By Jehan Perera –
The landscape in the more densely populated parts of the once war ravaged North is a rapidly changing one. The government’s focus on investing in physical infrastructure such as public buildings and roads is showing visible results. Suddenly the skeletal structures of buildings get filled out and transform the appearance of an entire area. When we passed the town of Kilinochchi, the onetime administrative capital of the LTTE, it was lighted up even though the hour was late in the night. It looked like a model town. The challenge for the government will be to make this external change an internal one as well, in which the people who meant to be the beneficiaries also rejoice in the transformation and feel that justice is being done to them.
The entry into the city of Jaffna is also impressive. Just before coming to Jaffna, we passed the town of Chavakachcheri which was almost completely razed to the ground during an earlier phase of the war. Today the town has modern buildings, including a hospital, school and other administrative offices. But it is Jaffna city that is the main site for the government’s effort at transforming the face of the North. There is large scale construction of public buildings, including a mega-market, police station and roads that promise to regain Jaffna the leading place it had as one of the country’s provincial capital cities. This development effort can be interpreted as a part of reparation for the destruction of the war, if it is projected in a suitable manner and context.
Despite the substantial financial outlay by the government on rebuilding the North the electoral reward has been low. The results of successive elections that have taken place in the North do not suggest that the majority of the electorate see the development that is taking place as the way forward to reconciliation. This is a cause for concern to any government that would wish to have the country united in heart and spirit, as well as geography. The only occasion on which the government notched up a success in northern elections was in 2009 when it won the prize municipality of Jaffna. This election was held shortly after the end of the war, and was boycotted by the TNA on the grounds that the elections would be neither free nor fair. As a result Jaffna has provided the government with a unique opportunity to prove itself at the local level.
During our visit to Jaffna, we went to the villages of Vasanthapuram and Mahindrapuram in the Gurunagar area. As their names suggest they are new villages, one village named after the government’s “Northern Spring” development programme and the other honouring President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s name. In Vasanthapuram, land has been allocated to the people who were displaced from that part of Jaffna as far back as 1995 and who have now returned and been resettled. They live in tin roofed temporary housing. But they appeared to be positive about the government’s efforts to resettle them. One of the women was proud to say that she knew the Jaffna Mayor, Yogeswari Pathkunaraja, who visited this resettlement site frequently. The neighbouring village of Mahindrapuram is further advanced in terms of the rebuilding process, as it has a neat array of houses provided by the Indian government under its 50,000 house project.
The government’s political representative in the North is the EPDP which is headed by Minister Douglas Devananda. The EPDP was one of the militant groups that at one time waged war against the Sri Lankan state. However, it renounced armed struggle and entered the political mainstream in 1987 as part of the Indo Lanka Peace Agreement. But the continuing role of the military in governing the North and the continuing presence of large numbers of military personnel have complicated the situation as the EPDP is seen as part of the government’s military administration. The EPDP has generally sought to work in partnership with successive governments. In terms of its willingness to work with successive governments the EPDP has more in common with the Muslim and Hill country Tamil parties than with the Sri Lankan Tamil parties which have generally followed a more confrontational line.
In its bid to win the electoral support of the people, the EPDP has two big challenges to overcome. One is its association with a government that is generally perceived by the Tamil community as unsympathetic to their political rights. It can be expected that the ethnic Sinhalese nationalism that the government exploits on a regular basis will result in a corresponding ethnic Tamil (and Muslim) nationalism. The difficulty faced by the EPDP is that the electoral benefit of Tamil nationalism accrues to the TNA almost automatically for the reason that it stands in political opposition to the government. This generates a vicious cycle of competing ethnic nationalisms that breeds disunity and mistrust. The recent assertions of governmental leaders that they plan to scrap the devolution of powers found in the 13th Amendment works to the advantage of the TNA and to the detriment of those associated with the government.
A further problem that the EPDP administration in the Jaffna municipality faces is the lack of resources to support the return of normal life to the displaced and war-affected people. As a result it has focused its attention on specific localities, such as the sea coast areas of Gurunagar and the islands off Jaffna which are its strongholds. There is no doubt that this development work is appreciated by those who are its beneficiaries. However it also generates resentment from people who are equally needy but live in other parts of Jaffna who feel that their own individual needs are neglected and they are denied the benefits of governmental patronage. It is in this context that an experimental programme currently being undertaken by the municipality promises a way forward.
Mayor Pathkunaraja explained that the Jaffna municipality was now encouraging people’s participation in the planning and budgetary process. This is with the support of the Asia Foundation, an international NGO. She said that the 47 Grama Sevaka divisions had set up 87 citizens committees comprising 470 members. There were reports published for each of these village divisions that showed the work that had been done in water, sanitation, health and building of infrastructure and roads, among others. People are guarded but eager to move on and embrace whatever change is within their means. They are beginning to accept the inevitability of engagement as they realize that resources are very much within the ambit of government structures. The Asia Foundation-facilitated participatory planning initiative under its Local Economic Governance Project is providing a safe space for public engagement with the Jaffna municipality.
Effective local government is especially relevant to the people of the North as a focal point for people-engaged government in the absence of an elected Northern Provincial Council and possible dilution of the 13th Amendment. There is a revived interest by the central government in local government as a means of people-engaged administration and not necessarily governance. Local government with its real capacity for engagement with the people can provide space for people-driven change even in a limited way. The local authority structure can feed into and respond to lacunae in the current development process which is centrally determined and driven with priorities that may not be the people’s own. Structured processes like participatory planning and budgeting, enable people at the lowest level to influence policy and thinking within the local government tier. They are also re-energised by this engagement, which in the longer term will embolden them to make further demands.