architect, tries to sift through his thoughts. Although he had done some planning projects through his firm, Architrave, including the proposed development master plan for Trincomalee, he had never been involved in a project quite like this one.

“I didn’t go into the project as an architect,” Prematilleke says after reflection. “I wanted to help in any way I could…I just happened to be an architect.”
Prematilleke is one of a group of friends with close contact to the village that formed the “Friends of Kalametiya” (FoKal), which grew out of the Kalametiya Rehabilitation and Development (KRDT) Fund, set up shortly after the tsunami disaster.

Two of KRDT’s founders are Sonali Senaratne, a sociologist whose Ph.D research on coastal fishing villages brought her to Kalametiya in the Ambalantota area some years ago, and her husband Dinesh Sellamuttu. Early on, while non-governmental organizations were providing emergency relief and fighting over the right to rebuild the village, FoKal and KRDT were filling in the gaps with donations of clothing and extra water. Later, when temporary housing was built, the group shifted to providing boat repairs and bicycles for transport back to the old village. They also encouraged and motivated the community to stay involved in the reconstruction process.

Prematilleke soon realized that his main contribution would be his ability to represent the community to the Urban Development Authority (UDA). He registered with them to provide design and planning services and thus began a tumultuous five-month relationship.

Land had been allocated for permanent resettlement by early February, though it was four kilometres inland from the original village in which 30 of 31 families were fisherfolk. In a manner that seems to have been fairly typical throughout the country, there was nothing but confusion and miscommunication about land allocation and the coastal buffer zone from the beginning. In fact, had it not been for the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, the people of Kalametiya would still be waiting for answers. The Green Movement is a consortium of 133 NGOs, community based groups, and other organizations around the island. Three of its members moved into the temporary housing site and made enormous efforts to push through the layers of bureaucracy. At one point, waiting for a survey of the newly allocated land, they had to take the survey order from the DS’s office to the Survey Department for approval, and then take it from the department and put it in the hands of the surveyor himself.

While all of this was happening, Prematilleke and his colleagues were developing the village plan and the housing type with information and feedback they received from the villagers. The plan is quite simple in the end, with the housing organized in small clusters of six houses, each sharing a common central open space. The village’s public spaces and activities, including a cricket ground, library and nursery, were pulled to the front of the village near the road.

Here, he points out to me what he believes to be a fundamental reality in designing housing schemes in Sri Lanka: that nobody gets any more than anyone else, in any sense. Each plot and each house had to be exactly the same size. This is also why the facilities near the road will be built as common spaces, to be shared with the neighbouring villages that were unaffected by the tsunami.

The architects also made numerous visits to Kalametiya to present designs and to discuss ideas and concerns. At one particularly memorable meeting, the community assembled under a tamarind tree near the temporary housing site. With no proper arrangements for display, the architects taped their drawings to the window of a van and began the presentation. They were asked about everything from the foundation design to material selection and gave many suggestions as well.

“They were very absorbed,” recalls Prematilleke. The villagers were so involved that the Green Movement took an unusual step, and decided to hire local baases, or masons, to organize and direct construction, while relying on 80% of the labour force through community participation. “It was like a dream project…something you imagine in school that you might do one day, and it always stays there in your imagination as an ideal.”

Before construction could begin, though, the architects needed approval for the plans from the UDA. Prematilleke had been promised that there was a “Special Mechanism” that would approve house plans in one day. Ten days after submittal, with everyone eager to get started, they had heard nothing. At this point, Prematilleke called the UDA, and warned them that unless they approved the plans immediately, they would have to bring bulldozers and knock down the houses, because the villagers were going to build anyway.
“You have to take that stance if you’re speaking on behalf of these people…they have nothing left to lose,” says Prematilleke in explanation. “You have to see it from their point of view.” He received full approval the same afternoon.

The houses in Kalametiya are now under construction, and though the project seems a success, it still leaves Prematilleke open to criticism about being in implicit agreement with the coastal buffer zone.

“If you ask me as an individual,” he responds, “I am absolutely opposed to this sort of forced relocation. However, you must eventually accept the status-quo in this case and give the best deal possible. The people of Kalametiya had to make the decision to accept the situation and they did. I am only their architect.”

But he does go on to say that the UDA has not written a clear policy on this issue because they are afraid that everything they are doing is legally challengeable. In fact, according to Sharia Scharenguivel of the Law Faculty at Colombo University, their relocation of villages is legally questionable. The UDA’s policies are by-laws, or secondary legislation, and as such, any of its regulations, or as Professor Scharenguivel says, “in this case, their lack of clear regulations”, are legally challengeable.

However, given the huge expense such a challenge would entail, and the near total power given to the UDA under the Urban Development Authority Act of 1980, it becomes impractical for any group of simple fishermen to undertake.
Despite all the struggles and controversy, though, Prematilleke feels grateful that he has been able to make a contribution. “They are my best clients,” he says, referring to the people of Kalametiya. “They made changes throughout the process, and of course, during construction, and they made the project their own.”

Six months after the tsunami, the new Kalametiya village has begun to take shape and the houses are up to the roofline. Though the community participation in construction has fallen to 20% of total time and effort, the people do continue to build and take ownership.

As for Madhura Prematilleke, he looks forward to seeing the gardens growing in Kalametiya in the future, and to the time when all the unexpected small touches he sees tell him that the new village belongs to its people.

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