Interviews with some of Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable war-affected persons in the north show that a meaningful post war reconciliation process to them includes action towards human development, based on a comprehensive and consistent post conflict development policy that is focused on knowledge and understanding of grass root scenarios.
There is no consistent and meaningful livelihood-focused training undertaken as part of a concrete State policy to deal with the human crisis created by 30 years of conflict that fragmented the lives of thousands.
Many of those who are in acutely vulnerable situations such as being disabled, widowed, located outside town centres and living with extended families on account of losing their houses and livelihood in the war, say that they have received little or no assistance and are often not beneficiaries of the Samurdhi scheme. Especially needing attention is integrating the large numbers of disabled persons into society and providing them with livelihood assistance.
Arumugam Sivanesan, Head of the Society for Differently-Abled Persons in Kilinochchi, points out that the allowance provided by the Government to beneficiaries selected by Government departments such as the Divisional Secretariat and the Social Services Department does not cover all the disabled. The allowance provided is around Rs. 3,000 per month, which is not accompanied by any other capacity building entrepreneurship focused training. Sivanesan points out that the biggest problem faced by those acutely affected by the conflict is the lack of employment opportunities.
“We have over 3,000 members who are differently abled and over 600 are women and most of them widows or heading households alone,” he states. Sivanesan, was a businessman dealing in fancy items and textiles with his own shop before he lost his leg in the war in 2000.
For women who head households alone and who are also disabled, every single day is worse than a nightmare, says R. Venasudan, who is a widow with a five-year-old daughter. With her left arm completely paralysed, she manages her day-to day-expenses with the assistance provided by her relatives. Her biggest challenge has been the rebuilding of her totally war-destroyed house. The two and a half lakhs she has been given as State assistance has not been sufficient even for the roof.
“We appreciate the Government for whatever housing assistance they have given, with support from international agencies, but many who have lost their houses completely have got only around two lakhs or so. As it is impossible to rebuild their houses with this kind of sum, people in desperation have got into a debt cycle they cannot get out from as they do not have any stable income,” she explains.
“We were hardworking people before the war destroyed us. We do not want to burden the Government by asking them to give us grants permanently. What we have wanted for the past seven years is some concrete assistance as part of a stable Government policy for us to start self-employment and for our local economy to be connected to the central economic system of the country,” says Venasudan, pointing out that most of the people who are in the most vulnerable position such as being disabled or widowed are in their 40s and therefore find it difficult to find new economic opportunities and learn new skills.
Understanding northern issues vital
The need for a thorough socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-political understanding of the issues of the north that are diverse is needed in the considering of a concrete policy. In Kilinochchi a significant number of the population of the district is of Indian plantation origin who settled in the area in the 1960s and 1970s. There exists land as well as social caste-based issues. Many who arrived in the Kilinochchi region from plantation areas prior to the outbreak of war have occupied State-owned land and do not possess (or have lost) the necessary documentation due to displacement during the conflict. This continues to be a problem when applying for assistance such as housing renovation.
State investment to restore water resources of the area so that it could be used for drinking and agriculture is a major need in many parts of the north where there is only brackish water. Poonagal North is one such area. Here the lack of drinkable water results in women traveling as far as five kilometres in search of water.
Land in these areas are totally unusable for agriculture, says Yogeswari Sivaraja, a widow whose half an acre land remains uncultivated. She lives with her three children in a house that has deep cracks from ceiling to ground caused by bombing during the war. Although she fears the house may collapse, especially during rains, she has no money to repair it. Although she has received a sewing machine from an NGO she has no proper training to use it.
Her only option to sustain her children and their education is to work as an agricultural labourer where she earns a maximum of Rs. 600 per day. Added to the worries which plague her daily life is finding money for tuition to fill the gap created by a lack of teachers for subjects such as music, drama and English in the local school her children attend.
Her daughter has a talent for music and drama. Therefore Yogeswari insists on taking on as much labour work as possible although it affects her health, in order to be able to earn enough for the music tuition fees. “The distribution of teachers in the district is very poor. There are many subjects for which there are no teachers and we have to find money for tuition,” she points out.
In the remote Pannakandy paddy harvesting region east of the A 9 highway in the Karachchi district, Lakshmi Kamalananthan, a widow is the epitome of courage, perseverance and hope in the face of palpable poverty. She has four school-going children, the eldest of whom is doing her Advanced Level examination. The one-roomed wattle and daub home they live in is on land owned by the Hindu temple trustee board in Jaffna. Her home overlooks the vast paddy lands owned by wealthy Northerners. It is on these lands that she works as a labourer.
She has applied for land from the Government and has been promised land about 23 kilometres from Pannakandy which she has refused to take as the area has no opportunity for labour work. Along with Lakshmi, 13 families live on the total three and a half acre land area belonging to the kovil. They face the same plight as her in terms of lacking land ownership. The acute poverty which surrounds Lakshmi is contrasted with her optimism and hope for the future of her children through education. Her daily goal is more towards finding labour work to cover the tuition fees of her children which come to over rupees six thousand per month.
In Thirunagar North, women of the local Women’s Organisation sit weaving palmyrah products. The weaving is intricate and the finished products vary from hats to kitchen trays but the women indulge in the weaving more as a hobby as their potential of earning from sales is limited to a couple of exhibitions.
“We can weave to international standards if we are provided with the export markets,” says Thavachcheri Vijeyratnam who head the Thirunagar North Women’s Organisation that has more than one thousand members. In the area of Thirunagar, as in the case of Poonagal the lack of drinkable water brings added hardship upon families already struggling with many burdens, says Thavachcheri.
Extensive travel in the north, especially to interior areas, shows that there is a chasm between Sri Lanka’s Central Government driven top-down post-war approach which displays a lack of comprehensive understanding on what is needed by families severely affected by 30 years of war coupled with attitudinal lethargy that has prevented a proper systemised interaction with the people to find out what is needed. A common opinion cited in the north is that many of the assistance that has been provided to those recovering from the ethnic conflict is granted to those already having assets such as land, in keeping with the stipulations designed by the State for selection criteria for assistance.
A World Bank study released in February 2016, revealed that the poorest districts are Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi in the Northern Province and Moneragala in the Southern Province.
Going by Sri Lanka’s national poverty line of about $1.50 per day (Purchasing Power Parity in 2005), the poverty rates for Mullaitivu, Mannar and Kilinochchi are 28.8%, 20.1% and 12.7% respectively.
If one were to apply the international poverty line of $2.5 per day, the figures in these three districts are 74.4%, 60.9% and 57.2% respectively.
The World Bank study points out that about 47% of people living in poverty come under the group of below 25 years, compared to 40% in other provinces.
Lack of access to the labour market and high unemployment rates, particularly among the youth and among educated women, are the factors that have contributed to the prevalence of such high rates of poverty in these Northern districts.
According to the Census and Statistics Department’s data for October 2016 the average individual monthly income in Kilinochchi is Rs. 4,094, which is not very much below the poverty line. But in Mullaitivu the average per person monthly income is only Rs. 3,993.
Evidence of perseverance in the face of support
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sri Lanka has been carrying out a five-year program to support war affected households in the north in areas such as Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu by providing them with cash grants, related assistance such as equipment related to livelihood activities and technical assistance where needed. Often this assistance is carried out with Government collaboration and partnerships with local organisations.
In the fishing village of Nachchikuda in Kilinochchi, the ICRC provides fishing nets to fishermen through its livelihood support program. The organisation’s representatives state that their goal is to select the most economically vulnerable families, providing the assistance through the fishermen’s societies of the area that are registered with the Department of Fisheries.
Over 150 fishermen in Nachchikuda have been provided with nets, impacting the livelihood of 580 families. The nets, each costing around Rs. 4,200, are provided to the fishermen along with technical training on how to maintain and repair the nets. M.S.M. Kamil, based in Colombo, who manages the project for ICRC states that keeping in mind the ethnic distribution of the population of the area, both Tamils and Muslims are selected for the provision of the nets.
Abusala Manjud who was displaced from the area in 1990 has returned in 2012 with his three school going daughters and wife, does a sea distance of around 20 kilometres per haul and explains that another urgent requirement for fishermen is GPS equipment to be fitted on boats to help them in navigation. Several requests in this regard have been made to government authorities, he points out.
Jesuthas George, who have been displaced multiple times during the war points out that the lifetime of a fishing net is generally eight months.
“A consistent plan to support us through the fisheries societies would help us as many of us are still struggling with making a living. I have seven children and although six are married, I have to still support them as they too are dependent on casual labour for sustenance and find it hard to get work,” he says.
Hafleen Fuad who is the region-based Team Leader for the project states that women often get involved by renting nets for Rs. 200 per day and repairing nets for a fee.
As part of an overall livelihood support scheme targeting the disabled, women who head households and others needing livelihood assistance, the ICRC provides a cash grant of Rs. 50,000 per person to assist a specified form of entrepreneurship activity. The selection of persons is done through the Grama Niladari as well as District and Divisional Secretariats where a total of 2,853 persons have been assisted so far since 2013.
In the Pallikuda in the Poonakary DS Division Thangathurai Thawamani who lost her husband during the war, manages with the help of her teenage son, what is seen as one of the most well stocked shops in the area. According to Thangathurai the possession of family owned land and the experience of having managed a smaller shop in the same premises helped her to use the Rs. 50,000 financial support of ICRC along with some loans from local banks, to build a bigger shop which she currently manages and keeps well stocked.
Her teenage son assists her in the running of the shop and the profit of around Rs. 600 per day helps her to support her three school-going children and in the repayment of the bank loan. Although having lost her house completely in the war she is a recipient of a house granted under the Indian Housing scheme.
In Kandawelai in Paranthan, A. Subramaniam, runs a motorcycle tyre repair shop which he sustains with two more loans in addition to the assistance of the Rs. 50,000 grant provided by the ICRC. He makes enough to pay the rent for the building which houses the shop and to get by his daily expenses for his family as well as the two bank loans.
Further away in Kilinochchi, a brother and a sister run a successful business that ranges from selling packeted chillies, bottled hair oil and edible oil. Using the cash grant of ICRC to buy the machinery needed for sealing of the packets, 26-year-old Saduja has created her own brand of products, ‘Jeya,’ named after her mother. The small van purchased through a combination of bank loans and savings by her brother Navarathnam Sainthan brings the products to northern towns and once a month to Colombo, where he markets the products such as hair oil.
“My brother distributes at least 50 chilli packets per day to the shops in the area, covering at least 10 to 15 shops. I make the packets to hold 50 grams, 100 grams and 150 grams respectively,” says Saduja.
Her brother Sainthan explains that his previous work as a sales representative and as an assistant at an Ayurveda company helped him to develop his business, especially the making of the herbal hair oils which he says are popular in Colombo.
In yet another nearby village, Gunasingham Sathyaseelan makes concrete posts having bought iron moulds needed for his work with the grant provided by the ICRC. He hopes housing and construction would improve in the area so that more people would buy the concrete posts made by him. Although the labour involved is hard, he attempts to make at least eight concrete posts per day which helps him to support the education of his son in Jaffna University.
In the Jeyanthinagar town in Kilinochchi, Gnanaprakasan Anton runs a successful printing shop, printing exercise books, having used the ICRC grant to purchase a clipping machine and having applied for several other bank loans for the purchasing of several sophisticated printing material.
With the current project by ICRC ending, avenues exist for local business leaders and local companies to take initiative to assist those as mentioned above and many others in the northern districts who totally lack assets such as land and therefore often do not qualify for assistance provided by the State, to commence business initiatives and to obtain assistance in the linking of markets. (Daily FT)