Some Reflections on North-East Development in Sri Lanka
(The author is formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service and Retired Senior Professional of the Asian Development Bank.)
Recent developments, including the statements made by President Rajapakse and his brother Basil Rajapakse, on the need to return North to normalcy after the horrific civil conflict that brought suffering and dislocation to countless number of civilians, provide opportunities to revisit the past and look at the pre-conflict situation to determine current and future courses of action. In order to do so it is necessary to define priorities in the light of conflicting reports emanating on the ground situation in Wanni and elsewhere.
The issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS)
Attention has been drawn to the plight of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps, the conditions of which have been variously described as â€œpoor and sub standard” and â€œbelow expectations” both within and outside the country. Obviously a sudden influx of thousands of people from war-torn areas creates difficulties for the Government and the situation calls for a committed effort from not only the Government but also the private sector, local bodies and the international community.Â That there is serious concern about the conditions in the camps, including unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, lack of clean water and adequate food, was clearly evident when alarm signals were raised by the retired Chief Justice a few weeks ago. The situation, if allowed to continue, will not only contribute to discontent and deprivation but can also be a breeding ground for extremist elements. This then is the number one priority – IDPs should be returned to their own homes and this is likely to take more than the six month period announced by the President and his advisers.
An important aspect that warrants discussion in this context is the enormity of the tasks that lie ahead and the organisational capacity required to complete them. Intensive planning and a well coordinated implementation strategy are required to enable the many times displaced people to feel secure and satisfied in their new surroundings until they are resettled in their own homes. Concrete steps may need to be taken to establish a broad-based task force at the provincial level that is representative of the community as well as civilian administrators and non-government organisations that have a proven record of unbiased service to the community. Such a task force could be the provincial level planning, implementation and coordination arm of the national level Presidential Task Force which has already been set up to oversee relief, rehabilitation and resettlement activities. It may also be prudent to expand the Presidential Task Force to be more representative of the ethnic composition of the areas and be inclusive of local interests. Any program of action that does not appear to be inclusive and participatory may result in increased discontent and reduced enthusiasm and acceptance of welfare arrangements.
Learning from Past Experience
It is relevant to take note of attempts made previously to resettle IDPs in Sri Lanka and in other Asian countries. Some reflections on the kind of activities pursued during the Ceasefire period (2002-2004) in Sri Lanka suggest that there were useful elements which could be suitably adapted to reflect current socio-political realities. The experience indicates that centralised planning which was closely integrated with local ideologies and sentiments through a participatory process brought about more people-sensitive programs of action in the areas of relief, rehabilitation, reconciliation, resettlement and social integration. The writer who in his capacity as a Senior United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Consultant played a role in articulating the approaches to relief and rehabilitation worked together with the then Triple R (relief, rehabilitation and reconciliation) mechanism which was also well aligned with programs initiated by the World Bank- North Eastern Irrigated Agriculture Project (NEIAP) and the ADB- the North East Community Restoration and Development Project (NECORD). The programs worked reasonably well as long as peace and harmony prevailed among all communities.
The Project â€œCreating the Dividends of Peace” supported by UNDP and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and designed on the basis of a report submitted by the writer was instrumental in developing some capacities for implementation of relief and rehabilitation projects which unfortunately was interrupted due to revival of hostilities. The shortfalls in implementation capacity, implementation coordination, lack of appropriate communication strategies and above all, the absence of a suitable monitoring framework to push through vigorously an emergency rehabilitation program were highlighted in the final report presented in March 2003. It would now appear that any program of action that is intended to foster development in these areas would benefit from some of the findings and issues identified in this report.
Need for a Coordinated Plan of Action
The scope and content of action programs that could result in a sustainable development strategy could be broadly categorised under (i) immediate, (i) short term and (iii) long term interventions. The immediate need is to provide emergency assistance to IDPs followed by demining of their traditional habitats so that they could be resettled in their own homes.
Short-term efforts should be directed at identifying income generating activities that would provide sustainable livelihoods and promote self-reliance among those who have lost their sense of identity and hope for a better future. This would involve, among other things, the provision or revitalisation of social services-heath, education and community services- in the resettled areas. Simultaneously, a program of action should be initiated to build roads, railways, bridges, irrigation works, power and energy supplies which should be further followed through in the ensuing long-term phase.
Short and long-term interventions would also benefit from a review of the historical context in which communities in the North-East operated in the post-independence period utilizing traditional farming systems to optimum levels. Although the North and East were not entirely homogenous entities, both provinces had been largely dependent on agriculture with the latter more focussed on paddy farming and the former with a mix of paddy farming and cultivation of vegetables, tobacco and subsidiary food crops such as chillies and onions. The harsh climatic conditions of the arid zone combined with limited rainfall, poor soil conditions including rocky limestone surfaces, and lack of major irrigation facilities made agriculture an enormously difficult enterprise for the average farmer in the north. However, not daunted by a difficult environment, the farming community through sheer perseverance and hard work created a remarkably sound environment conducive to small-scale agriculture. Dependence on ground water for small agricultural pursuits became the order of the day and wells began to spring up in all parts of the Jaffna Peninsula.
It was not until the nineteen seventies did small scale agriculture receive intensive focus and became a household activity of the people in the northern districts. This became necessary when an important industry and conceivably the major income earner in the nineteen forties and fifties, viz, jobs in the public service, gradually began to peter out due to various policies and programs that sought to provide some balance in the representation of public servants based on ethnicity and geographical criteria. The community sought to fill this vacuum through greater application of technology and resources to small scale agriculture that gave emphasis to cash crops -known then as subsidiary food crops- such as chillies, onions, tobacco, potatoes, vegetables and fruits.
Under intensive Government supervision and leadership provided by the then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Hector Kobbekaduwe, Jaffna peninsula gave the lead in providing the entire country with about half of the requirements of chillies and onions during the boom period. The ban imposed on importation of chillies and onions from India further gave a fillip to domestic agricultural activities, and chillies and onion cultivation boomed in the South as well, particularly in Ratnapura and Hambantota. It is significant that during this period north-south dialogue on technical aspects of cash crop production was actively sponsored and encouraged. The writer, as the first Director of the (incorporated) Agrarian Research and Training Institute (renamed as Hector Kobbekaduwe Agrarian Research and Training Institute subsequently), in coordination with the then Ministry of Agriculture and Lands supported the movement for change in the production of cash crops throughout Sri Lanka by organising training programs, including seminars and workshops at the grassroots level.
Inter-community dialogue was encouraged through the organisation of inter-district farmers’ seminars aimed at exchanging technology and best practices. Several farmers’ seminars were held in Atchuveli (Jaffna), Kalladi, (Batticaloa), Gannoruwa (Kandy) and Galle during the period 1974-1976. Interestingly, some of these seminars were attended by parliamentarians including the then Minister of Agriculture and Lands. One could vividly recall the tremendous enthusiasm and goodwill displayed by the Tamil community in Jaffna to welcome the guests from the South and offer them accommodation and information on cash crop cultivation.Â The Minister of Agriculture and Lands received a roaring welcome from the farmers wherever he went, often receiving garlands made of chillies and onions.
Need for New Thinking and Development of Home Grown Solutions
The situation changed dramatically in the eighties and thereafter when civil conflict damaged the entire basis of the thriving agricultural resource base in the north. The propensity to accord priority to war efforts led to the neglect of agriculture and fishing which today needs a huge lift both in terms of financial and technological support. Recent pronouncements made by the Government suggest that agriculture and fishing are to be restored to their pristine standards. But will this be feasible in the context of some of the most fertile war damaged areas with high potential for cultivation being declared as high security zones? If a sense of patriotism has to be instilled among all communities it is necessary to look back and review success stories that laid the foundation for greater interaction, improved social harmony and pragmatic acceptance of economic interdependency.
The time is now ripe for pursuing a policy of reconciliation that would contribute to the healing of wounds that had shattered the kind of unity that prevailed among the major communities in the sixties and seventies. While a political package aimed at devolution and decentralization may capture the imagination of the political elite and would be considered a necessary condition for long-term success and viability of the development process, it is not necessary that everything else should wait till a package acceptable to all communities is worked out. When transport and rural infrastructure supported economic activity, the magnitude of inter-district/provincial trade and concomitant racial interaction remained at peak levels. Economic activities and social programs that promote amity and harmony should therefore receive immediate attention in order that misplaced ideological views are dumped and trust developed among all major communities. For the past few decades suspicion and mistrust have continuously eroded the depth of inter-communal relationships thereby impeding any tangible progress in the economic front.
The pressing need now is to map out a strategy and a plan of action that would help development work, including building of railways and roads, power utilities, hospitals, schools and rural infrastructure. This would have several positive impacts on trade, tourism and economic growth. To achieve this however, local and foreign financing must be mobilised and capacities should be enhanced to absorb expanded aid flows. These aspects are well within the control of the Government given the strong commitment and determination to move forward.
Government’s commitment to aid ‘with no strings attached’ is conceptually sound and is universally accepted by all sovereign states. But the prevailing predicament to more transparent aid flows seems to rest on some carry over aspects of the civil war such as transparency in dealing with humanitarian issues, use and absorption of aid for the intended purposes, and restoration of some of the fundamental democratic values that had over time been squeezed out because of a perceived fear of sabotage and subversion. Now that there is demonstrable peace, promotion of healthy dialogue between communities, removal of emergency regulations and internal road blocks, encouragement of free movement and improved communications should help improve external aid flows.
External aid interventions comprise assistance from international agencies such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), UNDP and other UN Agencies such as FAO, UNHCR and WFP, bilateral assistance from European Union countries, Japan, Australia, China, India, Iran and other middle-eastern countries, and grants and technical assistance from a multitude of independent international agencies. Most of these agencies have expressed their willingness to assist and will do so as soon as the ground situation becomes clear with regard to the scope, focus and content of development programs.
Another useful source which remains underutilised is the support of the diaspora living in countries such as the U.K, USA, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland and the Nordic States. The diaspora must have a stake in the development of the country as explicitly announced recently by the President. In addition to generating substantial funding support, an equally important aspect is the technical expertise and technological support that the diaspora could generate for capacity building, institutional innovation and delivery of development programs. The major constraint to tapping this important source is the inadequacy of existing legal, legislative and organisational frameworks to mitigate risk factors associated with investments by private individuals. If a satisfactory mechanism could be devised to attract, mobilise and secure personal resources with appropriate guarantees for convertibility of investment returns, the country could expect increased aid flows. This could be sustained and enhanced by further strengthening the governance mechanism, recognising cultural diversity, respecting individual dignity and equality and facilitating social cohesion.
Sri Lanka has emerged from a long period of civil war and instability. This has had the consequence of undermining some of the long established respect for humanitarian values, tolerance, understanding and interactive processes of consultation and cooperation in politics and development. A new start has to be made to revive and re-establish the interactive processes that made Sri Lanka a likeable place to live in by all communities. The process of healing and reconciliation must engender a more proactive approach to development initiatives. Support and assistance to the revival of agriculture and promotion of industries should be the initial steps toward rapprochement and reconciliation. These in turn should be supplemented with the opening up of closed factories and industries and construction/reconstruction of hospitals, schools, colleges, roads, bridges, railways and power utilities. In all these endeavours people’s participation should be sought, nurtured and developed to ensure the establishment of a sustained and an inclusive approach that has typical home grown elements.