What Development in North Sri Lanka?

What development? There are innumerable hurdles to clear on the ground, should private Diaspora investment attempt to uplift the life of the private citizen in the North today. First, there is an ingrown lethargy among the people, who appear hardly wanting to do a day’s work to earn a day’s living...

by Victor Cherubim

(December 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The world is awaiting with abated breath to witness that justice is meted out to the Tamil peoples in the aftermath of the protracted 28 year war in Sri Lanka. The people in Sri Lanka too and particularly those in the North are also eagerly awaiting the outcome by the Government at reconciliation.

There have been suggestions put out at reconciliation, by two processes besides the Lessons Learned Reconciliation Committee ( LLRC) : first and equal among other options is a political settlement of the minimum aspirations of the Tamil people.

What are the so called Minimum Aspirations? It is defined in equity as the legitimate hopes and wishes of a people at harmonisation within a national framework. It is not a demand but more an understanding and an appreciation of traditions, customs and values of the Tamil people to express and sustain themselves as citizens of Sri Lanka.

The war has eroded the trust of peoples over many decades, so it is foolhardy to expect an overnight settlement of these aspirations. Adequate time is deemed necessary to turn guns into plough shi\ares. But, to coin the cliché, time is running out after 17 months of the end of the war to see any visible signs of raproachment or reciprocity. There appear to be no concerted effort to arrive at a consensus of political accommodation for change, for a planned approach over the immediate, the medium and the long terms to seek not solutions, but even a level playing field of understanding and accommodation.

Secondly, Development has been suggested and explored as the “mantra” of those who know, to resolve the political stalemate.

Development for development sake is one thing, but using development as a power tool to soothe the deep seated wounds of war is another. Granting development is an immediate necessity in the North after nearly half a century of neglect, is hardly discounted or under estimated. It may take an equal period of time to put the North on par with the South, in development terms. But even to bring this development to bearable standards of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness today, for the ordinary citizen in the North, is lacking in the extreme.

What is clearly seen in reality, is that all those who are claiming to be the champions of the “development mantra,” and particularly the International NGO’s and for that matter the local and national NGO’s, having weaned the people of the North on handouts over years, hardly want or are willing to see any” real” development.

Besides, Chambers of Commerce is sending delegations abroad to coerce the Tamil Diaspora to fund this development. As the Tamil Diaspora, is of two minds on development, without political accommodation, all this effort is seen as a charade, even in terms of development?

What development? There are innumerable hurdles to clear on the ground, should private Diaspora investment attempt to uplift the life of the private citizen in the North today. First, there is an ingrown lethargy among the people, who appear hardly wanting to do a day’s work to earn a day’s living. The age of living off crusts of overseas aid and Diaspora remittances, meagre though it may be, in terms of any development besides sustenance, is sadly coming to an end. What is an adequate day’s work for an adequate recompense? Any real work hardly commences before 9.30 in the mornings, with one hour lunch breaks and downing tools at 5 p.m. Besides, it is not their fault to accommodate holidays, Sundays and poya days as no work days. Thus some observers feel that it will take years to shift this tendency for hard work, as monetary inducements are hardly compensatory.

Secondly, there is the encompassing bureaucracy at all levels of local and national government. Even the unrelenting admonishments and exhortations of President Rajapaksa to public service, to shift this ingrained attitude, authority or approach, call it what you may, many feel is falling on deaf ears. Serving the people is thus a prerequisite for progress, let alone development. One official told me that at the Jaffna Municipality, the staff is adept how to hinder anyone seeking assistance for development projects, hardly willing or wanting to promote initiative or enterprise. This appears deeply ingrained in their psyche.

Thirdly, there is a serious lack of governance. This is and has been a known fact and feature of administration, over many governments in Sri Lanka, since independence. Perhaps, it is a legacy of not only colonial but also neo-colonial times.

Let us analyse the reasons for this practice or prevalence. For instance, if any private citizen in the North, or for that matter any Sri Lankan citizen from abroad, wishes, if not wants to invest in capital projects in the North, insurmountable difficulties, antiquated rules and red tape, mismanagement etc.etc, ad infinitum have to be encountered.

In the first instance, when investment funds are utilised the following series of hurdles prevent them from pursuing their ambition and dream to make Sri Lanka great. Allowing for culturally sensitive and sustainable development norms in investment in Sri Lanka is a necessity. However, new imposed severe restrictions in recent months instigated on past experience of unscrupulous private capital inroads and have put a damper on any ethical and sustainable investment. Anywhere and everywhere, filling all kinds of forms and applications take precedence over viability, sustainability and performance measurement of capital investment projects.

For instance, to construct a boundary wall, with neighbour’s consent within one’s own land, cannot today be approved without completion of books of forms for planning permission from the local municipality. It is thus an enormous task taking many months to submit applications, planning permission, approval to build a house, or to repair one’s dwelling. Imagine the bureaucracy involved in construction of a factory or a business premise in Jaffna, within such a setup.

Under mentioned is a list of a few hurdles at development, which will put off anyone, wanting to plough in development capital in Jaffna. Arguably, haphazard, unplanned development cannot be condoned, but without inducements, such as less bureaucracy, tax concessions, repatriation of funds, no development will take place, with or without Tamil diaspora participation. These sweeteners are becoming necessary; if not a necessary prerequisite for attracting capital development projects to the North. Sri Lanka is no exception in having to compete with funds both from its diaspora and in attracting capital from abroad.

The Presidents Action Committee approval of Development Projects in the North is required. The following are some additional reported requirements for submission of applications for development project sanction for the North.

(a) The Appropriate Authority within the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to import and transport any equipment, materials from even within Sri Lanka to the North.
(b) The permission of the Government Agent of Jaffna to allow permit(s) to buy and transport “dune” sand from Nagar Kovil area for construction purposes.
(c) The Jaffna Municipality, Planning Department for submission and approval of Building drawings, plans, purpose of use, etc. The RDA requirement is also tied up with this approval.
(d) The Local Police Station officer(s) to circumvent any breach of the peace.
(e) The Local Military Camp in the vicinity, for no previously known reason.

On clearing the above preliminary hurdle, then there is the severe shortage of construction materials, not to mention the import of labour. Skilled workmen masons, carpenters, etc are few and far between.

Of the construction materials, for instance a “landmaster” tractor load of Nagar Kovil dune sand costs Rs.9000/- (£50.00) with a permit and twice this sum if available elsewhere. Imagine the number of lorry loads of sand required to construct a house, leave aside a factory premise.

That is not all - permits are now required from the respective authorities to transport quarried limestone, ”kartu kallu.” Regardless of the above restrictions and materials shortage, life goes on in construction industry in Jaffna.

Despite the above forecast for development, there are some notable improvements seen within the limited time span of ten calendar months of 2010, in Jaffna and the North.

The people of Jaffna are going about their way of life in a quiet, dignified and sustainable manner, as seen by the freedom of movement of citizens, both within the Peninsula and from other parts of Sri Lanka. Crime has reduced with most complaints at Jaffna Police, now to do with land and boundary issues, a field day for surveyors and lawyers.

Air conditioned Coaches now ply more regularly and to most destinations within Sri Lanka from Jaffna. Air Conditioned Coach travel cost to Colombo has come down considerably from Rs2200/-early this year when it was an elite monopoly. It now costs anything between Rs750/- and Rs1000/- (£5.00) one way, with competition. Minhin Air is expecting to provide regular services to Jaffna from Colombo at competitive rates, early in the New Year. The Railway line from Palai to Kankesanturai, constructed by Chinese engineers, will in the not too distant future provide safe and easy access. It will not surprise anyone that with Government approval,the sealanes will also be open for travel from North to Hambantota in comfort and reduce the sight of belching, unmaintained bus travel.

Competition is driving prices down, not only in modes of travel but also for other goods and services. The facility of goods transit is keeping prices stable and in good supply. These are clearly the bonus peace dividends after the war. There is hardly any food scarcity in the North today. Exports of fish, prawns, red onions, bees honey are sent down daily to satisfy Southern gourmets. Soon palmyra “toddy” will feature in Colombo hotel menus.

Cement which was priced at Rs2500/-(approx £14.00) per bag during the war, has come down to Rs700/- (£4.00) or lower. Building Land however, is in great demand and premiums are being paid to secure prime land for housing in anticipation of demand at a later date. It is hoped that competition will also secure alternate sources of building materials supply.

In the due course of time, a concerted effort at establishing several Regulatory Authorities to monitor the irregularities, red tape and mal-administration of local authorities, will undoubtedly open channels of investment capital for development in Jaffna and the North. This will be the undeclared bonus for investment.

The world is our oyster, sooner rather than later, it is hoped innovative approaches at anticipated political reconciliation will not be forced upon from abroad, but will blend in with the home grown progress for nation building. The clamour by the government today, demanding the study of all three languages and business in both English and the national languages is no doubt, the fore runner for a political settlement.

Victor Cherubim is a freelance Journalist. Email:victorcherubim@aol.com

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