The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has leveled serious allegations against the Minister of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation and Hindu Affairs D M Swaminathan of attempt to influence the TNA members by calling several of them and urging them to support the controversial project to build 65,000 houses for the war displaced in the North and East.
In a letter dated November 12, 2016 addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the TNA Parliamentary group comprising 16 MPs said, “We were dismayed to find that Hon. D M Swaminathan has made personal telephone calls to several of us, inviting us to make a request for pre-fabricated houses in our respective electorates,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by R Sampanthan, Mavai Senathirajah, M A Sumanthiran, Selvam Adaikkalanathan, Seenithamby Yogeswaran, Nadesu Sivasakthi, S Shritharan, E Saravanapavan, D Sithadthan, Charles Nirmalanathan, K Thurairatnesingham, Shanthi Sriskandarasa, S Sivamohan, G Srineshan, K Kodeeswaran and S Viyalendran.
While highlighting that the TNA MPs elected from the North and the East largely represent the war affected Tamil people, the MPs reiterated their opposition to the pre-fabricated steel houses project funded by the French based company owned by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. “The Sectorial Oversight Committee on Rehabilitation took a unanimous decision on 10.11.2016 to reject the proposal to construct pre-fabricated steel houses and endorsed the alternate proposal put forward by the civil society,” the letter said.
The TNA MPs recalled that last year Minister Swaminathan announced the housing programme for 65,000 pre-fabricated steel house to be constructed by Arcelor Mittal, each house costing Rs. 2.1 million. “We strongly opposed this programme for several reasons; climatic unsuitability, flimsy construction, lack of durability, unjustifiable high cost,” the letter to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe said.
The TNA MPs reminded that ‘nevertheless’ they had made it very clear that their people desperately needed houses but the houses should be masonry houses which will cost less than half of the proposed pre-fabricated houses.
“We also worked with a group of civil society agencies and persons who generously contributed their time and expertise and forwarded an alternate proposal to be funded by a Consortium of local banks. This alternate proposal envisages the construction of 102,000 masonry houses at a cost of just under Rs. 1 million per house, and utilising local labour which would provide livelihood for a large number of people for a period of about 4 years,” the letter said.
The TNA MPs has therefore, called upon both the President and Prime Minister for remedial action over the matter, on grounds that the pre-fabricated steel houses are not suitable for the people in the North and East. “The Parliamentary Group of TNA which met yesterday, 11.11.2016 unanimously decided to address this communication to you, so that you will become aware that all of us are totally opposed to pre-fabricated steel houses and that the people be provided with the traditional brick houses in keeping with their culture and way of life. We request immediate remedial action in this regard,” the letter signed by the TNA MPs added.
The renewed opposition against the tin houses by the TNA comes just weeks after Supreme Court refused to grant leave to proceed with a Fundamental Rights petition challenging the construction of 65,000 houses in a project initiated by the Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs in the Northern Province. An individual by the name of Muhammed Fazl filed a Fundamental Rights Application stating that his rights as a citizen of Sri Lanka has been violated as the awarding of the tender to ArcelorMittal lacks legality. The Petitioner states that he made this Application in his own right and in the rights of the 65,000 homeless conflict-affected families in Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka and in the public interest, with the objective of safeguarding the rights and interests of the general public of Sri Lanka and securing due respect, regard for and adherence to the Rule of Law, the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, and with a view to protecting the fundamental rights required to be respected, secured and advanced. However, dismissing the case, a Supreme Court two-judge-bench comprising Chief Justice K. Sripavan and Justice Upali Abeyratne made the order, observing that there is no legal basis to proceed with the petition.
In October, a multi-disciplinary group of professionals from across the country has urged the Government to expedite the process of retendering the project to build 65,000 houses in the North and East, while underscoring the need for the re-tendering to be carried out in an unbiased and transparent manner. The statement signed by Ahilan Kadirgamar, Piyal Ganepola, Chandra Jayaratne, Prof. Priyan Dias, S.C.C. Elankovan, Ramona Miranda, Iromi Perera, Arch. Sumangala Jayatillaka, Niyanthini Kadirgamar and Swasthika Arulingam said,
“We call on the government to expedite the process of retendering but do so in an unbiased and transparent manner that is in strict conformity with the procedures prescribed. It is especially important that the project is re-designed keeping the interests of the people and communities at the centre and ensures their substantive and meaningful participation and maximizes value for the local, provincial and national economy.” “For almost a year now a move by the Ministry of Resettlement to award a contract for 65,000 pre-fabricated steel houses for war-affected households to the multinational ArcelorMittal has raised many serious questions and public debate. Regrettably, despite the wide spectrum of concerns by a cross-section of voices, the government did not expeditiously review the project. Thus lengthening the wait of thousands of war-affected households for adequate housing,” the statement said.
In April, Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran slammed the Sri Lanka government for keeping him in the dark over the programme to build 65,000 houses in the North and East provinces. Speaking to the Hindu, Wigneswaran expressed his frustration for being completely kept in the lurch and for the government’s failure to discuss matters pertaining to the construction of the houses. He emphasized that the government should have discussed the matter with him and other representatives of the Northern Province, instead of taking decisions in a manner where he and other people’s representatives in the North were kept in the dark. “No discussions were held,” he said.
Wigneswaran also added that the cost per house seemed extremely high, whereas he believes that for the cost of Rs. 21 million, they could build two to three houses. “Instead of 65,000, we can make 130,000 houses,” he added.