TUMAGASKODA, 11 October 2012 (IRIN) – The Sri Lankan village of Atumagaskoda is only 6km from the town of Vavuniya — the financial and business hub in the north since the end of the country’s long civil war – but in development terms it is years away. Village roads here were cleared of jungle shrub and made suitable for vehicle travel only last week, almost three and half years after the war’s end. “We have waited long for this. Finally, we got our roads cleared,” Punchirala Ranbanda, a village elder, told IRIN.
Rural residents in Sri Lanka’s former northern war zone (locally known as the Vanni) express frustration at being left behind in the fast-track development taking place near main towns and highways like the A9, A32 and A35, all of which are being widened.
Even the country’s president has noted the disparity. During a visit to the region on 25 September, President Mahinda Rajapaksa remarked that from the helicopter flying in, it was evident how development work in the towns has yet to seep into the villages.
In the village of Selvanagar, deep in Kilinochchi District some 10km from the main A9 highway, villagers were hand-digging a community well in early October. “We know it will take a long time if we wait for the authorities to do this. It would take months, maybe years, so we are doing it ourselves,” said Selva Ranjini, one of the female workers.
In neighbouring Ambankulam village, 17-year-old student Thanlaxmi Maheswaeri said jobs were so scarce that her family was finding it difficult to make US$40 monthly payments on a $1,500 loan taken out in mid-2010 to rebuild their war-damaged house. “There is no work, no businesses come here, no factories or anything that will give jobs,” she said. She also spoke of erratic electricity, impassable roads and lack of public transport. “For any health emergency we have to get to Kilinochchi [about 10km away].”
Potholes: In Mamaduwa village where 130 families displaced since the mid-1990s have resettled, conditions are similar. “If someone falls sick we have to take the patient to the hospital in Vavuniya 30km away on a motorbike, or a three-wheeler on a road filled with potholes almost all the way,” said 34-year-old resident Priyantha Dharmasena.
“Transporters charge extra because the roads are in such a bad condition,” he added.
Despite the slow pace, public officials in the Vanni say rural areas are receiving equal priority for development as towns. “The results are evident in towns because there is so much activity there and all activities are centred around them,” said Roopavathi Ketheeswaran, Kilinochchi District’s highest-ranking public official.
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, principal researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna (the political and cultural centre of northern Sri Lanka) said historically, most business and economic activity in the Vanni has taken place along the main highways. He also said low population density in some areas makes it difficult to spread evenly the benefits of development. In the districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi there are 38 and 93 persons per square kilometre, respectively, according to the 2011 census. [ http://www.statistics.gov.lk/ PopHouSat/CPH2012Visualization/htdocs/index.php?usecase=indicator&action=Map&indId=6 ]
“It does not make economic sense, nor is it economically feasible, to develop all areas of these districts equally because of lack of markets and population,” Sarvananthan said.
Stagnated development: But even in towns, the post-war building boom has created few jobs since the war ended in 2009. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/95488/SRI-LANKA-Legacy-of-war-unemployment-and-homelessness ] Though there are no official state figures, experts estimate up to 30 percent of residents in the north are unemployed despite the region’s economy — driven by public sector infrastructure investments — growing by 27 percent in 2011, according to the Central Bank.
The main problem is the near non-existent private sector, [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/90743/SRI-LANKA-North-crying-out-for-more-private-investment ] said Sarvananthan.
Meanwhile, massive public sector construction projects are mechanized and require skills mostly lacking among residents and returnees.
Anushka Wijesinha, an economist at the quasi-government think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), told IRIN the local private sector, [ http://www.irinnews.org/printreport.aspx?reportid=96422 ] if provided incentives to expand, can spur development more quickly than “waiting for big investments” that are slow to arrive. Private companies have reported a “wait-and-see” strategy [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/93039/SRI-LANKA-Job-creation-challenges-in-former-conflict-zone ] on investing in the north, still viewing it as risky given the shortage of skilled workers, lack of investment incentives and unknown returns.
While joblessness affects towns and villages, the latter’s development lags far behind. Roads and new power lines have only begun to appear in villages, with some rural residents still oblivious to the post-war infrastructure spending spree.
Northeast Reawakening Programme: Robert Peiris, who oversees development in the northeast for the Ministry of Economic Development under the Northeast Reawakening Programme, told IRIN the ministry has allocated more than $12 million for village rehabilitation and development works in the northeast with a special focus on rural areas.
Ketheeswaran said more than 8,400km of rural roads have been constructed in the Vanni since early 2010. Peiris added that grants of up to $45,000 are available for community-managed village projects. “The villages don’t have to repay the fund. If [the funds] are invested properly, they stay within the community as a financial resource,” he said, explaining how some village committees have reinvested interest paid on microfinance loans (funded by the grants) in the community.
According to the Economic Development Ministry, since 2010 about half of the 410 villages that have applied for funding have received support. Projects include a coconut fibre factory in Kilinochchi District, milk collection in Vavuniya, working with disabled civilians in Mullaitivu as well as shrimp farmers in Mannar District.
“Rural development is taking place, but it will take time to see the results because there is so much to be done,” Peiris said.
Too many jobless youth in former war zone
COLOMBO, 1 October 2012 (IRIN) – Finding paid work – especially for youths – is still difficult in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone in the north even after three years of peace and massive infrastructure projects, experts say, pointing to the region’s anaemic private sector as a main cause. Although official employment data for the region is unavailable, experts in the area estimate that up to 30 percent of the north’s population is unemployed, as opposed to a national rate of 4 percent. Based on the most recent census in 2001, [ http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/PDF/Population/p9p3%20Population%20by%20Five%20year%20age%20groups%20and%20sex.pdf ] 28 percent of the country’s population is between the ages of 10-24, and there are some 280,000 youths in the former war zone, according to a 2012 government estimate.
Most people who work in what is known as the Vanni – which includes the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu plus parts of Jaffna, Vavuniya and Mannar – do so only sporadically, according to a March 2012 report [ http://www.hpsl.lk/Files/Surveys/LKS0009_Northern%20province%20with%20cover%20page.pdf ] released by the government, UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme. “Daily labour was the most common income generation activity [when the study was conducted], this being the main source of income among 37 percent of the population,” it said.
The main problem is a near non-existent private sector there, said Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, the principal researcher at Point Pedro Institute of Development, [ http://www.pointpedro.org/index.php?option=com_maxcomment&task=quote&id=65&lang=en&Itemid=68 ] based in Jaffna District.
“[The] bulk of the development activities are large-scale public investments in infrastructure. employing skilled and semi-skilled labour from the south, as well as under-employed Sri Lanka Army personnel.”
Private companies have reported a “wait-and-see” strategy on investing in the north, still viewing it as a risky frontier, given the shortage of skilled workers, lack of investment incentives and unknown returns.
Sivathambu Navarathanaraja, secretary of the Kilinochchi District Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, said while government and humanitarian agencies provide vocational training and other assistance like farm equipment and seeds, youths in the Vanni still struggle.
Few companies in north: Only a few companies have ventured into the region. Cargills Ceylon, a large supermarket chain and agriculture processing company, is building a beverage processing plant in Ariyar Nagar village in Kilinochchi District, while there are plans to set up a garment factory with assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in the same area.
“There is very little by way of companies setting up operations here. For most who get training the best option is self-employment or leaving the region,” Navarathanaraja said, though Anushka Wijesinha, an economist at the quasi-government think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in the capital, Colombo, said there is not yet a noticeable trend of youths leaving the north. The risk is real, said Navarathanaraja, given that job creation is likely to be “painfully” slow.
Even though the Northern Province’s economy grew by 27 percent in 2011, according to the Central Bank, this has translated into few new jobs, said Sarvananthan and Wijesinha. Both attributed the spike to the region’s large-scale infrastructure projects and low starting point following a decades-long conflict. Fighting peaked in early 2009 before the government declared victory in May that year.
Sarvananthan said infrastructure investments can create jobs, but only if they are labour-intensive due to the local population’s scant formal education following the war. “It would have been prudent to deploy labour-intensive infrastructure construction methods as opposed to the current heavy machinery-intensive construction methods in order to generate large-scale employment opportunities.” The government’s infrastructure investment preference nationwide is machinery over people in the belief this method is quicker and more cost-effective.
“Unleash” private sector: IPS’s Wijesinha said more incentives should be given to local investors in the Vanni. “Rather than waiting for big investments into the former war areas from outside the region or outside the country, which may naturally take longer, what is needed is to unleash the potential of the local private sector, ease their constraints and help them invest and grow,” he said.
Vishu, a 32-year-old unmarried man from Kilinochchi, who preferred to go by one name, said he had tired of looking for work and left for the south 15 months ago, where he now works in a small grocery shop on the outskirts of Colombo. “I make a decent income, which I would not have been able to do had I remained in Kilinochchi,” he said. Vishu earns about US$150 monthly, while the national mean income in 2009-2010 was around $279 [ http://www.statistics.gov.lk/HIES/HIES2009_10FinalReport.pdf].
He said many youths and young adults who belong to the Tamil ethnic group and primarily live in the north are not able to speak the language [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/95931/Analysis-Bridging-the-language-divide-in-Sri-Lanka ] of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Sinhalese, which leaves them with limited job options. “Not many in my village speak Sinhala or English. Without them you will be lost in Colombo.”