Amidst intensifying opposition over the government’s decision to award Arcellor-Mittal Construction the project to construct 65,000 houses for families in the North and East provinces, Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan has demanded President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to refrain from using opportunities for political mileage, which will benefit only a powerful few, whilst disregarding the true needs of the Tamil people.
In two separate letters addressed to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe on Monday, Sampanthan who is also the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), said that the government, together with the President has been public in their commitment to bring about reconciliation. “Initiatives to help conflict affected communities’ rebuild their homes and lives are important opportunities in this regard. However, merely using such opportunities for political mileage and disregarding the true needs of the Tamil People of the North and East can only be reflective of an unwillingness to effectively honour this commitment,” he said in the letter.
According to Sampanthan, the housing needs of the North and East are indeed dire, with an estimated 137,000 houses needed following the devastation of the war. “This issue must be addressed. The TNA welcomes the Government’s recognition of this, and its resolve to initiate a project to provide housing for conflict affected families. However, the serious concerns relating to the initiative in question repeatedly raised by a wide ranging group of civil society activists, professionals, and politicians cannot be ignored. This includes the recent report of experts of the University of Moratuwa on the suitability of the abovementioned steel houses,” he said.
While highlighting that the awarding of the tender to Arcellor-Mittal happened even before the tender process commenced, Sampanthan who quoted experts claimed that the proposed prefabricated houses to be constructed by the company will not last for more than 10 years, with the model houses of the scheme which have been erected already starting to come apart.
“For the conflict affected communities in the North and East, a house is not merely a means of shelter, but an inextricable part of their culture. A house passes down from generation to generation; parents build a house with the hope of one day giving it to their children. For the Tamil People, a house is thus part of one’s culture, history and heritage, and is expected to last for several generations. Thus, these concerns relating to durability are a matter of especially great concern,” Sampanthan said.
With the proposed houses to be built out of steel instead of brick, the TNA leader also questioned the environmental suitability, as houses build on steel will be extremely unsuitable for a country like Sri Lanka, due to the rapidly rising temperature and humidity levels.
“The cost of each house is estimated to be Rs. 2.1. million. This is 2-3 times more than the more environmentally suitable, durable, permanent brick house provided under the Indian housing scheme which provided 50,000 houses in the North. This fact is of greater concern in a context where the housing need exceeds 130,000 and the Government is offering 65,000 – half of that number,” Sampanthan said in his letter.
While highlighting that unemployment is a serious concern in the North, Sampanthan called upon both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to give serious consideration where a project of such magnitude will also provide employment opportunities for the civilians living in the area.
“In these circumstances, the TNA strongly recommends that the Government undertake a review of the initiative in question, and properly address all of the above concerns in implementing this or any other initiative to address the housing crisis in the North and East,” he said in his letter.
While reiterating that the government’s resolve to address the housing need of the North and East was commendable, Sampanthan highlighted that such efforts must take into consideration the needs and culture of the people themselves, and the long term implications the initiative will have on the community. “It is only then that such efforts can be an effective part of reconciliation. Such efforts must not, instead, fall prey to corruption and become a means of benefiting a powerful few,” he said.
“If the Government is committed to reconciliation, then its actions must reflect that. For its part, the TNA remains committed to constructively engage with both Your Excellency and the Government in order to bring about true reconciliation in this country,” the letter added.