Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

SRI LANKA: Struggling Beside the Shining New Road

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Oct 8 2011 (IPS) - The sun’s rays bouncing off the A9 highway give it a shining glow. Once known as Sri Lanka’s ‘highway of death’, the road has come a long way from those macabre associations.

The war took a terrible toll on those trapped between the fighting parties.  Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

The war took a terrible toll on those trapped between the fighting parties. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

It now represents the keen, though uneven, post-war development currently under way in the areas formerly controlled by the recently defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

For 100 kilometres the A9 cuts right through the Northern Vanni region, where, till the end of the civil war in May 2009, some of the country’s bloodiest battles were waged.

Almost 3,000 people were killed between 1997 and 1999 as government forces battled the separatist LTTE for control of that 100 km stretch of road.

Development is taking place at great speed on either side – small hotels, shops and eateries dot the highway at frequent intervals and gigantic billboards hawk everything from baby food to men’s skin whitening cream, on roadsides that housed only artillery shells not so long ago.

Commuters on the A9 might be tempted to believe that the tide has turned for tens of thousands of civilians in the area who bore the brunt of the civil war for over two-and-a-half decades.

But that impression is far from reality on the ground in the Vanni, according to humanitarian agencies working in the region. Not so far from the A9, life is still a bitter struggle.

The United Nations’ latest statistics indicate that over 380,000 civilians had returned to the region by the end of August, including 213,000 civilians who fled the last years of fighting from 2006 to 2009 and roughly 168,000 who made the flight before that.

But while projects like the A9 highway are swallowing up millions, precious little has been allocated to resettlement and rehabilitation.

Jagath Abeysinghe, president of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRC), told IPS that at least 140,000- 160,000 homes were required to house returning internally displaced persons (IDPs), a figure quoted by the UN as well.

In contrast, the most recent UN Joint Humanitarian and Early Recovery Update released on Sep. 27 stated that up until the end of August, two years and three months after the war ended, only 34,500 houses were being constructed or repaired. To date, only 9,500 new houses have been completed in the Vanni, with plans to build just 26,700 more.

The Indian government has made the biggest commitment on paper, with promises to build 50,000 new homes. Recently the Sri Lankan government made an appeal for the second tranche of that promised funding, when the first 10,000 homes were nearing completion, but the money has not yet been received.

The Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) also warned that severe food shortages in the region could compound the precarious humanitarian situation.

Quoting the World Food Programme (WFP)’s research, the agency said that nearly half the population of the Vanni is currently facing moderate to severe food insecurity.

“With the scaling down of food assistance, it is likely that food security conditions will deteriorate in the coming months in the (Vanni’s interior Mulaithivu District),” the agency added.

In fact, the entire Northern Province is teetering on the edge of a full-blown crisis. IPS recently gained access to a WFP assessment survey, which reveals that 60 percent of the population in the North are food insecure.

Additionally, half the people in the North live below the national poverty line and owe debt amounting to six months’ earnings.

WFP officials told IPS that these high levels of debt, coupled with the lack of earning capacity to secure basic food items, was a major concern. With unemployment stagnant at over 20 percent and underemployment well over 30 percent, a decrease in aid assistance bodes very badly for the people of Vanni.

Meanwhile, the controversial post-war political climate has led to an increasingly unstable pool of development funds.

The UN and the Sri Lankan government made a joint appeal to the international community earlier this year for 289 million dollars for redevelopment work in the North. Eight months later, a mere 26 percent of that amount, or 76 million dollars, has been received.

Abeysinghe also believes that donors have lost sight of the humanitarian crisis by getting too embroiled in ongoing political wrangling between the Sri Lankan government and international heavyweights like the governments of the U.S., UK and the European Union, who are all pushing for a full investigation into possible laws of war violations during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“My appeal to donors is not to forget the immense needs of these people by focusing solely on the nature and conduct of the war,” Abeysinghe told IPS.

Yet donors have already cut back on desperately needed services. The International Migration Organisation, for example, recently suspended an ambulance service that had operated in the region for two-and-a-half years.

Government officials working in the North told IPS that funding for big infrastructure projects was plentiful, whereas a scarcity of resources for helping individual households and boosting job creation remained a serious concern.

“We recently got new funding for the irrigation works,” Anthonypillai Vinothraja, provincial project manager for the Ministry of Economic Development in the Northern Province, told IPS.

“It is getting companies to start up job creating ventures where we feel we need more help,” he added.

Furthermore, experts believe that housing and roads alone will not suffice to wrest a population from the hardships wrought by decades of war. “We need to give these people hope that life is better and will be even brighter,” Vinothraja told IPS.

Abeysinghe also warned that if the international community did not take note of this watershed moment in the North, the long-term consequences of underdevelopment could be drastic.

“One of the reasons the war erupted in the first place was because people felt disillusioned; what will stop the same thing from happening 10 or 20 years from now, if this generation also feels frustrated?” he asked, alluding to possible tensions caused by a lack of jobs and income, glaring wealth disparities and marginalisation.

“The peace dividend cannot be limited to a road or irrigation network,” he added.

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