20-odd kilometres north of Jaffna, the coastal village of Ilaivalai, quiet against the gentle waves of the Palk Straits with tiny, traditional fishing boats and their empty nets drying on a beach still patrolled by the Sri Lankan army, is a leitmotif for the story Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged North tells today.
Six years after the war against the LTTE ended, Jaffna’s economy, largely rural (agriculture and fisheries based) and heavily aided, is floundering. It is no surprise then that the issue of Indian fishermen entering the Palk Strait with their trawlers has become such an important political issue between India and Sri Lanka.
In a moment of dark humour, Chief Minister Justice Wigneswaran points to his bald pate, and says “Our resources on the sea bed are being completely denuded. The Indian side is just like my head here!” As Jaffna’s fishermen struggle to make ends meet, the Chief Minister and other leaders of the Tamil National Alliance that is in power in the Northern Province say if Tamil Nadu’s political parties really want to help their cause, they should convince the state’s fishing associations to ban trawlers and help the fishermen earn their livelihoods. Even if leaders of the Tamil National Alliance feel Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s threat of the Lankan navy’s right to shoot at Indian fishing boats crossing the maritime boundary here is “unfortunate” as Mr. Wigneswaran called it, they all agree with Colombo on the need for a complete ban on trawlers in these shallow waters.
The TNA’s Member of Parliament, MA Sumanthiran, says they welcome the emotional support from Tamil Nadu, “but at the same time, we urge them to consider our stand and not strike a discordant voice. We have clearly articulated a position of a political solution within an undivided country. They must realize if they are to be supportive of us, they should support what we want.” And an important part of what they want is the return of livelihoods and incomes for Jaffna’s local population.
Ilaivalai is also where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi handed over some of the 27,000 homes build with Indian aid on a recent visit to Sri Lanka. Mr Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Colombo in 28 years, the first Indian Prime Minister to ever go to Jaffna. The project is not new. In 2010, one year after the Sri Lankan army won the war against the LTTE in a no-holds-barred offensive against the rebel Tigers and their leader, Prabhakaran, India pledged to help rebuild and rehabilitate Jaffna’s war-displaced families. Apart from a project to construct 50,000 homes, the Indian government also began work on the rail network to connect the north with the rest of the country. A year later in 2011, India and Sri Lanka signed a MoU to rebuild the port at Kankesanturai, eight kilometres from Ilaivalai, and the closest point of entry for Indian goods into Sri Lanka.
To the visitor, Jaffna today is a different city altogether. While reminders of the war can be found around every corner – bullets lodged in old walls, burnt plots of land still waiting to be cleaned up amongst some examples – the city looks new in many parts. New malls and hospitals, good roads and many of Sri Lanka’s biggest banks with swank offices greet the eye. Many of its residents admit the road network is the Rajapakse government’s singular contribution to post-war reconstruction in Jaffna. But because this was done through foreign aid or external contracts and labour who came in, worked and left, these projects haven’t generated either jobs or incomes in the region.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a research scholar whose family left Jaffna when the war started has returned to complete his doctoral thesis on post war-reconstruction. Calling these signs of development an empty shell, he fears a massive socio-economic crisis ahead if long-term investment and industry doesn’t come in. “The Rajapakse government was not really interested in people-centric development,” he says. According to him, leave alone big industry and infrastructure, they did little to revitalize the local economy – mainly agriculture and fisheries – and local industry tied to the two sectors. And the banks are part of a bigger problem of growing indebtedness as locals, attracted by low-interest rates, borrowed heavily to buy everything from consumer goods to tractors for their land, and haven’t been able to pay them back. Based on his own research, Kadirgamar says landless labour is indebted to the tune of 2 to 4 lakh Sri Lankan rupees and will never be able to pay it back.
In fact, land – its ownership and the issue of its return from the Lankan army – is a major rallying point for the people of Jaffna. 6,500 acres were taken by the military during the war. The demand for Colombo to release and return the lands to their rightful owners is as loud as the demand for war crimes investigations. The new Sirisena government in Colombo pledged a release of 1, 000 acres as soon as they were elected, but Sumanthiran tells us “villagers have been taken to review only 200 -odd acres of that land just two weeks ago. So the actual return seems to still be a long way off.”
Despite the end of the war, the region remains heavily militarized. Already under attack for resisting open and fair investigations into war crimes and human rights violations, the Rajapakse government – considered generally reactive to criticism – was a source of fear in these parts. Without wanting to reveal their identities, many people told us it was near impossible to meet journalists before January without being worried about the consequences.
Now, many concede spirits are freer and lighter with Mahinda Rajapakse out of power in Colombo, but they say the TNA’s’ engagement with the new government has to be calibrated differently. While in Colombo, they must push the new government on the investigations, as well as towards working out a final settlement on political devolution for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. In the province they must focus on the pressing need to revive the economy.
In a meeting with its leadership, Prime Minister Modi had urged the Tamil National Alliance to be patient with Colombo’s new government and give them time to make good on their commitments. Chief Minister Wigneswaran, saying its time Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and its minority communities got together to close decades of communal rift, reacted to Prime Minister Modi’s advice saying in his experience “in 67 years, Colombo has never worked without pressure.”
That pressure, according to MA Sumanthiran, must come from Delhi. “We have achieved this much, the system of Provincial Councils came into being only with India’s intervention,” he says. And Chief Minister Wigneswaran backs this position saying they look to India to play the role of “collaborator, mediator and facilitator.”
But Kadirgamar, who lost his uncle – the former Foreign Minister Laxman Kadirgamar – to an LTTE sniper’s bullets, is more hopeful of direct dialogue with Colombo, now more than ever. “The kind of opening the Sirisena government has brought with it doesn’t come often. Now whether you agree or not, people are organizing protests in Jaffna so the space has opened up, and I think the attitude of the government is also very different, but this requires engagement on both sides. The Tamil community also needs to go through the process of self-criticism.”
Jaffna’s population shrunk from 900,000 to 600,000 in the nearly three decades of war as several of its residents fled the fighting. Six years of peacetime has seen some of them return. Tilak Tilagharaj, the owner of Jaffna’s first new hotel Tilko, named for himself and his wife Kokila, made the move from the UK, buying derelict, unused land and built it up. Based on his own experience on his first visit back during peacetime, Tilagharaj says for donors or investors to work here, they first need a place to stay. His business now employs about 150 people in all. “I took a big risk, but I wanted to be a pilot for others to come back too,” he tells us.
Tilagharaj and Kadirgamar, both in very different fields, are driven by the need to return Jaffna to its lost glory of an economic, cultural and political hub for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Like them, others are beginning to make the journey home, albeit in small numbers, and never without keeping options open either elsewhere in Sri Lanka, or abroad. And while they all agree that the literal road to Jaffna has improved in the last six years, the figurative one to thriving self- reliance is still a long one. (NDTV)