In Sri Lanka’s north, a search for livelihoods and loved ones

For Sri Lanka’s north, whose economy was already set back by war and poor recovery, the current economic downturn is proving debilitating. Meera Srinivasan reports on the affected people, especially women who are juggling jobs, housework and care, while persisting with their struggle for justice

Updated - June 18, 2022 11:56 am IST

Published - June 18, 2022 12:50 am IST

Working women are among the worst affected by Sri Lanka’s crippling economic crisis. A group of women from Kayts, Jaffna, employed in a crab factory, who have had no employment for weeks.

Working women are among the worst affected by Sri Lanka’s crippling economic crisis. A group of women from Kayts, Jaffna, employed in a crab factory, who have had no employment for weeks. | Photo Credit: Meera Srinivasan

In March this year, women of Thambaddy village were thanking their stars for the good crab season. It ensured they were employed throughout the month at the local crab factory. Those who put in longer hours made some extra money that helped them cope with the spiralling cost of essentials. Barely three months later, residents of this coastal village in Kayts island, off the northern Jaffna peninsula and connected to it by a causeway, are on the brink of starvation.

As Sri Lanka faces acute shortages of food, fuel, LPG, and medicine in the midst of a crushing economic downturn, people here have witnessed their livelihoods vanish. With no kerosene available in the market, the men are unable to take their boats out to sea to fish. And without the catch, the women who make a living by removing crab shells are jobless. So are other villagers who subsist on allied livelihoods such as cleaning, transporting or selling the fish locally. While most of the island’s southern fishermen use large boats that run on diesel, 90% of those living in the north use small boats that run on kerosene. As of today, neither fuel is available.

“In May, the factory only offered us work on nine days,” says Sugathevan Sailathevi of the early yet sure signs of a rapid breakdown of their rural economy, still beaten years after the civil war in the Tamil-majority region ended in 2009. Poverty and joblessness were entrenched in the local economy well before this crisis arrived to make things worse. Families here were displaced at least twice during the war. Many moved all the way to Mullivaikkal on the north-eastern coast, the site of the final, gory battle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the armed forces. They witnessed scores of fellow Tamil civilians perish in the shelling, or forcibly disappear, with their whereabouts not known till date.

Sailathevi’s husband has been unwell and unable to work after he was assaulted by soldiers during the war, not uncommon among Tamil civilians who the army assumed had links with militant groups. Since then, she has single-handedly raised four daughters. The family’s enduring economic hardships forced her two older daughters to discontinue their education. Now, they too work in the crab factory with their mother. Together, the three women run the household and support the education of the two younger girls. “This job was everything to us,” Sailathevi says, fighting tears. As post-war reconstruction efforts of successive governments have evidently failed to sustain livelihoods and durably revive the regional economy, the sole factory in this isolated village is precious. And its closure, understandably devastating.

Over the last two months, the family has been surviving on one meal a day. “We just can’t go on without jobs. That is our only source of income,” Sailathevi says, sitting in the verandah of her friend’s modest home, minutes away from the factory whose tall, metallic gates are closed.

For women like her, each day of the job matters as wages are tied to the number of days of labour. The women must work at least 25 days to be eligible for a basic monthly pay of LKR 16,500 (roughly ₹3,590), as they boost Sri Lanka’s lucrative crab trade. Rarely affordable to locals, Jaffna crabs are a delicacy and make up about 10% of the island’s seafood export basket. In 2021, the island netted $318 million, a record high, from seafood exports when foreign reserves were fast depleting due to a balance of payments crisis. The 120 women employed at the factory must work all day, standing in a heavily air-conditioned room, to make LKR 640 (about ₹140) for the day, if they manage to reach the target of 4 kg of crab meat. Their wage is much like the scanty meat — just about 20 grams per crab — that they scrape off the hard-shelled creatures, toiling long hours.

“The work is not easy, but it has been vital for us, so we can’t complain,” says a young worker, Tharmaraja Thavapriya, underplaying the difficulties of the job and unaware of her contribution to the national economy. Be it tea or garment exports, or remittances from domestic workers in West Asian countries, all major foreign exchange earning sectors are powered by the labour of women like her.

Self-reliance over aid

In a situation as dire, poor families have only aid to count on, however sporadic it might be. “We went to the sea a few days last week after receiving a few litres of kerosene as Indian aid. It was very helpful. But we cannot live our lives waiting for relief materials every day. The government needs a plan to rescue our livelihoods so we can manage our lives,” says C. Sivachelvan, a fisher leader in the village.

Many women voice a similar sentiment, despite the hard, often exploitative, physical labour that their jobs demand. They appreciate humanitarian assistance, but don’t think it is sustainable in the long run. They welcome aid, but not at the cost of their autonomy. They seek an enabling economy in which they can either produce if they have the means, or at least sell their labour for a fair wage.

Meanwhile, there are no signs that the government has a plan yet, as Sri Lanka’s farmers have desperately been pointing out. A rash policy shift to organic fertilizer last year, although subsequently reversed, made them the early victims of the national crisis. Grappling with a 50% drop in crop yield now, many are unwilling to sow again. The pandemic, the government’s damaging policy choices and the rapidly aggravating economic crisis over the last two years have shattered Sri Lanka’s two main rural livelihoods — farming and fishing — and slashed domestic production. A few years after becoming self-sufficient in paddy, Sri Lanka is now struggling to find rice for the months ahead. Despite living on an island with enviable marine resources, many Sri Lankans now seldom eat fish, their main or often only source of protein, especially when red meat costs over LKR 2,000 (about ₹435) a kg in the local market. Families say children are losing weight and the elderly take ill more often.

Long queues outside fuel stations in Jaffna amid Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and persisting shortages. Photo: Special Arrangement

Long queues outside fuel stations in Jaffna amid Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and persisting shortages. Photo: Special Arrangement

The economic distress is once again pushing poor women to take appallingly high-interest (60%-200%) loans from microfinance companies, known for their predatory terms and aggressive collection strategy. “We know we are paying exorbitant amounts as the interest alone, but who else is ready to trust us with loans,” asks Thangarasa Thayalini, a worker at the crab factory. “Without an income, a loan is the only option we have.” It is a familiar problem in rural Sri Lanka. Over the last decade, scores of Tamil and rural Sinhalese women agitated for relief from the stifling debt they were entrapped in. Their campaigns pushed former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera (2017-19, in the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration) to devise programmes that promised debt relief and affordable credit for women. That brought some respite to women then, but is now proving inadequate in the absence of other substantial economic programmes.

Collapse of ecosystem

Barring the roads and the electricity networks that were restored soon after 2009, claims of ‘post-war reconstruction and development’ mostly remain goals on paper, awaiting more funding, a bureaucratic push, or both. The pervading sense of hopelessness and insecurity in the north and east prompted nearly 100 people to take boats to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu in the last few months. More recently, the Sri Lankan Navy said it intercepted another 200 Sri Lankans, including dozens from the north and east, who tried migrating “illegally” to a “foreign country” via the sea.

Residents of Shanthapuram village in neighbouring Kilinochchi district say harsh economic conditions seem to be driving many local women to consider jobs as domestic workers in West Asian countries. “These supposed employment agencies could exploit their situation and take huge sums of money from the women, promising them jobs abroad. We are going to see more families breaking up, and children growing up with no one to care for them,” says Ganapathy Sathyaseelan, who runs a small grocery store here. With almost all the locals buying essentials on credit from him, he is awaiting payments totalling LKR 3 lakh. “I don’t think anyone is in a position to pay,” he says, fearing that his own small business might soon fold.

Residents of this village are mostly Malaiyaha Tamils who fled the central and southern parts of the island during the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. They relocated in the north, mainly the Vanni, the mainland south of the Jaffna peninsula, only to face incessant, brutal violence in the following decades. Many of their youth initially joined or were later conscripted by Tamil militant organisations, and lost their lives in combat or disappeared in the final stages of the war.

Most earning members of the nearly 900 families in the village are daily wage workers, who find employment in other farms or construction sites in nearby towns and villages. The fuel shortages have made it harder to find jobs, because transport to workplaces is not easily available. About 150 women here have regular jobs at a garment factory nearby, which produces clothes for export. Their wages are tied to the whole team turning up at work. “Even if one of us does not turn up, the entire team stands to lose, so we are under a lot of pressure,” says a worker, requesting that she not be named, fearing reprisals from the company. To make it to the morning shift, she now wakes up at 2 a.m. to cook, clean and leave for work on time. “It takes a very long time to cook using firewood. I had only recently started using cooking gas for the first time, thinking it would help me save time. But with the shortages, I’m back to firewood,” says the single mother of two. Between her garment factory job, caring for her children and mother-in-law, and housework, the young woman barely has time to rest. “It feels like I am running all the time. What to do,” she says, smiling gracefully.

The national economic crisis may have brought people’s misery and fury under the global spotlight, but economic progress is only one of the many unfulfilled demands of Tamils living in the north and east. While they brave financial challenges after years of violent dispossession, scores of Tamil women, notably mothers of disappeared youth, have been resolute in their demand for truth and justice. The two are not unrelated. The agony of living without sons and daughters, many of whom were in their late teens when they were disappeared, also means that the families have fewer earning members now.

Families which have suffered enforced disappearance of youth have put up pictures of their missing sons and daughters on a wall in a room in Kilinochchi, where they protest every day, seeking answers and demanding justice.

Families which have suffered enforced disappearance of youth have put up pictures of their missing sons and daughters on a wall in a room in Kilinochchi, where they protest every day, seeking answers and demanding justice. | Photo Credit: Meera Srinivasan

Struggles old and new

A board in bright yellow hangs outside a small room along A-9, the main highway running up north, in Kilinochchi town. ‘Association of the Families of Disappeared’ read the bold Tamil letters on it. The walls of dimly lit rooms have not an inch of space left, with printed photographs of the missing youth put up in rows. “Had our children been around at this time, they would be working and supporting our family. Regardless, they would have at least been around,” says Yogeswari Vijayalakshmi, one of the protesting mothers. “I don’t need gas, or fuel or light. But I need to be alive so I can continue looking for my child.”

A total of 133 people who were part of the struggle have died already, according to Kadirgamanathan Kohilavani, leader of the Kilinochchi association, one of many such groups in the north and east. “It is the stress, really. We have been running from pillar to post, testifying before one commission after another, and are still waiting for answers.”

Recalling that she rarely stepped out in her youth, “not even to buy a packet of salt”, the 51-year-old mother says: “Today, I am ready to go just anywhere for the sake of our children. Colombo, Geneva (United Nations Human Rights Council), wherever. Many of our children surrendered to the army. We have a right to know what happened to them.”

Like most other Sri Lankans the mothers too are severely affected by the stifling downturn, and spend long hours queuing up for essentials. “Today a kilo of rice costs 340 rupees. Most of our basic food items are not affordable. We are used to adversity like this, we had to cope with shortages when we were displaced. But it is still very hard,” Kohilavani says. Being used to deprivation does not make coping with it again any easier, that too while dealing with haunting memories of loved ones and the anxiety about their whereabouts. “We are all growing older, dealing with ailments, economic hardships, and must also take care of our families. It is hard,” she says. In her apprehensions, economic relief and justice do not exist in neat, separate compartments.

Women like her, who have been protesting for nearly 2,000 days despite the pressures of their daily lives, see the current citizens’ agitations over the economic crisis, going on for about 70 days in capital Colombo and other southern districts, as somewhat distant, and clearly different. “The southern (Sinhalese) people have come to the streets because they are suffering without gas, food and fuel. I feel for them, but where were they all when our people were killed,” she asks.

The Sinhalese community’s resistance to the Rajapaksas is unprecedented, just like the economic crisis that sparked it. But it is not a superglue that can instantly seal the deep ethnic divisions, as long as troubling questions linger. Although some Tamil groups have been holding anti-government protests in the north and east as well, customising demands to include accountability, justice and a political solution, the feeling that their southern counterparts let them down in the past frequently surfaces in conversations. “They (Sinhalese) are experiencing a crisis for the first time”; “Maybe they will better appreciate our suffering now”; “Will they stop protesting once the economic crisis lets up?”

Scepticism and fear

Fear is still palpable in the region, well over a decade after the strife ended. The region is starkly more militarised than the south, with armed soldiers manning the many checkpoints in northern towns and villages.

“When you’ve been beaten so badly, it is only natural to step back, isn’t it,” says Arulappu Casilda, who is raising her grandchildren in Manthuvil village in Mullaitivu district. Severely affected by the crisis, she too has reduced the family’s meat intake: “The children ask me, is this even a meat curry, grandma? But then what do I do. These are times you feed them for hunger, not for nutrition, not for taste.”

Many women like her, who head and run their households, are struggling to send their children to school as the crisis worsens. “A copy (notebook) that was 70 rupees two months ago now costs 160. A 10-rupee pencil now costs 40 rupees. How do you tell your child you can’t even buy them a pencil,” asks Mayuran Ramitha.

Although sceptical of the mass agitations in the country, the women are not cynical. They are willing to give protesters the benefit of the doubt. “We have our concerns about how people in the south ignored the bloodshed here, but I believe that the Sinhalese alone can evict the Rajapaksas from power. For that alone, let them win this. It will help us all,” says Vilvarasa Komala.

The distrust of the Sinhalese that is voiced by some Tamils stems from the one-sided narratives that some political leaders push both in the north and south, observes a senior activist in Mullaitivu. “Some in the north deliberately conflate the Sinhala state with the Sinhalese people, knowing well that there were Sinhalese who spoke up for us during the war. Similarly, in the south some leaders repeatedly paint Tamils as ‘terrorists’,” she says, requesting anonymity. “I have faced repercussions for pointing this out.”

She says there is a tendency in the island’s south to see the current moment as a purely economic crisis but she contends that is not the case. “Even after the war, how did our governments treat the Tamils and Muslim minority in this country? What did the government do to address the ethnic divide? All their so-called post-war reconciliation efforts were a total failure. Had there been a fundamental political shift, they could have built our economy very differently. We wouldn’t be here today.”

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