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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka Nihal Perera Department of Urban Planning, College of Architecture and Planning, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306-0315 U.S.A. Edward Said exposes how the U.S. stereotype of the Orient is constructed, hegemonized, and reproduced. The cities that the scholars talk about, the administrators administer, and the planners plan are also perceptions. This article investigates the construction of the perception of low-income areas in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as problems by its British colonial authorities in the 1910s–20s. It undertakes the cultural “unpacking” of this continuing colonial discourse. The article focuses on how the “concrete” living environments that had existed for many decades were re-presented as problems and as objective knowledge. It addresses a conflict and negotiation between two European groups: the British and British colonial authorities in Colombo. I argue that the tipping point of this transformation was the introduction of the Housing Ordinance of 1915 and that the transformation has more to do with British town planning discourses, of which the ordinance is a part, than with local conditions or indigenous or colonial viewpoints. However, this social production of urban problems must be seen within layers of power stemming from the imperial-colonial structures but mediated by regional officers who varied the practice of colonialism while maintaining the ideology of the “orientalist discourse.” It demonstrates that planners and authorities do not have a privileged vantage point to view the city, nor are their positions superior.

article examine la construction de la perception de quartiers à bas revenus à Colombo au Sri Lanka, identifiés comme étant des problèmes par les autorités britanniques durant les années 1910 et 1920. Il entreprend de « défaire » ce discours colonial persistant. Cet article se concentre sur la façon dont des cadres « concrets » de vie qui existaient depuis des décennies ont été re-présentés comme étant des problèmes et des faits objectifs. Il discute le conflit et la négociation affectant deux groupes européens: les Britanniques et les autorités coloniales britanniques à Colombo. Nous montrons que le moment d’inflexion de cette transformation a été l’introduction du Décret sur le logement de 1915 et que cette transformation est plus liée aux discours urbanistiques britanniques, duquel le décret émane, qu’aux conditions locales ou aux points de vue autochtones ou coloniaux. Néanmoins, cette production sociale de problèmes urbains doit être saisie dans le cadre de l’existence de couches de pouvoir issues des structures impériales et coloniales mais mitigées par l’intervention d’agents régionaux qui ont diversifié les pratiques du colonialisme tout en maintenant l’idéologie du « discours orientaliste ». L’article démontre que les aménageurs et les acteurs publics ne sont pas des observateurs privilégiés de la ville et que leurs positions ne sont pas supérieures.

Key words: urban perceptions, colonial urbanism, representation, urban problems, orientalism, Said

Mots clés : perceptions urbaines, urbanisme colonial, représentation, problèmes urbains, orientalisme, Saïd

Edward Saïd a montré comment le stéréotype américain de l’Orient est construit, hégémonisé et reproduit. Les villes décrites par les scientifiques, gérées par les administrateurs, et aménagées par les urbanistes sont également des perceptions. Cet

Making his most crucial contribution to our knowledge—within the Western academy— Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) exposes how the modern U.S. stereotype of the Orient

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64 has been constructed, hegemonized, and reproduced. Like Orientalism, the city is also a perception. The cities that the scholars talk about, the city administrators administer, and the urban planners plan are all perceptions. This article investigates the construction and development of a particular perception of Colombo, the former capital of Sri Lanka (Ceylon until 1972), in the 1910s and 1920s. Beginning in the early 16th century, Colombo had been the capital of colonial Ceylon under the Portuguese, Dutch, and British for four centuries.i It was built and restructured according to contemporary European urban norms and standards and was seemingly well adjusted to the needs of the colonial community in Colombo. Adapting to its environment, the colonial community also evolved with this colonial port city. Yet in the late 1910s, quite abruptly, the British municipal authorities of Colombo and the newspapers published by members of the colonial community and the Ceylonese elite reported that the city was infested by urban problems such as “bad housing” and “overcrowding.” This article examines this abrupt change in the colonial perception of Colombo, its causes, and its outcomes. Like orientalism, which is a system of representations of the “Orient” that is “out there,” the city that we talk about, function within, and act upon is also a representation of a “physical” city that is “out there.” Yet a representation is neither an authentic copy nor a natural depiction of the original city. In Colombo, for example, the authorities viewed certain physical environments as problems. Despite their apparent unity, there are intellectual gaps between the representation and the represented. The correlation between “ground conditions” and their depiction, the “problem,” is constructed through interpretations that employ intellectual frameworks to mediate between the two. The gap between the represented and the representation is evident in Jonathan Barnett’s complaint: “Unfortunately, architects and planners have too often reacted to the evident

Nihal Perera failure of their theories about cities not by revising them but by condemning society, and by indulging escapist fantasies” (1982, 8). Despite both direct challenges and gradual changes, the urban perception established in the 1910s is still the dominant way of defining and understanding cities in Sri Lanka. Fifty years after the nation achieved independence in 1948, the cultural “unpacking” of this discourse has not yet been realized. Paying tribute to Said, and building on his work, which culturally “unpacks” Orientalism, this article does the same for the discourse on Colombo’s urban problems developed in the 1910s–20s. I shall argue that the new perception was instigated by the introduction of the Housing Ordinance of 1915, largely by the discourse of which it is part and less so by a reading of the local conditions from a Ceylonese or British colonial knowledge base. The City as Perception Understanding urban and built environments is central to both the scholarship of urban studies and the practice of urban planning and management. I shall begin by briefly discussing the ways in which scholars and practitioners employ representations to understand and explain these environments. In so doing, I shall develop an analytical framework, approaching the issue of representation from the standpoint of a social construction of urban perceptions and within the larger establishment of European cultural hegemony. I focus on the “discourse,” which Michel Foucault (1972) defines as the system of statements within which the world can be known, but pay attention to “Said’s critique of power in Foucault as a captivating and mystifying category that allows him ‘to obliterate the role of classes, the role of economics, the role of insurgency and rebellion.’” (Said 1983, 243, as interpreted in Spivak 1988, 180). The “physical” city is accessed through representations. The administrators’, plan-

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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka ners’, and scholars’ cities are perceptions constructed through the definition and identification of particular sets of social processes and structures as well as the territory on which these are believed to be concentrated as “urban” (see Perera 1996). Paul Hirst (2002) asserts that the contemporary city can only be fully understood as a political institution. As Seymour Mandelbaum argues, the city is not a system but is principally made up of particular sets of processes that are classified as urban (1985). Each observer makes sense of the city by using intellectual frameworks of understanding that come with their own “baggage,” including premises, assumptions, biases, beliefs, interpretations, and narratives. As she perceives and describes the city, she creates it. The city thus differs from one observer to the next, depending on the time and place from which it is observed (the vantage point), the knowledge and the world view (the framework) applied, and the language (concepts) employed to build it. Despite its partiality and the social power involved in it, representation is a necessity for the analysis, planning, and management of the city. Representations are not false, but quite the opposite; they give tangibility and materiality to the city that is “out there.” This mediation enables the scholar and the practitioner to understand, examine, and modify it. What is false is the perception of “objectivity” attached to certain representations, thus privileging them over the others. This study concerns the establishment of hegemony for a particular perception of the city. I have demonstrated elsewhere that there were four principal stages of European colonialism in Ceylon: the military conquest, the establishment of a colonial administration, economic incorporation, and the establishment of a European cultural hegemony (Perera 1999). The Europeans not only built cities but also taught the “natives” their ways of understanding the city, although never completely, establishing hegemony for their cultural perceptions and practices. Identifying certain environments in Colombo as


problems, scientifically defining and classifying these, bringing the perceptions thus developed into circulation, and making the Ceylonese accept these have all constructed a superior position for these new perceptions. The questions are these: How did certain environments in Colombo in which lowincome Ceylonese lived come to be seen as problems? How did a view developed in Britain become superior to the former views of the municipal authorities in Colombo? The investigation of the construction of superiority for the colonial position requires an understanding of the ideas, cultures, and histories involved in it. From Said’s (1978) standpoint, this superiority cannot be seriously studied without accounting for the configuration of power. Orientalism is a profound study of the construction of the “Other” as part of the imagination of the West. Highlighting the effects of colonialism on the colonies, Anthony King (1980) argues that modern planning in post-colonial states is a European product and colonialism was the vehicle of transfer. By building on these arguments and conducting a detailed investigation, this article investigates the development of a new urban perception of Colombo by its colonial authorities in the early 20th century. The key variable in such analysis is social power, that is, the capacity of some subjects to intervene in a given situation, to impose their will on others by the potential or actual use of violence, and to transform it (Giddens 1987; Castells 1989). Highlighting the significance of colonial perception with respect to health hazards, Atkinson (1959), Little (1974), and King (1976) argue that this was the basis for determining a great number of the colonial policies. The central question is, Who represents what for whom? Politics of representation is precisely what connects this paper with Said’s work. Orientalism is a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning and consciousness. The Orient is constructed in relation to the West, as its inferior “Other,”

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66 and exists for the West. Similarly, the city and its problems examined in this paper were constructed for and existed for the British municipal authorities in Ceylon. Since these issues of representation were first raised by Said, scholars have not only exposed the Euro-American vantage point that most studies in colonial and post-colonial urbanism have adopted but also attempted to provide agency to the indigenous peoples (see Yeoh 1996; Spivak 1999; King 1992; Perera 2002). Building on early studies that engage in social and cultural analysis (e.g., Redfield and Singer 1954; McGee 1971), and approaching from a variety of theoretical perspectives, scholars of colonial urbanism in the 1970s began to expose the political and social power involved in the historical construction of social space and the connections between colonial policies and spatial subjectivity (see King 1990; Ross and Telkamp 1985; Saueressig-Schreuder 1986; Metcalf 1989; Rabinow 1989; Mitchell 1991; Wright 1991; AlSayyad 1992; Crinson 1996; Home 1997; Yeoh 1996; Kusno 2000). In this article, I focus on an environment occupied by low-income Ceylonese and problematize its interpretation by providing space for the views of the colonial authorities of Colombo by separating their views, developed as part of the colonial third culture, from those “directly” imported from Britain. By building on Said’s work and problematizing the singular notion of “Orientalism” and a single subject, I will address a conflict between two European groups: the British and the colonial authorities in Colombo. This article focuses on the discourse and investigates the interpretation and representation of physical realities rather than checking objective facts for their truthfulness and the explanation of empirical realities. Necessary and Sufficient Conditions Three principal factors were instrumental in the production of these modern urban prob-

Nihal Perera lems in Colombo. The first was the expansion of British colonial involvement in the city from the original colonial base to a larger municipal area in the 1860s–80s. The new municipal boundaries included areas that were not directly planned and developed by the colonial authorities, notably those later viewed as “problem areas.” Second was the collection of census data, which began across the empire in the 1870s. It provided numerical data necessary for the identification and measurement of Colombo’s problems from a Western scientific perspective. Third, the Colombo Municipal Council, the authority that became concerned about these particular urban problems, was established in 1865. However, none of the above conditions was sufficient for the municipal authorities to identify the problems they did in the late 1910s. Let us first briefly investigate the three conditions from the British colonial community’s standpoint. In the early 19th century, Colombo consisted of three principal zones: the fort, the Pettah (the area adjacent to the fort), and the outer Pettah (Figure 1). Since the British conquest of the Dutch territories in Ceylon in 1796, the fort had been the principal domain of the British colonial authorities. While the descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch lived adjacent to it in the Pettah, the Ceylonese lived further away, in and around the Aluthkade (New Bazaar). There were gradual changes to this configuration, including the establishment of residences to the north of the city by a limited number of colonial officials and the intrusion of the Ceylonese into the Pettah area. Yet the colonial regime mainly occupied the fort, and a large part of Colombo and Ceylon lay outside the principal colonial domain until the middle of the century, particularly until the revolt of 1848. It was in the late 19th century, particularly between the 1860s and the 1880s, that the size and scope of the city expanded beyond the fort for its British authorities. During these decades, Colombo was repositioned as the capital of the colony.

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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka


Figure 1 Colombo, Sri Lanka

From the time it was established until the whole island was subjugated to its authority in 1815, colonial Colombo was contested by (indigenous) Lankan kingdoms located in the interior of the island. Even after the British takeover of the entire island, until the 1848 revolt, Colombo was contested from outside, principally from the capital of the last kingdom, Kandy, located in the central highlands. This pattern of contestation of the colonial authority changed with the failure of the uprising; the change was most evident in the transformations of Colombo in the 1860s–80s. By the end of the 1880s, the conflict had shifted into Colombo, making it a contested city representing the larger conflict between the rulers and the ruled (Perera 2002). Thus the larger aspect of this restructuring was mainly the political centring of Colombo within the entire island of Ceylon. By the 1860s, the colonial authorities of Ceylon opted to upgrade the ports to take advantage of the new shipping, defined by the

more powerful and larger steam-powered vessels introduced in the Eastern seas in the 1840s. The Colonial Office selected Colombo, the port supported by the internal geography of Ceylon, as the place to concentrate port investments, particularly the construction an artificial harbour. This turned Colombo into a significant coaling station and port of call nicknamed Clapham Junction of the East,ii thus out-competing its closest rival, Galle, located in the south of the island. Galle’s advantage was based on the geography of the Indian Ocean and its winds, and it dominated shipping until the 1880s.3 Economically, the success of the plantations reproduced Colombo as the economic and political centre of Ceylon, but within the context of the world economy and the burgeoning import–export economy of the colony. This is evident in the establishment of a system of roads to and from Colombo, first developed for the purposes of subjugating and administering the island, then supplemented with railway lines connecting

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68 Colombo to other places of import, particularly the plantations and the colonial hill station of Nuwara Eliya. The port, which occupied the centre of this transportation network, connecting the domestic networks to Britain and the rest of the world, was developed into a crucial node in the imperial transportation network and the principal port of Ceylon. This process is thoroughly addressed in K. Dharmasena’s The Port of Colombo (1980). Within Colombo, the most crucial changes were the demolition in 1869 of the fortifications, which connected the fort to the rest of the city, and the establishment of the Colombo Municipal Council in 1865, providing an administration for the expanded city. During the 1860s–80s, selected administrative and social institutions and functions of the colonial community were moved out of the fort area. The larger change included the building of a colonial residential “suburb” in Cinnamon Gardens, the creation of a second district for the British around it where the new town hall was located, and the transformation of the large open “field of fire” (the esplanade), the purpose of which was to protect the colonist’s fort from its enemies, into a seafront promenade in 1859. The municipal area of the 1880s was about 10 times as large as the fort area (Hulugalle 1965), and within it, the former fort area became known to the citizens simply as “Fort.” The politically neutral term “Fort” conceals the colonial power relations in the fort area, naturalizing colonial perceptions within the Ceylonese community. In short, the period between the 1860s and the 1880s was marked by the expansion of British political and cultural space in Colombo and the development of more authority over the areas that the municipality would later complain about, for example, the Pettah, and St. Pauls (Kochchikade). In a 1920 report, the chairman of the Municipal Council, T. Reid (October 1919–July 1924), highlights the new spatial structure: “well-to-do people live in the

Nihal Perera south, Cinnamon Gardens and beyond, … [and] the poor [are] overcrowded in the north and the center, where they live near their work … North and Central Colombo is tumbling into the harbour on one side and into the swamps on the other” (in Municipality of Colombo 1923, 17). Like any map, this one is also a politically charged perception that established a way to view the city from the standpoint of a spatial distribution of income groups (see Edney 1999; Jacobs 1993; Duncan 1990; Carter 1987). This was superimposed on the extant understanding of the city in terms of racial and ethnic divisions but gave prominence to economics. Although the physical environments identified by the municipality as problems in the 1910s–20s may have existed before, the areas with such conditions would have lain outside the British quarter prior to its expansion in the 1860s–80s. In 1920, Reid claimed that “the Board [of Improvement] is dealing with a comparatively poor city” (in Municipality of Colombo 1923, 16). This statement refers to the low-income neighbourhoods that had come under the municipality. Yet this expansion of Colombo did not make colonial municipal authorities find the urban problems they identified in the late 1910s. Adding to the transformation of the colonial perception of Colombo, the (Western) “scientific” exploration of social problems, particularly their quantification, also took root during the late 19th century. Record keeping through quantified statistical registers had been institutionalized in the British Empire in the 1820s (Christopher 1988), which was a major step towards the categorization, classification, and objectification of subjects for such purposes (see Cohen 1987). In south Asia, beginning with estimates in the early 19th century, census data collection became a regular activity starting in 1871 (Cohen 1987; Hulugalle 1965). This data collection was conducted throughout the British Empire starting in 1891 (Christopher 1988). Still, it was only in the second decade of the 20th century that the Municipal Coun-

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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka cil employed these figures to identify particular urban and housing problems in Colombo. One possibility is that the environments identified as problems did not exist prior to 1919. However, the evidence does not support this proposition. The overcrowding of nine-tenths of the dwellings in the “poor districts” could not happen overnight, unless there was some major shift in demographics. As the density of Colombo less than doubled between 1871 and 1921, these problems cannot have been not created by the increase in population, as was often implied. The Sessional Papers of 1920 refer to an “enormous and rapid rise in population recently. In 1911 the population of Colombo city was 211,274 and that of Wellawatta [later incorporated] was 7,150.… the population of the present city is … nearly 300,000” (Municipality of Colombo 1920, 6). However, the census data do not substantiate this; they show a population of 244 163, with the rise of density for the same decade from 17 698 people to 18 872 per square mile. Moreover, the 1898 report on overcrowding and the proposal for “Haussmanization” (Municipality of Colombo 1923) indicate that these environments existed before the turn of the century.iv Yet, as the above report indicates, there was a sense of urgency in 1920. As most of the “overcrowded” neighbourhoods were in the vicinity of the port, the other possibility is that the expansion of the port and the unequal distribution of migration, more concentrated in the port area, caused the transformation. Yet the major port expansion took place with the expansion of the city in the 1860s–80s. The transformation of the port to accept steamers began in 1875, with the construction of a breakwater, and was completed in 1883 (Dharmasena 1980). According to the census, St. Paul’s and the Dockland Area (later Kochchikade) had the highest densities. Yet Dharmasena (1980) observes that the remote parts of the city grew as rapidly as the docklands until 1901, after which they grew more rapidly. According to him, this trend is not surprising: As


both the political and economic capital of the colony, the city drew a stream of migrants from the rest of the island who had nothing to do with the port. The shaping of the particular class configuration of Colombo described above by Reid began with the European and Ceylonese upper classes moving from north of Colombo (north of the railway tracks) to the south, to the Kollupitiya-Bambalapitiya seafronts and Cinnamon Gardens. By the 1860s, the most favoured location for the elite was Kollupitiya, and by the end of the century it was Cinnamon Gardens. With the development of Circular Park (later Victoria Park), the Colombo Museum in 1877, and the institutionalization of leisure through sports clubs, the focus of the elite and middle classes had already established this new centre by the 1880s (Roberts, Rahim, and Colin-Thome 1989). As the lower-income population replaced the elite and the middle classes and even occupied their old houses, the north of Colombo, particularly the area around the port and railway workshops, was subject to what was called “the ‘decline’ of the Pettah and of Colombo North” (Roberts et al. 1989, 105). This change was facilitated by new landlords who established working-class tenement gardens as a lucrative line of rentier capitalism. Patrick Geddes (1921), who visited Ceylon in 1920, oddly called these “garden villages.” Garden tenement–type development produced a higher number of dwellings per acre in Pettah, reducing the number of inhabitants per dwelling (Dharmasena 1980). The number of houses in the Docklands grew more rapidly than the population, and the average household size declined from 5.6 to 5.2 occupants (Dharmasena 1980). If this is the condition identified by the municipal authorities as a problem, it already existed from the 1880s. This was not a part of the municipal discourse. The densities were perhaps greater than those reported in census data because, among other reasons, the immigrants who occupied the central areas of

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70 Colombo, especially the Docklands and Pettah, moved back and forth between Colombo and home, while the dock workers did night work, making it difficult to determine occupancies. Yet there does not seem to have any special way of knowing the same information in the 1910s. All of the above evidence points to the conclusion that the environments identified as problems gradually evolved from the 1860s and were, most probably, substantially present at the turn of the 20th century. Dharmasena (1980) is confident that the city was less healthy than the countryside by the turn of the century, but from when is uncertain. The evidence suggests that the spatial and statistical insights provided by the expansion of the city and the census data, the knowledge, and the analytical frameworks that existed during that time were not sufficient for municipal authorities to recognize the particular living environments as the type of problems they identified in the 1910s. The Crucial Factor The crucial condition (the fourth factor), I shall argue, is the exporting of urban legislation from the metropole, the United Kingdom, to the colonies, beginning in the early 20th century. It was the exporting of the Housing Ordinance of 1915, which followed the British Town Planning Act of 1909 (Hulugalle 1965), that produced the extra vision for the municipal authorities. Whatever the conditions that Colombo may have presented, the knowledge developed in the metropole made the municipal authorities see those particular conditions as problems. The new vision is evident in the language the authorities used: the problems of poverty, disease, overcrowding, bad housing, and the absence of sanitation (Municipality of Colombo 1923; Hulugalle 1965). The focus turned on the low-income population, particularly the quality of their housing and living environments, which were identified as problems. Urban problems were not new to

Nihal Perera Colombo, but they belonged to a different genre and discourse before the 1910s. During its early decades, the municipality discussed issues of public health and engineering and concentrated on roads, water supply, and sanitary conditions as they affected commerce and administration. In 1903, Governor West Ridgeway stated, The prosperity of Ceylon is dependent on the prosperity of Colombo, practically its sea port.… When I assumed charge of the administration of the colony in February, 1896, I realized the necessity of promptly dealing with the urgent questions affecting the welfare of Colombo, and … the deficient and precarious water supply and the grave insanitary conditions of the city (Ridgeway 1903, 96).

These remarks are more concerned with economic growth and municipal services than with the unsanitary living conditions of the poor and the public good. They are more about the colonial port city of Colombo than the later-imported discourse on housing the poor in industrial cities (in Britain). Yet the discourse was not pure and exclusive. In 1906, the medical officer of health of the Colombo Municipality, Dr. William Marshall Phillip, wrote regarding sanitation that the greatest bar to the effective carrying out of these works is, as I pointed out in my report for the fourth quarter of 1903, the almost hopeless manner in which the land has been covered with houses, no regard having been paid to the sanitary requirements in the matter of light, ventilation, drainage, and access for scavenging purposes. The houses of poor classes, more particularly in the central parts of the town, are crowded together in a way which is scarcely conceivable, many of them being imperfectly lighted and ventilated, sometimes not at all, while drainage scarcely exists. All this … is the result of lack of legal control over the erection of buildings (Municipality of Colombo 1924, 25).

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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka This demonstrates that the city was divided, the poor were conglomerated near the port, and their housing environments were questionable. Parts of the statement resonate with the post-1915 discourse, indicating some continuity. As I shall demonstrate, there was no direct continuity, but some of these ideas may later have been incorporated into the new discourse. The municipality was interested in determining the level of “unhealthiness” among the poor. In view of using the death rate as a criterion, the Act of 1893 required the production of a death certificate before burial. Yet the statistics had no relationship to the health conditions, as the Pettah district had a disproportionately high number of young adults (Dharmasena 1980, 137). This corroborates Dharmasena’s observation that “Colombo does not appear to have been a remarkably unhealthy town; nor does the Pettah stand out as an abnormally unhealthy district within it” (Dharmasena 1980, 136). Public health was also discussed in newspapers, but more as a health issue than a planning issue (see Ceylon Observer, 27 August 1915, 1468). The suggestions included proper vaccinations, administration budgets, charges for rubbish (Ceylon Observer, 27 August 1915, 1491); proper light and ventilation were only briefly discussed. Other issues discussed in newspapers include town guards (Ceylon Observer, 2 September 1915, 1495) and police (Ceylon Observer, 10 September 1915, 1573), but there were no editorials on housing issues. Even the editorial on the Colombo Municipality meeting of 3 November 1915 did not discuss the Housing Ordinance (Ceylon Observer, 4 November 1915). Overcrowding was an issue, but the type of concern was different. It was something that the municipality was trying to determine. In 1901, for the first time, a systematic inspection of all buildings that were likely to be overcrowded was carried out by health inspectors. Yet there were no specific criteria for determining overcrowding, nor was there


a legal definition of this term. As the size of the dwellings varied, the inspectors were given the authority to decide which were overcrowded. Although notices were issued to people ordering their departure from those buildings that were believed to be “overcrowded,” the conditions (“overcrowding”) continued (Dharmasena 1980). Thus, the urban problems discussed between 1865 and 1915 had some similarities to the problems that would be identified after 1915. The discussion of overcrowding and Haussmanization indicates that problems somewhat similar to those identified later had existed at the turn of the century. Despite some exceptions, such as the 1898 report, the principal concerns, goals, and objectives of the municipality were clearly different before 1915, and the focus was on the overall city, the economy, commerce, health issues, and engineering as a means to solve problems. The post-1915 discourse thus represents a leap in thinking that was not developed in Ceylon. New Discourse, New Perception The discourse took a sharp turn with the introduction of the Housing Ordinance, and the perception of the city’s problems radically changed for its leaders. In place of commerce, engineering, colonial community, and transportation, the focus shifted to the unsanitary housing conditions of the urban poor, which—it was believed—deserved the intervention of the local government. The urban poor were thus transformed into the Other, the opposite of those who lived in healthy environments; they should be helped and disciplined, bringing the city to order. Within an year of the passing of the Housing Ordinance, the Kochchikade area was declared unsanitary. In certain respects, this classification and its remedy are similar to crime and punishment. This new position taken by the city leaders amounts to an invention (or creation) of urban and housing problems. The ordinance had paved the way for

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72 the authorities to view the low-income settlements in Kochchikade as illegal and to assume the responsibility to intervene in the situation. This new knowledge—the framework provided by the ordinance—made the authorities see old conditions as new urban and housing problems. The language resonates very much what the authorities in Manchester and Leeds had discovered half a century earlier in their own cities. Most significantly, it was to the Board of Improvement, which had been created to implement the Housing Ordinance, that the Chairman of the Colombo Municipal Council began reporting these problems in 1919, just three years after the enactment of the ordinance. In a report in 1922, he wrote that ninetenths of the dwellings in what were identified as “poor districts” are “overcrowded.” In 1926, the Director of Statistics, L.J.B. Turner, published a “census of poverty” in the city. He collected data from 394 family budgets, addressing 1 313 persons, and concluded that in “congested areas” 30 % of the families lived below the “poverty line.” The poorest in Colombo spent 30 % of their income (15 to 20 Rupees per month) on housing, and the average number of persons to a room was 3.8. The “overcrowding” was on the same scale as that of Bombay and much greater than that of London (Municipality of Colombo 1926). The Administration Report of 1916 addressed the Kochchikade area directly:

Nihal Perera city within a very short period: race-based evaluations were overlaid with a class-based understanding of Colombo. The emphasis on the poor is closer to the discourses in Britain than to previous discourses on Colombo. The problems were a clear invention, produced through the classification and categorization of certain environments in Colombo.v This is quite evident in the context of the later housing discourses of the 1960s and 1970s, in which housing experts such as John Turner highlight that self-building by poor inhabitants of Third World cities is not a problem but a solution to the lack of affordable housing. Although the condition discussed by the municipal authorities may have existed, the problem did not; it is a re-presentation, an interpretation of certain conditions via a particular discourse. It is a reconfiguration of knowledge, map, and control based on a new paradigm, developed in England and represented in the Housing Ordinance. The premise necessary for this exporting is that the world is objectively knowable, and the knowledge so obtained is generalizable and exportable (see Apffel-Marglin 1996). This generalizable knowledge was viewed as superior to the local knowledge of the colonial authorities in Colombo, which was locally produced and not generalizable. According to Stephen Marglin, the knowledge system of management in the West is characterized

It is not only extremely overcrowded and congested, but it is also covered with badly constructed buildings which are generally in a dilapidated condition. This quarter is one of the plague-infected areas. Running through the middle portion of the block, there is an extremely foul open drain which receives sewage from the tenement latrines and cattlesheds and is a source of constant complaint (“Town Planning” 1919, 2; my emphasis).

not only by impersonality, by its insistence on logical deduction from self-evident axioms as the only basis of knowledge, but also by its emphasis on analysis, its claim that knowledge must be articulate in order to exist, its pretense to universality, its cerebral nature, its orientation to theory and empirical verification of theory, and its odd mixture of egalitarianism within knowledge community and hierarchical superiority vis-a-vis outsiders (Marglin 1990, 24).

In comparison to pre-1915 discourses, the above statement represents a qualitative change in the municipality’s perception of the

The information acquired by the British did not represent any empirically known truths. Instead, it constituted contested

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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka knowledge of a socially constructed reality. It is not simply that history occurred; the British constructed this urban perception and transformed the city into a well-defined, knowable geographical entity that can be fully understood through its classification system. This incidence of interruption in the discourse, the process of authorities identifying problems in Colombo, highlights the displacement of the extant concept of “problem.” For its perceiver, as Matthew Edney (1999) argues with respect to India, the new knowledge reduced Colombo to a rigidly coherent, geometrically accurate, and uniformly precise rational space within which a systematic archive of knowledge about Colombo and its people could be constructed. This representation was characterized in the interests of the ruling power more than those of the local conditions. By emphasizing the moral and intellectual superiority of Western culture, Europeans were able to justify the violent project of imperialist expansion as a civilizing mission whereby the British believed they were rescuing the poor. As Said has demonstrated in Orientalism (1978), the colonial will to know and understand the non-Western world is inseparable from the will to exercise power over that world. The production of these problems defined and established an epistemological space and a discourse (an “Orientalism”) that transformed the conditions in Colombo into objects with European The conditions thus acquired a specific referent for the English as a problem. This process produced the view that lowincome neighbourhoods such as Kochchikade are abnormal, establishing the need to do something about them. Moreover, it transformed elite housing into a model that everyone should follow. Although the British did not act directly on the indigenous population, by displacing the extant knowledge of problems, replacing the process of identifying problems, and thus breaching the extant system of representation, they caused what


Gayatri Spivak calls epistemic violence (1988, 1990; see also Morton 2003). Tariq Banuri argues that the intellectual dominance of the “Western model” derives not from its inherent and unequivocal superiority but, rather, from the political dominance of those who believe in its superiority and who have been able to devote attention and resources to legitimizing modernization as Westernization (Banuri 1990). As the municipality’s responses suggest, the purpose of making the environments of the poor visible was to make them invisible, a problem to be solved. This opened up two principal options to transform these housing districts: either to eradicate them or to make them “normal,” that is, similar to the housing of the middle classes. In the 1920s, therefore, Kochchikade was selected for an Improvement Scheme. The Agency of Colonial Officers in the Orient Newspapers in Colombo also got involved in the debate from 1915, publishing not only reports but also editorials on housing and town improvement issues. The publication of the Report of the Select Committee on the Housing and Town Improvement Bill in the British-owned Ceylon Observer of 7 October 1915, marks the beginning of that newspaper’s long engagement with these issues. In this way, the ordinance drew the attention of key stakeholders in the city—those belonging to the then growth coalition in Colombo (see Logan and Molotch 1987)—to the problem of low-income neighbourhoods. The ordinance also defined the contours of the discourse. The hegemony this discourse achieved has continued into the 21st century. The incompatibility between the ordinance and the extant institutional and legal frameworks and discourses within which it was expected to take effect soon became evident. Prior to its enactment, a committee appointed by the municipality made certain amendments to the original bill. It adapted selected details to “the circumstances to

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74 which these principles will be applied” (“Housing and Town Improvement Bill” 1915, 1743). With respect to overcrowding, the committee reduced the enforced standards: We have considered very carefully the question of the standard for overcrowding. The Medical Officer of Health of the Colombo Municipality informed us that the standard which is at present enforced by the Police Magistrate is that of 400 cubic feet per adult, and strongly pressed us to give this standard statutory force. We decided, however, after careful consideration to adopt the standard of 360 cubic feet per adult, which is slightly in excess of the standard adopted in the Straits Settlements where conditions of life approximate to those of Ceylon (“Housing and Town Improvement Bill” 1915, 1744).

Despite the changes it made, the committee was more faithful to the main principles and standards underlying the bill, which followed British planning discourses. With respect to minimum volumes of habitable rooms, despite the adjustments, the committee leaned more towards imported standards than to those already being practised in Colombo, particularly the standards set by the Medical Officer of Health of the Colombo Municipal Council. It also required that every inhabited room receive a minimum amount of light (“Housing and Town Improvement Bill” 1915). Despite the changes, the committee’s intention was to strengthen the main principles of the bill. Hence, disregarding the municipality’s own complaints about overcrowding, the committee reduced the standards already being enforced by the municipality. The changes included the insertion of “inhabited room,” “habitable room,” and “public building,” but these were based on the definitions in the London Building Act, and the definition of “owner” was taken from the Municipal Councils Ordinance, No. 6 of 1910, of the United Kingdom (“Housing and Town Improvement Bill” 1915). Despite some terms, therefore,

Nihal Perera there is very little direct continuity from the extant discourses to those in use after 1915. Soon the authorities and the newspapers began observing the mismatches between the Housing Ordinance and local environments in Colombo. By 1920, the municipality complained that “the chief immediate cause of the shortage, especially in the better class of houses, is the Ordinance No. 19 of 1915.… [Its] passing … stopped the erection of insanitary roads, buildings, &c., but it also tended to stop the building operations so greatly needed” (Municipality of Colombo 1920, 6). From 1916 to 1919, building applications were low and 262 were rejected. One option was to amend the ordinance to suit the local conditions. In a report in 1920, the Chairman of the Board of Improvements observes that the ordinance, “with its numerous amendments, is not an effective instrument. It needs revision, if not re-modeling. Applying its provisions to the plan of action set above [in the report of 1920], the Board will reach a legal impasse at every hand’s turn as it and the Municipal Council already know by experience” (Municipality of Colombo 1923, 18). Rather than adapting the ordinance, however, the municipality began amending the infrastructure (the context) to suit it. It began borrowing and adapting other laws, such as the Land Acquisition Ordinance, to fulfil the Housing Ordinance’s “planning” goals: The Kochchikade Slum Scheme progressed to the extent that a competition for the lay-out was held and a design was selected. By this time, however, the Council had [found that] … the Town Improvement Ordinance dealing with schemes … [is] unworkable. It, therefore, decided to proceed under the Land Acquisition Ordinance. Although this had been done with great success by the Kandy Municipal Council, it was indicated that there were doubts as to the legality of such undertaking. The project, therefore, awaits an amendment of the law (Municipality of Colombo 1926, 9).

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Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka In this sense, the ordinance prevailed and directed the urban perception in a new direction. Instead of theorizing the situation, as the authorities had done prior to 1915, a “theory” was applied to a situation. As King (1976) demonstrates, the colonial community has its own third culture, which results from the transformation of metropolitan cultural institutions as they come into contact with the culture of the indigenous society. Within this colonial third culture, the colonial administrators had been attempting to develop their own perceptions of urban problems. But the identification of these particular urban problems and the development of the larger urban perception took place in the late 1910s, and this change was directly instigated by the Housing Ordinance. Nonetheless, the municipality soon realized the significance of supplying houses rather than following a negative policy of imposing legal controls on the construction of what the ordinance considered “insanitary dwellings.” It became aware that, in the short run, bad houses are better than no houses—the result of the controls put into effect by the ordinance. The municipality began appealing to large-scale employers of labourers to follow the example of plantations in providing housing for their own labour force. The public sector responded favourably and also began several housing schemes (Dharmasena 1980). In this case, the municipality was compelled to respond to the situation created by the ordinance. Conclusions Problematizing the duality of colonizer/colonized, this article has exposed different levels of power and discourses that operated within imperial-colonial structures of the British Empire, highlighting the spaces of the metropole, the colonial officers, and the indigenous population and the interaction among these. Despite the agency that each group had, within the unequal power structure of the Empire, British colonial perceptions in the


colony were periodically renewed by discourses developed in the metropole. In this example, such renewal was not actively and intentionally carried out by any imperial authority but, rather, was developed through epistemic negotiations that were strongly influenced by the imperial structures then in place. The municipality was also concerned about what it saw as problems in the city— mainly related to roads, water supply, and sanitary conditions—in its own way; the introduction of the Housing Ordinance of 1915, however, drew local officials’ attention to the living environments of the poor, but framed these as a problem calling for official intervention. The Housing Ordinance was not simply an isolated document, therefore, but carried with it a different perception of the city and a larger discourse through which the municipal authorities began to see in Colombo what their British counterparts saw in English cities. The changes brought about in Colombo are evident in the municipal authorities’ realization that the enforcement of ordinance may have created a new problem: it reduced construction of houses in Colombo, making the authorities think that bad housing might be better than no housing. Nonetheless, as the narrative reveals, there were no authentic views operating independent of one another, nor were the discourses always hierarchical and top-down in direction; rather, they were negotiated, hybrid, and there were continuities that blurred lines between categories. The ordinance provided the colonial community and authorities with a capitalist middle-class perception of the city developed in Britain, which, in the colony, was overlaid on racial and ethnic discourses but gave primacy to the class discourse. This discourse absorbed the municipal authorities and various experts, turning them into objects within the narrative. It renewed colonialism, as it invigorated the British authority’s power over both indigenous and British colonial communities in Colombo. Most crucially, this imposition of a British perception of the colony violated

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76 the epistemic structure of the locals, both the colonial administrators and the Ceylonese. This study also reveals a periodization. The 1860s–80s were a turning point in the colonial perception of Colombo, as well as in the urban development of this city. Colombo’s authority was accepted by its contestants, and its authorities expanded and restructured it as the capital. The next turning point was 1915–21, when a new urban perception based on the housing ordinance was developed and hegemonized. This ended the urban discourses of the first period of the Colombo Municipal Council, from 1865–1915. Most crucially, this study has highlighted the incongruence between representations and represented in urban discourses and the significant role played by interpretations in connecting these. It has also demonstrated that what the planners plan and the authorities authorize is a perception built upon interpretations that employ certain frameworks that are not politically neutral. Besides being informed by a professional framework, the planners and authorities do not have a privileged vantage point to view the city, nor is their position superior. Hence, the study of the social production of urban perceptions is central to understanding urban management and urban planning. The particular social production discussed in this paper must be seen within layers of power stemming from the central administrative structure of colonialism but mediated by regional officers who vary the practice of colonialism while maintaining the ideology of the “Orientalist discourse.” Acknowledgement I wish to thank Wes Janz, Arijit Sen, Gardner Smith, and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on the manuscript.

Notes 1 For the broader context of this argument, see Perera (1999). 2 Clapham Junction was a major railway

Nihal Perera





intersection in south London, and “Clapham Junction” serves a similar rhetorical function as “Grand Central Station” in U.S. vernacular. In 1860s and 1870s, more shipping used Galle than Colombo (Dharmasena 1980). Haussmanization was a large-scale urban renewal program carried out in Paris under Baron Haussman in the mid19th century. For a similar discussion on the invention of places through naming, see Carter (1987). See Cohen (1996).

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Importing Urban Problems  

The article focuses on how the “concrete” living environments that had existed for many decades were re-presented as problems and as objecti...

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