400 Pavement Hawkers Forcibly Evicted In Maharagama
By Shiran Ranasinghe
Making a living is a struggle. Those who are engaged in carrying out trade on the pavements of Maharagama town are presently feeling the strain. The reason for it is said to be a political struggle. Maharagama is noted for readymade garments.
Some 400-odd pavement traders who had made a living selling such items at this town are today struggling to make ends meet having lost the very location they had practised their livelihood. They had in fact done this job for over 20 to 25 years having looked after their families from the monies accrued through this vocation. They had done so on a land owned by the Maharagama MC.
The pavement hawking is done on two locations at this town. One place is Maharagama land 35 and it is owned by the Municipal Council (MC). Due to the spread of COVID-19 this lot of traders suffered badly. Afterwards they had moved to the Maharagama old bus depot land to carry out their business as the country emerged from the lockdown situation. Their businesses did not improve overnight. It was during this time that trouble began to brew for them.
The traders were informed to leave the MC land premises and they then decided to meet the MC members. They pleaded with the MC members not to evict them from the place as they were struggling badly to earn a living and look after their families. They said the MC had charged that they were engaging in an illegal trade. The head of the MC Tiraj Lakruwan was also of the view that the traders should be removed from the MC land and the place be handed over to another project. The issue was also broached at the MC meeting. Afterwards it had been decided to levy a sum of Rs 22 each from a trader daily. The traders too agreed to this.
In the meantime a person having got hold of a few pavement hawkers had attempted to chase away some of the traders who had been engaged in carrying out their businesses at the old bus depot premises. This person had worked as a close aide to current Minister Admiral Sarath Weerasekera some time ago. At this time this person using his political clout had begun to chase away the traders. It was during this time that the Maharagama Development Committee had also inferred on this matter. The head of this Committee is Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Among the Vice Presidents is MC member Kanthi Kodikara. It was during the night of 13 January that a decision had been taken to forcibly remove the trade stalls of these traders in Maharagama.
Firstly, they have begun to remove the temporary stalls from the old bus stand premises. They were removed using Lorries and backhoe machines. The traders were shocked by this. Some began to weep openly while the others urged them not to carry out this act. Finally the Police too arrived further intensifying the situation. Some 100 Police Officers had been deployed from the Nugegoda Division to quell the tense situation among the traders. However, it was questionable how such a massive Police presence had made an appearance.
PM has been briefed
This is what former Maharagama MC member Kodikara has to say of this incident. “These traders had done this job for more than 25 years. There are some 30,000 people who are making a living through this trade. We know the person behind this decision to evict these people from their business. He was an aide to Sarath Weerasekara some time back. He is the person behind this entire episode. This is our Government. We are the people who continue to live with the people of Maharagama. Then someone from nowhere has now begun to harass the people of this area. This decision to forcibly evict traders had not been taken at the MC meeting. It was decided to nab the traders who were doing the business illegally.
It was our members who thwarted it. This entire thing had been done to discredit the Government. Now the Police had placed barriers and made the place out of bounds for traders. This Government has to resolve the issues of the people. The person who had supported Minister Sarath Weerasekara has now realised his folly. The traders too have now understood the truth. I have already briefed PM Mahinda Rajapaksa concerning this matter. This problem could be resolved within the coming days. On that assurance I was able to halt the protests of the traders for the time being.”
Airing her views on the incident Tharanga Lakmali who was engaged in the trading at the old bus depot premises had this to say. “We had earned our living through generations from selling clothes. Even our fathers had done so. With the impact of COVID our businesses got affected. It is due to this reason that we decided to sell clothes from this location. We had in fact engaged in our business with no hindrance to anyone from 1:00 a.m. up to 7:30 a.m. However, the Maharagama MC decided to remove our stalls forcibly. The person behind this incident owns four stalls at area 35. He is an accomplice of Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara. This person had levied a daily sum of Rs 500 as rent from those doing business at his stalls. We only received modest amounts of money from our trade.
Only a few traders went there due to the COVID situation. In the end he deceived and misled the Minister and it resulted in some 500 Police Officers coming here to evict us from our livelihood. Former head of the MC Kanthi Kodikara and its members Upali Kodikara, Nishantha Wimalachandra, Jayamini Pushpakumara and Ruwan Senaratne had intervened on this matter on our behalf. If not the Minister being duped by that person would have proceeded to demolish our stalls and force us onto the road. Our matter was resolved only by the intervention of the President and the PM. They had allowed us to continue our trade with effect from 16 January. We thank all those who had intervened on our behalf. Though Minister Weerasekera had been hoodwinked ultimate justice was meted out to us.”
Some pressure exerted
Meanwhile, an MP revealed that there has been some pressure exerted that two people with political clout and being linked to Sarath Weerasekera had demanded that they be allowed to conduct business activities at the said locale. Although its truth is not yet known the OIC of the Maharagama Police had mentioned such an order had been received this MP said. When contacted, Minister Weerasekara had this to say. “At Maharagama in Pamunuwa some old traders numbering 800 to 900 had been carrying out business for over 15 years. They had done this trade near the railway station. It was during this time that the land housing the old bus depot there had fallen vacant. At this time two MC members either by demanding money or not had allowed some 200 traders to carry out their business at the old bus depot premises.
They had done this without having gained the MC approval. What they should have done is to allow the old traders to be sent to the bus depot premises. At this time some of the old traders decided to self immolate. It was during this moment that I got involved in this situation. Nobody can take decisions according to their own whims and fancies. It is why I said to seek official approval from the MC and do it legally. There are no people who are supporters of mine there. If anyone is charging me then it is wrong and done so without knowing the truth. I am not working targeting the next Poll. I only want to do the right thing. In fact I received 328,095 votes at the previous General Election because I had done the right thing. I intend to get all involved in this incident to my office.”