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Sunday, September 25, 2016
- Like many Sri Lankans, Kandiah Selvadurai measures the improvement in his life by the amount of money he spends on essentials. When basic goods were scarce more than two years ago, he paid dearly for them. These days, he buys them for a tiny fraction of what they used to cost. Still, life is hard.
In early 2009, a kilo of rice was so scarce Selvadurai was spending 2,500 rupees (25 dollars) or more to buy it. That was when he and tens of thousands of other civilians, almost all from the minority Tamil community, were forced to live in a narrow swath of land on the northern shoreline as Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reached its final act.
These days, Selvadurai is back home in Allankulam, a village deep within the Vanni, the region in Sri Lanka’s north where the conflict was once at its worst. A kilo of rice now goes for 50 rupees (50 cents), even less than it costs in other parts of the country. Yet, when asked to describe life after the conflict, all Selvadurai can say is, “Difficult. Life is still very difficult.”
But Selvadurai cannot help recall when times were harder, when food, medicines and everything else was scarce in the Vanni, where the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were fighting their last battles against government forces. “A packet of Bedi (a local variety of rolled tobacco) was going at 3,500 rupees (33 dollars),” Selvadurai remembers.
The war brought back memories of more than just the high cost of goods. Selvadurai saw men, women and children hunkering down in hastily dug bunkers being blown to bits. He does not want to talk of those gruesome days in detail. His wife was injured and will never fully recover, he tells IPS. He is glad that at least his two daughters live in the capital Colombo, about 330 km away from Allankulam.
One major development since the end of the war has been the improvement of a long section of the north-to-south A9 highway bisecting Vanni. The road has been re-laid and plans are afoot to widen it to six lanes.
The road to Allankulam, on the other hand, has not even been given a new layer of tar, and is a collection of potholes for a full stretch of about 20 kms from the main A9 highway.
Villagers look to the bicycle as the main form of transport. Public transport services are almost nonexistent. Thousands of used bicycles, left behind by civilians as they fled the fighting, have been distributed among the villagers.
Villagers survive on odd jobs, animal husbandry, paddy and vegetable cultivation. There are no permanent jobs and the only ones that offer a steady income are those held by the few government employees, mainly teachers.
Instead of waiting for job opportunities, women have come together in groups to form collectives that raise chickens or run small vegetable plots. “We make about 300 rupees (2.50 dollars) a day,” said Thnagarasa Sivakolandy who runs a small vegetable plot with six others. Officials from donor organisations say over 60 percent of beneficiary families in Allankulam are headed by females.
With no new private investment coming in, villagers are increasingly looking for community groups to generate income. “If there are private businesses that are willing to come here, the villagers can earn far more,” said Nagmani Rathnaraja, deputy director of the Reawakening Project, a joint initiative of the Sri Lanka government and the World Bank to help develop the Vanni.
But only few big time companies have taken that step. There is one that buys milk, while a tobacco giant has indicated that it will assist in tobacco cultivation.
Rathnaraja told IPS that the government and development agencies assisting the region should take special care to accelerate income generation. “Infrastructure development is taking place, but we need to make sure that people have income.”
Development has come to the region, but seems to have taken a rather selective approach. The A9 and towns that lie alongside it have benefited the most. New shops, houses and other buildings are being built on the A9, but nothing like that is taking place in Allankulam where villagers have to travel several miles mostly on bicycle to the nearest dispensary.
The nearest main town, Mallavi, is where the medical facility is located and appears like an oasis on the dry road with its row of shops, several banks, government offices and even a bar.
Some more enterprising returnees have benefited from the situation. Kandan Namanadas saved money that he earned from taking part in cash for work programmes carried out by the government and the World Bank. He then added about another 25,000 rupees (225 dollars) he had saved earlier and opened a small grocery shop at Allankulam. It is the only shop for some distance in the village.
“I make about 2,500 rupees (20 dollars) a day,” he said. Now he wants to buy a small cooler and generator. “For that I need to apply for a loan. But I don’t have properties to offer as collateral.”
Those like Selvadurai who survived the worst of the war now hope that they can enjoy the dividends of peace like the rest of country. For that to happen he knows that extra effort has to be taken to distribute the resources better.
“Somebody should take the effort and bring jobs and development here, otherwise we will have good roads, but no money,” he said.