By Ahilan Kadirgamar –
Four years after the end of the devastating war in northern Sri Lanka, much delayed elections are to be held shortly for the first civil administration of the Northern Province. There are many debates on the viability of such a Provincial Council, including the kind of powers it will enjoy and the possibility of it becoming the starting point for a political solution that has plagued the country since the late colonial period and pummelled the North and East of the country with a civil war in recent decades. The delays on the part of the Government to hold elections, the continuing militarisation, the watering down of Provincial powers in recent years and the pressure by India and other international actors to hold elections have been widely reported. However, less attention has been paid to the economic context of the post-war years and the everyday challenges facing the war-torn people as they approach the polls.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Government’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which includes the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) are the two major coalitions contesting the Provincial Council elections in Northern Province which includes the Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Killinochi and Mullaitivu Districts. Much of the vast area in the latter four districts south of the Jaffna Peninsula is called the Vanni. During the last decade of the war, Jaffna was not directly hit by the fighting but the land route to it was blocked even as Killinochi and Mullaitivu were razed to the ground during the last two years of the war. Just one twentieth of Sri Lanka’s population amounting to 1 million people reside in the Northern Province, of which 580 thousand people reside in the Jaffna District. As to what changes and relief can be brought about through either coalition to this war ravaged population, there is only scepticism among ordinary people in the North. This article sketches the social and economic challenges increasingly articulated on the ground in the North despite the silence of the candidates and public election debates.
Reconstruction, the Market and Debt
The Government’s reconstruction strategy for the North soon after the war was to rebuild infrastructure. Banks and financial companies were encouraged to provide credit. Furthermore, the opening of the A9 highway also opened the market with retail businesses flooding consumer goods, not seen for decades in the North. The Government’s early strategy of reviving agriculture and fisheries pushed the rural population to return to the land and the sea. The construction of highways and carpeted roads connected the North, and rural electrification in particular has benefitted some rural households who never had electricity. The delayed reconstruction of the railways, already running to Madhu in Mannar and the imminent opening of service to Killinochi and next year to Jaffna, will be a major contribution to post-war connectivity. Various housing schemes by the World Bank and other donors, and more recently the Indian Government’s massive grant of 50,000 houses are for the first time placing thousands of families in concrete houses and others are getting assistance to rebuild or repair houses destroyed by the war. Given this picture of reconstruction, how and where did the local economy go so wrong that the people have now been reduced to abject desperation?
The answer lies in the emphasis on big infrastructure, the ravages of the market logic, the faltering incomes and expansion of rural debt. The focus of development was on the major roads and lesser priority was given to the remote roads to the villages, small harbours for fishermen or for that matter digging of wells and repair of tanks for irrigation. The meagre cash grant of Rs. 25,000 to put up a shack was not consistently distributed. Furthermore, the initial capital for households, to begin their economic life destroyed by the bombing and shelling, that is to resume agriculture and fisheries through loans up to Rs 200,000 were distributed through commercial banks albeit at subsidised interest rates. Thus the initial steps of the rehabilitation process itself were a bad start for reconstruction.
With consumer goods not seen in decades, the population in the North went through a binge of consumption. Such consumption was facilitated by lease-hire purchasing of goods – televisions, refrigerators and scooters – with instalment payments dipping into savings and remittances. Consumption on credit has led the Jaffna community historically known for its tradition of saving to become mired in debt. Furthermore, livelihoods have been troubled by the lack of steady incomes.
While cultivation revived farmlands that had remained fallow during the war, two years of consecutive crop failures with untimely rains and the fluctuations in market prices for agriculture goods, have beaten down both the cash crop cultivators in the Jaffna peninsula and the paddy cultivators in the Vanni. The landless labourers who go for day labour in particular have been hard hit by the crop failures and the fall in demand for farm labour. In the Vanni, the situation is aggravated by the introduction of harvesting machinery which makes labour redundant.
The fishing community attempting to recover after the war has been devastated by trawlers from Tamil Nadu poaching the Northern seas. The environmental damage from bottom trawling is already resulting in smaller catch on the non-trawling days of the week that fishermen go to sea.
Such a situation has led a section of the agricultural and fishing communities to seek migrant work in the Middle East where a limited but steady income is possible. Others are switching to mason and road work which is in demand with the rebuilding after the war, but that demand is likely to dampen as the post-war construction and road building boom comes to an end.
The opening of banks and financial institutions which were to make credit available for economic recovery has had the opposite effect of strangling the Tamil population in the North. Banks have not only flooded the north with loans, but they have changed their business practices and gotten heavily into pawning. Subsidiaries of banks and other financial companies have gotten into instalment based lease hire purchasing businesses. Microfinance loans are distributed at exorbitant interest rates. Thus exploitative banking and debt has taken over the countryside.
Rural people have taken one loan on top of another to make monthly interest payments and in the process indebting themselves on a scale they are never going to be able to repay. Lease purchased goods including trishaws and tractors are being ceased for defaulting on monthly payments with the rural people losing what little assets they had which were used to make the initial payments. In recent months, bank managers and the police have been visiting rural homes to recover loans, aggravating the climate of fear and social tensions already prevalent in the countryside. In sum, much of the farming and fishing communities are drowning in debt even as their incomes are failing them.
Resettlement, Land and Housing
Despite the push of development policies in Sri Lanka towards urbanisation, in Jaffna the failure of reconstruction is leading to contrary movement. Many of the Northern Muslims who had been evicted and lived in Puttalam as displaced people for two decades and were enthusiastic and returned to Jaffna, have now lost hope of rebuilding their lives in Jaffna, due to the lack of supportive resettlement mechanisms for housing, education and jobs. While the predicament of the Northern Muslims may also be related to the politics of Tamil-Muslim relations, there are also large sections of the Jaffna Tamils who have found it hard to restart life in Jaffna.
It was in the early 1960s, when Jaffna’s population was approximately the same as now that land pressure had pushed Jaffna Tamils to settle in the Vanni for cultivation. Such waves of settlement from Jaffna to the Vanni continued including during the forced exodus by the Tamil Tigers as they shifted their centre from Jaffna to the Vanni in 1995. Many of those people in the Vanni went through the horrendous suffering at the end of the war and when they were released from the internment camps after the war, they came back to Jaffna in 2010. Their attempts to restart their economic life in Jaffna having failed in the last two years, many of them are returning to the Vanni; where subsistence agriculture and escaping utter poverty stands a better chance.
The situation in the Vanni, particularly in the Killinochi and Mullativu Districts, where the population met with the worst bout of the war, is dire. There are large numbers of women headed households, including war widows and large numbers of separated women in recent years, due in part to the social and economic pressures affecting families. Such problems at home are also affecting the education of children.
Militarisation is also much more repressive in the Vanni where any meeting requires the permission of the military and its presence is ubiquitous. The large amount of land taken in the Vanni by the military for its bases and more recently for military owned farms, point to a long term process of militarisation. Resettlement has remained contentious and as both the reality and rumours of settlement schemes that are ethnically biased has deepened ethnic fault lines. Indeed, Muslims and Sinhalese, if they were previously displaced from the North, they should be resettled along with the Tamil war-displaced. The problem, however, is when Government ministers and the military attempt settlements that are ethnically motivated including to gerrymander electoral constituencies.
Land has always been a central concern for the Tamil community, and the announcement few months ago by the military that they will not return and seek to purchase lands in parts of the Valikamam north area of the Jaffna peninsula led to major protests and in many ways sealed an anti-Government voting constituency that will vote in protest for the TNA. Militarisation and land are also central issues related to the soon to be elected Provincial Government. The President’s statement in this context that land and police powers will not be devolved means that the issues of land and security alienating the Tamil community are bound to continue after the elections.
The housing schemes while a significant boost for the living standards and dignity of the lower classes, it also has some problems. To qualify for a house, there are there criteria such as the size of the family and the requirement of legal title to land. The Northern Muslims who have returned to urban Jaffna for example lack plots of land that meet the criteria, as the urban lands have been fragmented over the generations. Some of these challenges around land are being met by the Government, including by granting land.
In this context an important concern with the Indian housing scheme which provides about Sri Lankan Rs 550,000 per house, is that it is likely to increase the debt of the households. This is due to the lack of proper monitoring by the implementing agencies to ensure that the house is completed within the stipulated cost. Without such monitoring, households are likely to take other loans and end up building a house on the order of Rs. 900,000, countering the rational of the housing scheme and getting deeply indebted.
Trauma, Dependency and Flight
Some actors working with the war-affected over the years claim the Vanni population from requiring psycho-social care after suffering from the brutal end to the war are now in need for counselling to address the trauma of their predicament in the post-war years. All this in the context of the Presidential Task Force responsible for rehabilitation and reconstruction of the North having put every obstacle to discourage psycho-social work by NGOs. The social effects of the war and the aftermath are apparent in the rising break up of families, domestic violence and abuse, youth dropping out of schools and a hopelessness that has eclipsed the rural North.
Progressive community leaders claim lethargy and a culture of dependency has taken hold of the community. In part, this was a consequence of the war and the process of post-Tsunami rehabilitation, where NGOs provided humanitarian assistance. However, that culture of receiving hand outs combined with the difficult job prospects has reinforced dependency. Local initiative and organising has been done a great disservice by the short-term outlook of NGOs and more recently by political patronage, where community meetings are held with an expectation not of community organising but of receiving hand-outs from cash to chickens.
The Jaffna middle class survives through the remittances received from relatives in the diaspora, and lives in the hope of sending the younger generations to join the diaspora to the detriment of rebuilding social institutions in Jaffna. However, remittances from the diaspora are also decreasing and with Western countries tightening immigration, the dependency on the diaspora and the pursuit of migration to the West undermines both social cohesion and individual aspirations.
There are also those in the rural areas who in desperation are seeking other exit strategies. There is an increase in migrant labour to the Middle East and other places in search of steady income, and some are taking the dangerous boat journey to Australia. Such desperation is tied to the decades of war, tremendous loss of life and the destitution of the survivors; they lost most of their possessions and assets.
In the absence of an inspiring political and economic vision and alternative, the options seem to be one of flight to another land or a downward cycle of social desolation characterised by alcohol and substance abuse, social and domestic violence, and all the trappings of poverty. During the war years, a survival instinct managed to keep society going in the hope of a better future after the war. The economic predicament in the post-war years has destroyed the last vestiges of such hope.
Cooperatives, Education and Caste
The resilience of the people during the decades of war owes much to some of the social institutions built by previous generations. Every village in Jaffna has one or more community centres often linked to the local temple and shaped by local caste relations. Farmers’ organisations at the village level have been important for reviving agriculture after the war. While the strong tradition of consumer cooperatives has declined, producer cooperatives have survived.
The fisheries cooperatives have a hierarchical structure with unions at each fishing village, then an office for a group of villages and finally a federation of fisher cooperatives at the Jaffna District level. Such a strong structure was a source of strength for the fishing community during the war and later to advocate for free access to the seas and revive fishing. Similarly, the Palmyrah Coconut Cooperative Society formed forty years ago had won dignity for the Toddy tapping community and were instrumental in negotiated arrangements to continue their work even during the war and in a state of displacement.
While these rural institutions which were consolidated by the economic growth and accumulation in the North before the war, and then managed to survive the war, ironically, are now under severe strain. Fisher cooperatives caught in the Palk Bay fishing conflict with poaching by Indian trawlers are increasingly becoming politicised even as their economic rational has been hit by low catch with fishermen staying away from the seas. The demand for toddy has been on the decline with the opening of bars in Jaffna and the influx from the South of beer, which has social status, and of arrack which is higher in alcohol content. Thus the fisher and toddy tapper cooperatives having survived the war, may succumb to the onslaught of post-war politics and the open market.
The strength of the Jaffna Tamil community in particular was the strong tradition of education and vibrant schools. While large sections of Northern society continue to invest in education, particularly by spending much on after school tuition for their children, such widespread reliance on tuition not different from the rest of the country, is more a reflection of the crisis in education. The worst hit again are the rural schools, where teachers from Jaffna Town commute rather than reside in the villages in the North, and the slightly well off send their children to better performing town schools. That leaves the children of the oppressed castes who are also the children of the landless labour, in rural schools, into a cycle of social exclusion where the school and home environment and social desolation undermine any chance for educational progress.
Government investment in big infrastructure and opening of markets excludes marginal communities through inequalities. Similarly, social investment by the local population and their brethren in the Diaspora has been focused on exorbitant spending on temples and some of the leading Jaffna schools, reinforcing the caste and class make up of Northern Tamil society. Indeed, the return to land, the turn to temples and subtle segregation of schools are pointing to a dynamic of reconsolidating caste relations in Jaffna and the North. The contemporary character of caste relations is not one of aggression and violence, but rather one that works through processes of social exclusion and dispossession, while silencing any discussion of caste. The post-war economic changes are wearing out the social institutions and throwing the rural economy into crisis, even as education for the marginalised is in dire shape while class and caste inequalities are reinforced.
Politics in a Time of Economic Crisis
This is the economic background to the upcoming Northern Provincial Council elections, where conversations in villages inevitably emphasise the economic predicament. However, neither the parliamentarians, candidates for the upcoming polls nor the Tamil media has anything substantive to say about economic issues. Worse, they reduce the socio-economic problems to “cultural deterioration” after the war; blaming the problems on women’s sexuality and freedom. The nexus of Tamil nationalist politics and the largely irresponsible virulently nationalist Tamil media has created a political discourse that is far removed from the everyday reality of the people. But such a discourse is reinforced by the militarisation, repressive surveillance and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist thrust of the current Government.
The flash of hope in recent weeks is that the people are talking. Elections before the war, and building on the long tradition of universal suffrage in the country which came as early as the 1930s with the Donoughmore reforms during late colonialism, always had a carnival feel to it with people talking politics on the streets, the community centres and their homes. And that spirit of democracy continues in the critical conversations at the village level. There is much criticism of the candidates put forward by all parties. Questions are raised as to why representatives who had served the various villages, rural sectors and social institutions are not there? The issue of caste was after many decades raised by the people, and both the TNA and the UPFA were forced to put forward oppressed caste candidates, even though the respective parties do not wish to deal with the issue of caste oppression head on. And the elections have provided the opportunity for self-critical talk among the people on their socio-economic predicament and the importance they would like to see placed on their social institutions.
The Government’s reconstruction and development program has clearly failed. The neoliberal idea that market and finance can revive a war-torn society through the expansion of private business and self-employment has had the opposite effect of indebtedness and destitution. The farmers, fisher-folk and the toddy tappers know one reality, that the market undermines their livelihoods, and are clear in the need for price controls. The need of the hour is also investment that can create steady incomes which means state supported factories which the international donor establishment, to whom the Government is wedded, ideologically opposes. Reviving the vibrant tradition of education in the North requires interventions by state and society, but also the transformation of the rural economy, particularly the situation of the landless labourers. And there, employment generation for the youth is a priority.
Caught between a repressive state and a bankrupt Tamil nationalist politics, the people are using the elections to articulate the politics of their everyday life. Their priorities are jobs, education and housing as elements of a decent life. Yet their dignity is also dependent on political representation and respect for their democratic rights. The Government crushed the hopes and squandered the opportunity to win over a devastated people in the post-war years and for that there is likely to be an overwhelming protest vote. The TNA which is slated to win the polls and the allied Tamil media needs soul searching about their problematic role of peddling Tamil nationalism and disregarding the concerns of the people. One challenge before the soon to be elected Provincial Administration includes ensuring that the Central Government devolves the powers that rightly belong to the Provinces. But an even larger challenge is through a process of self-criticism and democratisation to engage the predicament facing the war-torn population, particularly those marginalised and socially excluded sections, and put forward a programme for social and economic revival to rejuvenate hope for a shattered people.
*Ahilan Kadirgamar is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation and a researcher based in Jaffna. A version of this article was published in the Frontline Magazine