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Urgent need to consult the north

By FS

(April 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Banks, financial institutions and consumer goods companies have proliferated in Jaffna in the past few months with the end of the conflict. Travelling around Jaffna’s main street this week one comes across an occasional spanking new building that sits amidst shell-shocked structures while the city roads still need to be rehabilitated.

Things are happening in Jaffna, but what is this development and at what price? Development is essential after the war but it’s vital that the government gets it right without hurting the feelings of the people, for, by and large they are yet to be a part of this process, as seen this week.

Take for example, Monday’s opening of a hotel project on Nallur road, a stone’s throw away from the revered Nallur temple. At least 70 people including VIPs like Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal flew to Jaffna while a group of officials went by road, for the event. The audience was largely Colombo-based while the speeches were in English: no one considered translating it to Tamil in a region where residents are proud of their language rights. Just a few Tamils including the Divisional Secretary were present. How do you win hearts and minds like this? It was a case of majority rules over the minority, maybe unintentionally: yet it was happening.

It was a case of playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Cabraal made some good points and also some important policy statements which should have been to a wider audience. Reporters from Jaffna’s mainstream media were there and got the message across to the people there. But that’s not good enough. A few letters have appeared in newspapers here saying the hotel is just 100 metres away from the sacred Nallur temple and selling meat or alcohol could desecrate the place.

Despite the war ending and peace restored, young people in Jaffna still yearn to go abroad. During a visit here this week, a group of AL students, asked whether they would remain in Jaffna during the current development phase – if they had a choice –, said they wished to go abroad. “There are no jobs here. A lot of banks are setting up but many are employing people from Colombo. We don’t have jobs. The banks get our deposits but don’t give us credit. The people of Jaffna are not part of this development,” said one bright, young girl.

When Cabraal opened a branch of the Citizens Development Bank, he was happy that most of the junior employees were youth. This however may be the exception than the rule. Hotel Nallur, the 80-room hotel project by the Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka, is gearing to employ mostly local staff and hopefully this would happen. Furthermore the hotel is going public and shares are to be offered with first preference to the residents of Jaffna. Noble though, some businessmen question the move saying if the hotel fails, residents – who don’t have a clue about share investments – will burn their fingers. “This kind of people’s investment should come after there is success seen in a few hotel projects and more awareness on the stock market,” a local businessman argued.

In August last year, the Vice President of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce urged the authorities to give them a chance to be a major part of the development instead of the government going it alone or doing the bulk of it. “We are prepared to re-organise and rejuvenate the industry,” he told this newspaper in an interview, at that time. “We have the money to invest and we can run the businesses,” he said.

But that is still far from happening and resentment is brewing. Outside the Nallur temple, scores of traders from the south have set up shop on a permanent basis, some selling Jaffna products to visitors from the south! “We don’t get any benefit from our southern friends,” grumbled a resident. Jaffna has attracted thousands of visitors from the south and also suspicion. Residents claim that these visitors are given money by state agencies to visit. Without enough rooms, they sleep at the Duraippayah stadium, cook their own meals and use the fields as the toilet.

Nearly a year has passed since the war ended in May and Jaffna, once the hotbed of terrorism, is yet to see factories, industries and enterprises where profits will go back to the city. The signs are ominous. The government’s approach to development is not a carefully, thought-out one as rumblings of discontent are emerging. Jaffna residents feel helpless. The south must not allow a resurgence of helplessness as in the1980s which triggered the bloody insurgency. Jaffna’s people should lead the development; their religious sensitivities and culture must be considered every step of the way.

A re-assessment of the development plan needs to be undertaken and people consulted in the process even when it comes to developing business. Otherwise resentment and animosity could revive a mood of militancy.

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