23 October, 2017

Caste, Land, Debt, Employment & Economic Gridlock: Some Options For Jaffna’s Economic Revival

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

My essay two weeks ago (“What Options for Jaffna Economic Revival?” on 17 July) was on the whole grim and pessimistic and it followed discussions outside the Northern Province with a NGO types, small investors and a potential venture capitalist. I had the good fortune a week later to participate in two and a half days of events and discussions in Jaffna thanks to Marshal Fernando of the Colombo based Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue and Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Jaffna based Fellowship for Social Justice. I do not intend to review the proceedings or report on the rich variety of views except to say that participants included local activists, grass roots campaigners, religious dignitaries and radical Tamil leftists. About 20 of the 100 or so present were Sinhalese from the South. What I do intend to write about is how my views on economic revival in Jaffna were advanced by this exposure. Hence my title has progressed from “What options” to “Some options”. The relevance of this essay is confined to Jaffna and the Northern Province – even it’s bearing on Mullaitivu and Mannar is limited – and if one were writing about the Eastern Province the approach would be different. The EP economy is progressing better, its ethnic mix is sharply different and the caste and land logjam is far less severe.

The Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Kilinichchi Districts have undergone a social revolution in the last few decades. Deleterious effects predominate, so the term counter-revolution is more fitting than revolution! Thirty years of war, subjugation to an alien culture, too-and-fro occupation by the LTTE and the military, land, home and business premises grabbed, forced eviction of Muslims and wholesale theft of their property by Tamils and finally the flight of hundreds of thousands from Jaffna into the Vannie wilderness, when taken together this constitutes a trauma of apocalyptic proportions. Then there was the flight of tens of thousands of young people to forestall forced recruitment by the LTTE or harassment by the military – actually just about anybody who could get away did not hesitate to take off overseas and those who could not get that far escaped to the south of Lanka. Thus the economy was devastated, agricultural lands fell into disuse, fishermen’s boats lay at anchor, cement and chemical plants were abandoned and afterwards stripped and even the informal economy declined steeply.

The region reverted to the infamous money-order economy now sourced not from Colombo but Toronto and London. This in turn has had a psychological impact on young people. One hears in the south of how women’s remittances from the Middle East engender male and youth idleness. The constant refrain of contractors and urban households in the south is that unskilled labour is hard to find and people with skills (carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, fitters, welders and mechanics) a prize worth its weight in gold. Jaffna is a worse version of this. Even after making allowance for exaggeration it is hard to deny that the labour supply scene in Jaffna is a new ball game compared to pre-war times and the economic consequences are bad. Nowhere in the world can a society go through three decades of such trauma without profound social transformation. The old Jaffna, that quaint place is no more; whatever takes its place in the next decade will be different both in economy and in social traditions and values.

Even the small number of carriers of old traditions who come back from abroad to resettle, in the main choose to make their homes in Colombo. The Tamil diaspora has not invested in Jaffna not for want of feeling for their fellow Tamils but because there is scant business opportunity. Donations to schools and computer labs are fine but not the same as economic investment in the production of tangible goods. Opportunities for productive investment on a capitalist basis are not plentiful. Tourism which is attracting quick-buck investment does not fall into the category of an outlay that generates agricultural and industrial wealth. I do not denigrate the service sector but am only pointing out that hotels and guest houses belong to a different category, a category which does not increase material output or contribute to wealth creation through a multiplier effect.

Land and caste issues

The topics I will touch on today are land and caste which are interlinked, and indebtedness and economic growth which are also linked. I wrote extensively in the previous 17 July piece about the reluctance of the military to return occupied lands and quality homes and the business benefits and holiday privileges that the forces are reaping. These observations need to be supplemented by reference to the arbitrariness of the authorities in the exercise of power. Just one example will have to suffice for reasons of space, but it is not atypical. There is a road behind the KKS cement factory which is also the access to several lanes and properties. These lands were occupied by the military till recently but a few months ago owners were invited to repossess their lands. Then quite arbitrarily and without warning the police fenced off portions, denying everyone access. Appeals and demands for explanation fell on deaf years as always. In truth Jaffna is still occupied by a politically hostile and culturally alien force.

I now move on to a more general issue concerning land; the shortage of labour on a sufficient scale to undertake productive farming. This is not entirely correct in a certain sense but give me a moment to complete my comment on land shortage. Almost all land that has been returned – indeed most land anyway – belongs to the “upper” castes (who affirms their altitude!), the vellelas (govigama) or farmer caste. Many owners are absentee landlords resident in the South, in Toronto or in Jaffna Peninsula towns. They are no longer farmers in the active sense. In the past too active vellala farmers supplemented their labour with exploitation (in the surplus value extraction sense) of “low” caste (nalavar, pallans, etc) labourers but things are different now.

The old arrangement has declined after the war because absentee landlords and their sons are not and have no intention of functioning as active farmers. Some may like to use “low” caste agricultural labour but even they are inhibited by two considerations. First, in these turbulent times landowners are terrified that active agricultural labourers who have been farming for years may refuse to surrender lands. The same fear restrains the creation of new employment on returned lands; vast tracts on both sides of the road to Jaffna through the Kilinochchci District are absentee-owned and unfarmed. In the Peninsula, say KKS, a different concern restrains absentee landlords. The sharp witted Jaffna man anticipates escalation of land values; the airport is to be developed, Indian commercial capital may be energised, etc. The trend is to hang on to real-estate for price speculation purposes rather than commit to productive initiatives.

This has a direct relationship to caste. If I may be allowed to exaggerate a little I could say: On the one hand we have poor, cast-wise socially depressed, landless labourers and on the other side absentee landlords sitting on prime estate. Eureka, a Russian Narodnik of former times would exclaim! Here are the ingredients of a peasant revolution; two birds with one stone! Expropriate absentee and non-active (mostly snot caste) landowners and give possession to the peasants (mostly downcast if you forgive a terrible pun). Of course I know this is not doable in these times; imagine the howls! I am more likely to be taken away in a white-van hired by the Tamil landed gentry than the peril of being offered a lift in Gota’s vehicles in previous years.

Nonetheless the principle remains correct. Caste oppression in the North cannot be overcome by merely preaching the fatherhood of god and the brotherhood of man. My liberal friends – bless their bleeding hearts – wish to educate the oppressor and preach equal distribution of god’s love among all men. Hardened materialists have no objection to god ladling out his love by the bucketful to all, but they say that unless economic exploitation (access to land) is addressed the GPS location of the kingdom of heaven will remain confined to its previous coordinates. Caste oppression will never be overcome until its material basis is abolished. Abolishing the caste roots of the land deadlock is the specific form that peasant liberation, the agricultural revolution, has to take in the Hindu Tamil north. (No hard feeling about Hinduism per se, but institutionalised Hinduism is the bulwark of caste oppression in Jaffna).

Indebtedness and economic growth

Many sessions of the Jaffna dialogue were immersed in the imbroglio of rural indebtedness. It was mostly women (mothers, heads of single breadwinner families, labouring women) who poured their hearts out. They do not have the money to feed a family and make ends meet; in a single phrase that’s it! At the end of each month they find themselves mired deeper and deeper in debt. This is not a problem of undisciplined spendthrifts or extravagant habits; no, most are parsimonious as they have to be if they are to survive at all. It seems as if the poor in Jaffna and the Central Government in Colombo are up the same gum tree. And the solution in both cases is the same, wealth creation or economic growth or whatever one wants to call it. It goes without saying that economic growth that does not spread some degree of equity will not address poverty. It is pretty obvious that there has to be economic growth, fast growth is needed in the North, if one is to have any butter to spread around at all.

It took a while to get this simple message across to the distinguished intellectuals assembled in the Conference Hall in Jaffna. The initial proposals were to control of interest rates, impose constraints on rapacious lenders who draw the unwary into easy loans only to grab their property and so on. Many debt ridden ladies confessed to having taken four and five loans; one or two were mired in a dozen. Control and regulation is a short-term panacea; the la solution is wealth creation, economic development always trumps bureaucratic regulation. It took a little effort to get this penny to drop.

I dwelt at some length in my 17 July piece on the obstacles to growth and in this essay I have made the case that land reform will serve the twin objectives of releasing productive forces in agriculture and overcoming a social curse. The other implied essential in this essay is that the state should foster and lead public and private capital into productive enterprises. Road building and pouring concrete does not trigger an economic multiplier since most of the released capital goes out of the Peninsula to circulate elsewhere, maybe the South. The state-led Deng Xio Ping, Lee Kwan Yew, South Korea private, public or joint-venture strategy is the most feasible option for growth on a capitalist basis.

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Latest comments

  • 1
    1

    How could on Earth you have this dirty cast system in this modern world of human right. People are fighting for equality and equal right. Old cast system is still applied in Jaffna and India. 25% of Indians are Dalith? who gave that name to People. Is it one of Hindu gods. He should be crazy god. people are one race and equal; No white is superior to any black and no black is superior to white all are equal. This was tricks of some Hindus to divide and rule … People India should wake up and this can cause a lot of problems for people in India and Jaffna in long run..That why a lot of people leave Jaffna.

  • 4
    0

    A way out may be to impose a heavy tax on all unutilised productive lands! That may induce the landowners to make arrangements to utilise the land for production either directly or indirectly. The NPC and the local bodies should initiate action on this without delay in the interests of economic growth.
    Sengodan. M

  • 5
    0

    Hinduism is the least institutionalised religion at least in Sri Lanka though it may not necessarily so in India where there is lot of brahminical domination and also there are other institutions such as mutts. The caste system has become a part and parcel of the social fabric in Northern Sri Lanka and that is true irrespective of the person’s religion ( whether it be Christianity or Hinduism).
    Sengodan. M

    • 3
      0

      In the so called developed societies, there are two levesl rich, poor and celebrities. then poor are also divided drug-pushers, beggars, low income middle class etc.etc.

      So, the caste system is all over the world. Only thing is different names.

  • 9
    1

    That doesn’t justify the land grabbing !! By any one !! Specially by the security forces !! The government !! For the purposes of building bhuddist temples !! Building armed forces camps !! Settlements !!

    • 3
      1

      Where in this letter says so…! The diaspora can only play old tunes over and over again. While their children are getting all they want in London and Toronto, their poor relatives will remain beggars of money-order economy. If they ever question this dismal existence, there is a common enemy in Government, Military, Buddhist Temples etc.

  • 6
    1

    “” I had the good fortune a week later to participate in two and a half days of events and discussions in Jaffna thanks to Marshal Fernando of the Colombo based Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue and Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Jaffna based Fellowship for Social Justice. “”

    This clearly states that you are no different from the status core trying to gain prominence as settlers do in informing others how to live.
    At the core you are coward!

    Like Ranil just leave it to the gods not the imported `crusaders` buddhist, christian, islam.

    take another break and sneer at china and be like a fool all day.

    crusaders and communist cannot win its Trump territory soon.
    So get ready to become cannibal social swelled heads.

  • 5
    0

    “”The initial proposals were to control of interest rates, impose constraints on rapacious lenders who draw the unwary into easy loans only to grab their property and so on. Many debt ridden ladies confessed to having taken four and five loans; one or two were mired in a dozen. Control and regulation is a short-term panacea; the la solution is wealth creation, economic development always trumps bureaucratic regulation. It took a little effort to get this penny to drop.””

    Stale news We have seen an Article 2 years ago by Malinda in The Nation pertaining to Batticaloa in the same strain- the sharks in the peace.

    ” private, public or joint-venture strategy””

    No nothing works and they have not worked in the west either.
    (83% of UK is service driven.)
    No not even your common candidate works because
    there is no spirit of reasonableness.

    freedom has to be plucked but it fell on lanka by sheer stupidity.

  • 0
    0

    Dr Kumar David,

    I wish to thank you for the second part of your Jaffna report.

    “The old Jaffna, that quaint place is no more; whatever takes its place in the next decade will be different both in economy and in social traditions and values.”

    I repeat that hopefully you manage to deliver this fact to the decision makers in Jaffna. Colombo and abroad. There is no point to try to recreate a society and economy that does and can not exist anymore.

    “The other implied essential in this essay is that the state should foster and lead public and private capital into productive enterprises. Road building and pouring concrete does not trigger an economic multiplier since most of the released capital goes out of the Peninsula to circulate elsewhere, maybe the South.”

    I agree. Most of the investment trickles out from Jaffna not down to the poor who have little to offer. Almost all the money is borrowed and has to be repaid with interest sooner or later. The donated money (grants, diaspora) is mostly used for non-productive investments. I am eagerly waiting to discover what kind of productive ideas come from the villages for the village development project that allows one project for each village.

    “The trend is to hang on to real-estate for price speculation purposes rather than commit to productive initiatives.”

    NOt only that. I have read that the District Secretariat has been ordered to “identify” land where houses for the landless IDPs can be built. The identification of this land appears to be done without any transparency. There is very likely money to be made when insiders buy land from old widows at very low prices and sell it to the housing and other development projects at inflated prices. Why does the Central Government not publicly ask land owners to offer land for these projects?

  • 2
    0

    Dr Kumar David,

    “actually just about anybody who could get away did not hesitate to take off overseas and those who could not get that far escaped to the south of Lanka.”

    What are the skills and the state of physical and mental health of the inhabitants of the Northern Province? There should be an objective study.

    • 1
      0

      Indeed. It is a very good point. PTSD can be prominent in these parts of the world. Unfortunately one way or the other those who possess leadership to change the world for Jaffna either left the place or got killed. It’s very common that where dictatorship persisted, people become overly passive and are not ready to take risks, which is a must for economic activity.

      • 2
        0

        This is where dual-citizenship applicants over the age of 55 hailing from
        the NP should be expedited. There is a deliberate move within the I/E
        Dept.to slow down in this direction – parly awaiting “tips” to push applications, although much-boasted Computer-data based Nos. are taken
        in that Order? This will bring back absentee land-lords to take firm
        steps on either developing their assets faster or dispose unproductive farm lands.

        • 0
          0

          Edwin Perera,

          “This is where dual-citizenship applicants over the age of 55 hailing from
          the NP should be expedited.”

          It is true that some of this age group have returned to Jaffna from abroad but they are very few. Life in Jaffna can be nice with a foreign retirement income but not many are willing to leave their children and grandchildren, good medical care and stability abroad. How long can 55+ be productive?

          The war ended years ago and the expected peace dividend of returning Diaspora and investment never occurred. I don’t think it will start now.

          Even the people hailing from Jaffna now living in other parts of SL refuse to return.

          I have many relatives in Colombo and abroad. Not a single one has moved back to Jaffna. Many of the 55+ still want to own their inherited land and houses here but their children and grand children will sell if there is a buyer. My relatives have dual citizenship and I believe that other former SL citizens can obtain a 5 year residency permit without any problem.

          In my opinion the idea of returning people and investment is a pipe dream. Hopefully I am wrong.

          We should try to develop existing human and natural resources with a sustainable long term plan instead of dreaming.

          There is a deliberate move within the I/E
          Dept.to slow down in this direction – parly awaiting “tips” to push applications, although much-boasted Computer-data based Nos. are taken
          in that Order? This will bring back absentee land-lords to take firm
          steps on either developing their assets faster or dispose unproductive farm lands.

  • 3
    2

    So all these crocodile tears by Sambanthan and Sumanthiran is to help their Vellala Club profit in the land price appreciation. No wonder Nandikadal Thambi is still hero for the Dalit Tamils.

  • 1
    0

    One of the issue is that there were no large land holdings over 50 acres in the North

    In the South with many of the large holdings being well over 50 acres, the Land Reform Act in 1970’s took over acreage over 50 and many landless benefited

    This dynamic unhappily did not take place in the North.

  • 1
    3

    So Vellala Absentee Landlords live in Scarborough too…

    Do they have a UNP Toronto?….

  • 4
    0

    “fishermen’s boats lay at anchor, “
    All boat were destroyed or stolen. The sea belonged to Tamils has been invaded by various people. Big fishing flotillas from international companies. Illegal fishing by those from south and by Muslims. Unprecedented invasion. illegal fishing and destruction of seabeds where fish breeding take place. The main income of northeast has been from fishing. If you took the proper survey it will reveal the facts. Tamils have been invaded, occupied, subjugated, and destroyed. Their livelihood the sea and its resources are robbed and destroyed.
    Return the their sea as well as their land. Without sea the north east economy will not revive.
    During the 50’s and 60’s By their daring devotional hard labour fishermen earned more than a doctor’s wage. Each fishing village had their library and reading centres. they had community Centers, sport clubs, women associations . they contributed for religious cultural activities immensely They improved their life than any other community in SriLanka. Their traditional sea fairing industry and fishing industry should be revived. Their culture of discipline and unwritten laws and traditions have to be revived.

  • 2
    0

    “The region reverted to the infamous money-order economy “
    This is false matter made to believe by some one to hide the fact. The main income of N-E was Fishing and agriculture amidst a high ratio of exploitation. the salary remittance by the white collar workers for Colombo or south was only a peanut. The export from north east provided much work and employment and income to those in the south.
    Thing how many lorry loads of fish , rice , cement. sugar, agricultural and industrial products were transported to Colombo each night. Still you will be able to take those statistics if you trace the lorry owners.

  • 2
    0

    In Jaffna,the gap between those who can afford to live and those who cannot afford to live is wide.
    In the early days say before the conflict even landless village folk were able to survive.A reader above has also pointed out that fishermen had incomes more than that of a doctor.
    The only way out,as per Prof:Davids concluding remark is Lee Kwan Yew led style of growth on a capitalist basis.
    The irony is that it is the Jaffna man who made that possible for Lee Kwan Yew in the old days!

  • 1
    0

    Note that Kumar David has written many a time about the North, and he had rarely, if ever, addressed the Caste issue. Many of the Marxists were complicit with the LTTE. Kumar David was at one with the upper-class Tamils who are absentee Land Lords ruling the North. We Tamils have to accept that the ITAK was largely a move by the Landed aristocracy to hold on to the land by separating from the political evolutionary processes emanating from Colombo, and racial polarization was used to attempt to achieve that, without trying to accept the multi-cultural charater of the Land.

    As for Land Reform in the North, read Sebastian Rasalingam, an author whose contribution should not be forgotten. he is a lone voice from the “lower” castes.
    Unfortunately I haven;t seen any thing by him recently.
    I extract relevant paragraphs from one of his articles:

    http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=36740

    Land reforms in the North and East of Sri Lanka
    October 13, 2011, 7:06 pm

    The government has at long last realised the importance of land reform in the North, and launched the ‘Bim Saviya’ (In Tamil ‘Bhumi Sayttal’). This is of prime importance for the North with its caste system enforced by custom and violence. Once a war has been fought, the land claimed by the terrorist becomes crown land. All land deeds within the ‘Eelam’ map should be deemed null and void, and they should be distributed to the displaced people, who suffered under the LTTE. A sizable part should remain state land for future development. When the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are resettled, the old caste structures of the villages should be erased by uncompromising land reform. The diaspora landlords who funded terror cannot have any claims.

    Caste and land
    …….
    Although the 20th century eroded some of the strictures of the caste system, land ownership remained in the hands of a small percentage of people. Many of them moved to Colombo by the latter part of the 19th century.

    This intensified when the Jaffna-Colombo railroad opened in 1905. These absentee landlords became parliamentarians and blocked any legislation that modernized the North. Universal franchise and women’s rights were opposed, starting from 1929. The building of causeways and roads that would make depressed caste villages accessible were opposed. Upgrading of village Councils and TCs in the North were opposed by these ‘Tamil leaders’. When they realized that Colombo was going to make caste discrimination illegal, they launched separatist politics. Then the Ponnambalams and the Chelvanayagams could “run their affairs themselves” in the ‘exclusive Tamil homelands of the Eelam’. The political strategy was to whip up Tamil racism, aided by Sinhala Chauvinism.
    Having come from a depressed caste and grown up in the 1930s in the Jaffna peninsula, I know the vicious character of quasi-slavery, which was maintained purely by violence.

    Separatist politics of the land-owner Tamils
    They launched the 30-year separatist war on the basis of the Vaddukkoddai Resolution of 1976, re-iterating the ‘Arasu’ (Sovereignty) clarion call of 1949 launched by Chelvanayagam feigning ‘Federalism’. Of course, there were some Colombo Tamils who read no Tamil and believed in Federalism. For 30 years, the rich Tamils of the West financed terror in Sri Lanka, and held the depressed Tamils (DT) as cannon fodder. The DTs were used as human shields against the Indian Army and later against Government forces. The upper-caste Colombo Tamils, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and their diaspora never forgave the Vanni people, because they breached the confining wall built by Prabhakaran and some 300,000 of them ran into the arms of the Government. The angered diaspora refuses to aid the displaced Vanni people. Instead, the diaspora spent millions, buying western politicians, NGOs and TV men to rouse hate against Sri Lanka, ignoring the Vanni people.

    The TNA didn’t ask India to help rebuild the lives of the displaced people. Instead, they run to India demanding devolution; and now, rejecting land reform, or shouting ‘Sinhalisation of the North’. We clearly see what agitates the TNA most. This land-owner class instigated a terrorist war to hold ‘their land’ and keep us as slaves ‘a la Manu-Dharma’. Now we see their true face.

    I call upon the President of Sri Lanka to go beyond the proposed ‘Bhumi Sayttal’ (‘Bim Saviya’) and nationalise all the so-called Eelam land and begin redistribution from a clean slate.

    Sebastian Rasalingam,

  • 1
    0

    Tamil politicians have at various times blamed Colonialism, Donoughmore & Soulbury Commissions, D. S. Senanayake, Ivor Jennings, SWRD, Madame B, JR, MR et al. They never acknowledged that their vicious caste & attitude towards women were the main reasons for holding them back.

    By depriving equal opportunity for a majority of their population a minority of Vellala dominated Hindu & Anglicised Tamils lived in comfort in Colombo 7, played rugby & cricket, got their kids educated in UK, Royal College, Oxford & Cambridge.

    Generations of Tamils & Tamil politicians thought that was the world order. In order to pacify the non Vellala masses, and others who had not made it to Colombo, Tamil politicians played communal politics & played the victim. Recent glaring examples are the TNA & Vigneswaran. Even so called former leftists writing here in the CT like Kumar David, R. Phillips never really condemned the caste system; it was easier to blame MR & discrimination by the Sinhalese.

    However, all of them made their homes in Colombo, & sought the protection of the armed forces & the police to guard them from the murderous LTTE. Meanwhile they married Sinhalese, watched Cricket on the big screen, drank imported beer & wine, & asked for an international inquiry on MR, just to keep their friends living abroad happy and so get the diaspora to fund their vacations abroad.

    S

  • 0
    0

    Manoharan.

    Many of the Marxists were complicit with the LTTE…you use your fingers to type!

    Are you sure about what you type?
    What can Prof:David do if he was born upper-class? Though,Magistrates in the old
    days could not be classed as upper-class!
    Next time,when you use your fingers to type,pl check its class!

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