The cellophane wrap is yet to be peeled off. The brand-new shutters are rolled up in almost all the 20 stalls along the margins of the large hall, 10 on each side. “It is nearly done. After all that delay because of the rains, it is finally over,” says the middle-aged man supervising the construction. He looks relieved.
The structure in Madduvil village in Jaffna district in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is an ‘economic centre’ initiated by the previous Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government . Built at a cost of LKR 150 million (approximately ₹6 crore), the facility came as a response to northern farmers’ frustration over being unable to sell their produce. They found the local market inadequate and fragile, and their links to the national market, from which they were cut off during the war, virtually non-existent.
The ‘economic centre’ was conceived as a central point where farmers could deposit their produce. From there, it could be transported to similar hubs, such as Dambulla in the Central Province , thereby linking the farmer to the island’s major markets, and potentially more consumers.
An intense monsoon and many bureaucratic hurdles dragged the project over the last two years, and now, the change in government three months ago has cast doubts on its future. Officials in the Northern Province administration say they are awaiting directions from the new government.
A decade may have passed since the civil war, fought by the state armed forces and rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ravaged Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority north and east. But the local economy is far from revived.
In 2018, the contribution of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the national GDP was lowest in the country, at 4.1% and 5.6%, respectively. The Western Province, where the capital Colombo is located, contributed 38.5%, according to data published by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
The Tamil people , who passionately demand accountability and justice for alleged rights violations, and a political solution to the national question, have also been drawing attention constantly to the need for jobs, livelihoods, a reliable market and rural credit that isn’t predatory. And they have been made a promise.
‘Development, not devolution’
Following his big election win in November 2019 , propelled mostly by the majority Sinhalese community, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s message to the Tamils was unambiguous : “It’s going to be development, not devolution.”
“For 70 odd years, successive leaders have promised one single thing: devolution, devolution, devolution. But ultimately nothing happened,” he told The Hindu in an interview a fortnight after he assumed office , and asked people to judge him by his record on development after five years. His older brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has also reiterated the message .
For people listening to the brothers’ renewed thrust on development , the fate of projects initiated by the predecessor government is only one of the many questions that arise. The nature of development that the leaders might pursue is another key concern.
As the war ended in 2009, brutally claiming tens of thousands of civilian lives, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa undertook large-scale development — building roads, providing electricity and restoring railway networks — and never missed a chance to flaunt them. The infrastructure was no doubt necessary to rebuild the area razed by incessant bombing, but it was not sufficient to win over the Tamil people residing there. The government’s version of development did not speak to the everyday concerns of Tamils yearning for a decent living, and a life without fear amid curbs by a powerful and omnipresent military. The Tamils registered their protest at every opportunity — in the 2013 provincial election and the 2015 presidential poll when Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated after a decade in powe r . Even in the November 2019 presidential election , they rejected the Rajapaksa brand, despite their many disappointments with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.
Meanwhile, the post-war decade had left the Tamil community heavily in debt. Sporadic, piecemeal efforts from development organisations and NGOs proved futile and at times, compounded their misery. Struggling to keep their head above water — as living costs have spiralled and joblessness prevails — people wonder if the Rajapaksas’ development vision might be any different this time.
It is only in the last few years that B. Sekar started using multi-day boats for tuna fishing. It was a big jump from his smaller, fibre glass boat that couldn’t go much beyond the coastline. “The tuna is for exports, mainly. We don’t eat it, our people can’t afford it,” he says, standing at a newly painted shelter facing the harbour.
The former government began reconstructing the damaged fisheries harbour to help revive livelihoods of the fisherfolk of Myliddy, located on the island’s northern tip, in Jaffna peninsula . Its first phase, completed at LKR 150 million (about ₹ 6 crore), was inaugurated in August last year. This was significant because the harbour was retrieved from the military and finally available for people to access and use. After having been displaced to places far away – in some cases even to India — about 100 fisherfolk families are now resettling in their former lands around the harbour.
Data from the District Secretariat show that in Jaffna district alone, over 400 families continue to live in temporary camps for the internally displaced. They are yet to return to their original lands, some of which the army still holds.
Post-war resettlement has been at best patchy in the north and east, according to residents, for it’s never about families simply “moving back”. Resettlement entails finding housing (most houses were destroyed in war-time shelling), schooling for their children, and a steady income to rebuild lives. But for now, they at least get to go back to their land or sea, like in Myliddy.
“If this fisheries harbour is to really work for us, it has to be extended to accommodate more boats. Otherwise it will be a clamour for space all the time. If only they would take our views, we can explain exactly what is required here,” Sekar says.
Barely a few feet away, other fishermen have lined their small boats that have no place in the big harbour. “They’re developing this fisheries harbour, but you can see how they benefit only the large [multi-day] boats. Our catch has taken a big hit because the oil from the bigger boats coat and damage our nets, and we have no place to even mend them,” says P. Rasakumar. His family has returned to the area after being displaced for 28 years.
The “fruit” of development, going by his account, is skewed in favour of the relatively more powerful, even within a vulnerable community. If a multi-day boat owner like Sekar says his views are yet to be factored in by policymakers, Rasakumar has little hope his might even be heard.
On the one hand, the locals can’t let go of the development — however slow-paced, inadequate or lopsided it might be. On the other, the nascent development at their doorstep threatens to breed new conflicts — for instance, between the fishermen operating large boats and those owning small ones; or between the local Tamil fishermen of Myliddy and the Sinhalese fishermen from the southern parts of the island who park their large boats and land their catch here.
Lebbai Rifas in neighbouring Mullaitivu district shares the concern. “Local contradictions constantly weigh us down,” says the 42-year-old, who runs a bakery in Mulliyawalai town. He is referring to the difficulties faced by Tamil-speaking Muslims who were trying to resettle in their lands after living elsewhere since the 1990s when the LTTE evicted them overnight. Rifas was in class nine when his family was forced to leave their home. “Nearly 1,000 families have returned now and it’s not just about their land. It’s about having access to agriculture, fisheries. How can you plan for development without addressing the gaps in resettlement? A progressive vision to develop our district cannot emerge unless we resolve these local tensions,” he says. “There cannot be development without reconciliation within.”
If Rifas cannot envision development without reconciliation, farmer K. Sivalingam from Kokkilai town sees no point in development without power devolution. “It has been 10 years since the war ended and look at us! All we want is to be able to govern ourselves, manage our own affairs at the provincial level. They don’t even want us to sing the national anthem in Tamil,” he says, dejected.
Like him, many people in Jaffna and Mullaitivu repeatedly referred to the Rajapaksa government’s decision to drop the Tamil anthem from the Independence Day celebrations on February 4. They see it not just as a denial of their basic right to express in their language, but also as a move foretelling more exclusion in future. Some are cynical and others, hopeless.
The people of Mullaitivu, one of the poorest districts in the country, speak of their alienation from Colombo. But they also feel distant from Jaffna. “Whether it’s provincial administration or policymaking, everything is so Jaffna-centric. They don’t understand our specific needs,” says M. Kuhanathan, a retired school principal from Vattappalai town.
The persisting disparity within the Province, between Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni (the mainland area including Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and part of Kilinochchi district), is a familiar refrain here. “Even the war hit the Vanni a lot more, but we are still cut out,” Kuhanathan says, seated in the airy veranda at his home, barely 15 km from Mullivaikkal, where the war witnessed its gory end. He urges authorities to move on a proposed bridge connecting Mullaitivu with the Eastern Trincomalee district. “That will bring more people to our district. We cannot have investment without enabling infrastructure. And that infrastructure should benefit the people here,” Kuhanathan notes.
“There are many local needs that both the Central government and our own provincial government [2013-2018] have ignored for long. Now the national leaders are using the trope of development only to access big international loans, nothing else,” he adds.
Zooming into the rural
“We have natural resources, we just need to tap them thoughtfully,” says Kuhanathan, echoing a sentiment often heard from people of the Northern Province, particularly the Vanni. Their developmental aspirations are closely tied to their reliance on the rural economy — agriculture and fisheries.
At the same time, officials who have worked in the Province for long emphasise the need for industries if the challenge of unemployment has to be addressed — more so in Jaffna, where agriculture is not as central to the economy as in the Vanni.
According to Sri Lanka’s Labour Force Survey in 2018, the Northern and Eastern Provinces have among the highest unemployment rates in the country, 5.6% and 6% respectively, though the figure doesn’t capture those precariously engaged in the informal sector, or others who have simply given up looking for jobs.
“Most youth want government jobs, but that’s not practically possible. There is a young labour force with few options. They are not inclined towards agriculture or fisheries even if their parents are in those sectors. We need industries to come up, so they can be absorbed,” says a senior official, requesting not to be named.
A Central Bank-commissioned report in 2018 on an economic development framework for the north too recommends investing capital in existing and new small-scale industries to boost local productivity. It underscores the need for greater capital investment “to compensate for the tremendous destruction of capital assets and decades of crippled capital accumulation”.
Small industries are not alien to Jaffna. Records of the Department of Statistics show that in 1983, Jaffna district alone had 3,121 manufacturing units, where thousands were employed until the war began raging. Similarly, the industrial estate in Atchuvely, Jaffna, was set up in 1971 and had over 30 factory units employing a few thousands. They were destroyed during the war. The estate was revived in 2014 with Indian assistance, but the half-a-dozen medium-scale industries functioning now have been able to employ barely 100 people. Successive governments have spoken of reviving defunct old factories, including cement and tile across the Northern Province, that is home to about 10 lakh people, but are yet to show just how they would.
Further, the industries have to be re-oriented towards production for local consumption, not merely for exports, notes Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist at the University of Jaffna. Post-war, the thrust has been either on large-scale development, including World Bank or Asian Development Bank-aided projects for millions of dollars, or export-oriented production that is yet to kick-off. “Neither addresses the very specific needs of the people of this Province. We need development that appreciates the strengths and challenges of our rural economy, we need jobs to generate incomes here, and a market locally and nationally to sell what is produced here,” he says.
However, industries, small or big, cannot simply be resurrected in a war-battered economy unless there is a conducive environment. That is perhaps why many are pinning their hopes on the Palaly airport, redeveloped last year, and the Kankesanthurai harbour that the new government has promised to develop. At present, army-run hotels dot the coast here, with no other commercial activity in sight.
The Government of India is involved in both projects. It offered an LKR 300 million (about ₹12 crore) grant to upgrade airport facilities, and also approved a $45.27 million Line of Credit to redevelop the harbour that could attract investment, in addition to improving logistics and connectivity.
Potential investors and officials in Jaffna say once operational, the harbour will ease import of raw materials. Locals see the opening of the airport as crucial, especially after India’s Alliance Air in October launched direct flights connecting Jaffna and Chennai thrice a week. However, high costs and a limited baggage allowance of 14 kg has set limits to business opportunities in the sector. The promise of this “regional airport” depends on the government further upgrading its facilities.
“That is our main focus — improving connectivity through the airport and the port,” says P.S.M. Charles, Governor of the Northern Province, concurring with the popular demand. As a representative of the President at the provincial level, the Governor holds considerable administrative powers, particularly in overseeing Central government-backed projects. “We have ancient temples, beautiful beaches and places of historic significance in this Province. There’s great potential for both industry and tourism. We welcome Indian pilgrims and tourists. We are also keen to have Indian investors,” she told The Hindu at her bungalow.
The projects would need at least a few years to become fully operational, and much longer to help create the “hub”. It’s not just time, but also human resources that are crucial.
“So many of our people left the country during the war. Today, human resource is also a challenge. But we have to somehow overcome this. If Japan and Germany could re-emerge so strong after their wars, why aren’t we able to,” asks Kandasamy Suseendran, a retired banker from Jaffna.
Meanwhile, those facing the brunt of the post-war impact are desperate to move ahead. This is especially true of the generation that witnessed the war all through, and those who had nowhere else to go. “There isn’t a job I haven’t done to survive,” says M. Arunthavamalar in Mullaitivu, who works in small farms.
“Everyone seems to want to promote individual entrepreneurship, like sewing or livestock farming, and not collective work. We are all left to our own devices and there’s no way we can scale up our business. See the interior roads here, they’re rickety and quite unmotorable. How do we reach the market,” asks the 57-year-old leader of a women’s co-operative society.
As a single mother, Arunthavamalar has had to brave displacement to other districts for years and raise her daughter with her income. The end of the war brought little relief to her. “If I had this hand, I could do a lot more work,” she says looking at her left arm. It is amputated till over her elbow, following a grievous injury in a bomb shelling in Mullivaikkal where scores of people moved in May 2009, after the army declared it a safe zone. That is also where tens of thousands of civilian deaths were reported.
For her, development is not insulated from the trauma of the war, or a decade’s fatigue since. At some level, the challenging life she leads today is a stark reflection of the failed promise of post-war recovery. “A lot of time has gone by. From the outside it might seem somewhat normal now. But if you ask me if there is peace, I can’t say yes.”