COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Tamil leaders have rejected a proposed ArcelorMittal housing project for the war-affected in the North and East, deeming its cost and design unsuitable for the region.
In a recent letter to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — a coalition of political parties representing the island’s Northern Tamils — said they “strongly oppose” the project. They pointed to “climatic unsuitability, flimsy construction, lack of durability and unjustifiable high costs” as reasons.
Reportedly, the global steel major, owned by billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, was to build 65,000 pre-fabricated houses for LKR 2.1 million each (approximately Rs. 9.7 lakh). While northern Tamils, particularly those displaced during the war, were in desperate need of houses, TNA leaders argue that they should be given masonry houses that would cost far less and could engage local labour.Prior resistance
This is not the first time the proposed mega project is facing resistance. Ever since there were indications that the government was likely to award the contract to ArcelorMittal in early 2016, the initiative ran into controversy, with civil society members and academics opposing the move.
Experts from the Moratuwa University, a leading school of engineering, pointed to structural limitations in the designs.
Amid mounting pressure to drop the proposal, Minister for Resettlement D.M. Swaminathan in April this year confirmed that the project had been awarded to ArcelorMittal and that there was “no question about awarding the tender to another,” according to the State-run Daily News .
Also, a group of civil society members, including engineering professionals and architects, submitted an alternative proposal to the Sri Lankan government to build brick-and-mortar houses, with a domestic financing option that would help build 1,02,000 houses, almost double the number, for the same costs. While they await an official response from the government, the tender for the massive housing project is set to be reopened, the widely-read Sunday Times reported in September.
Meanwhile, the TNA’s statement pointed to apparent pressure from Mr. Swaminathan who, members said, made personal telephone calls “inviting us to make a request for pre-fabricated houses in our respective electorates.”Remedial action sought
Observing that all the members of the TNA were “totally opposed” to pre-fabricated steel houses, the leaders have sought immediate remedial action from the government.
There are several ongoing housing projects in Sri Lanka’s north and east, including a near-complete Indian housing scheme, of 50,000 houses at a cost of LKR 5.5 lakh (roughly Rs. 2.5 lakh) each.
Sri Lanka’s Resettlement Ministry too is building 10,000 houses in the war-affected areas, at a cost of LKR 8 lakh each (roughly Rs. 3.7 lakh).