Recently, Sri Lanka’s cabinet cleared a proposal to build 6,000 prefabricated houses for war-affected families in the island’s Tamil-majority north and east. What ought to have been a basic, brick-and-mortar effort to rebuild homes has turned out to be a major controversy, as the government appears persistent to push a deal that it alone finds logical.
Final stages of negotiation are on with the Luxembourg-based steel giant ArcelorMittal, which has been involved in the project since 2015, first to execute an earlier version of the project that sought to build 65,000 steel homes at a cost of about LKR 2 million each (roughly ₹8.5 lakh). Following stiff local opposition, the government cancelled the original project, only to clear a revised proposal months later, now limiting it to the construction of 6,000 homes.
The resistance to the project, coming from different quarters, is hard to miss. At the political level, Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has vehemently opposed the project in Parliament. The TNA’s Jaffna district parliamentarian, M.A. Sumanthiran, has repeatedly raised questions on the credibility of the Resettlement Ministry’s tendering process. Challenging the government’s decision to build 65,000 prefabricated homes, TNA leader R. Sampanthan had argued that brick-and-mortar homes would not just be more suitable for the hot climate in the north, but were also more economical compared to the “overpriced” steel homes that he called “cages.”
Asked about the opposition to the project, a spokesperson from ArcelorMittal’s London office said via email that the company had only responded to an “open, competitive tender”. After the government amended the contract following opposition, “we are now in the final stages of negotiations regarding an initial scheme of 6,000 houses, which will enable us to prove the suitability and benefit of our offer,” the email response read. “Our... proposal offers numerous advantages, including significantly faster speed of construction than traditional methods, at a neutral cost, and sustainability and environmental benefits.”
But a group of Sri Lankan architects and civil engineers from the noted Moratuwa University have argued the exact opposite. Following a comparative study of steel homes and block wall houses in May 2016, they concluded that prefabricated homes came with serious drawbacks, ranging from inadequate foundation and insufficient roof support to poor ventilation and risk of corrosion. Activists and a section of northern residents are worried that the proposal to build steel homes will neither regenerate local economy nor employ local labour in the war-torn areas. Working with subject experts, they submitted an alternative proposal for building twice as many brick-and-mortar homes for the same cost.
Sri Lanka’s Resettlement Ministry, however, appears to be on the same page as ArcelorMittal. “Using stone, soil and timber to build over 1 lakh homes required in the north and east would seriously impact the environment, leading to natural disasters. On the other hand, prefabricated homes are more suitable for sustainable development,” Ministry spokesman Dumidu Bandara told The Hindu. The Indian government has nearly completed building 50,000 homes in the north and east at a cost of LKR 5.5 lakh each. Even Sri Lanka’s Resettlement Ministry is building around 10,000 brick-walled homes in the north and east, at a cost of LKR 8 lakh, less than half the estimated cost of a prefabricated home. And that is why the government’s logic has escaped many.