Photo of Mannar-Puttalam road, courtesy Panoramio

Environmentalists have gone to courts demanding that the road connecting Mannar and Puttalam that runs through the Wilpattu National Park be permanently closed. The opening of the old Mannar-Puttalam Road on January 24 2010 was seen as a crucial step in supporting the Northern IDP return process, especially for Muslims displaced from Mannar district. The Southern-most division of Mannar, Musali had the largest concentration of Northern Muslims and was the only Muslim majority division prior to the expulsion in 1990.

This road provides easy and low cost access from Puttalam to Musali in Southern Mannar as opposed to the other route that goes via Medawachchiya, which takes double the time (Puttalam- Medawachchiya – Marichchukadi 235km vs Puttalam – Wilpattu – Marichchukadi – 77km) and triple the cost, from Rs. 320 versus Rs. 100. Saving Rs. 220 per trip means a lot to the IDPs. For this cost, an IDP family struggling to have one meal a day can have an extra meal, especially after the destruction from the recent floods which also affected areas in mainland Mannar.

A women’s group has been accessing the road a few times since the time it was re-opened in January 2010. In a couple of visits, elderly women who had lived in the adjoining villages accompanied the members of the women’s group. These visits have helped us understand the importance of the road, especially from women’s perspectives, since the most impacted population of the road are women and children. Though the temporary closure of this road due to the rain in September 2010 put an end to such visits, the women’s group has sufficient information to demand the mobility right of the IDP women and their families. Some of the narratives and experiences of IDP women are highlighted below:

  • It was the Muslims from Musali division in Mannar who started to return to their places of origin (Musali) from Puttalam, where they lived with an IDP status for more than two decades. This was made all the more possible because the Wilpattu road was reopened after about thirty years. The access to their places of origin via this road made it possible for them to return, with the belief that they have mobility between Puttalam and Musali. It was a historical moment for the women to be able to have mobility between the places that they are comfortable to move around and feel safe.
  • Basic facilities like water, shelter, toilet, health and education are not available in the resettlement areas, including in the interior of Musali. Pregnant women and women with small children suffered the most to survive when they returned to their places of origins. Hence, return of the entire family is taking longer than expected with some family members, most often the men folk and also some women moving to resettlement areas while keeping their children in Puttalam as the educational facilities in the return areas is still being built up. Thus, the road became a crucial aspect of their lives in order to save the lives of their families and themselves. Spending Rs 220 more on a regular basis is certainly not something that they can afford, especially when their livelihoods have not been restored yet. Travelling by the longer route becomes impossible for a pregnant woman, especially if she is in her early or later months of pregnancy. Her right to mobility is denied with the closure of the road. Another concern is increasing snake-bites since the resettlement areas are infested with snakes and quick access to medical treatment for IDPs has been curtailed.
  • Now that women’s mobility has been thwarted by the temporary closure of the road, women have become more dependent on the male members of their families. Women’s safety is once again at risk, given that most male members are away for a good number of days. Their lifestyles are totally destroyed. The traditional norms and gender roles are reinforced, in the form of women staying back at home to look after household work and only men have mobility and access to resources.
  • Another aspect that affects the women the most is the unavailability of support structures, such as neighbours and relatives, in the resettled areas. For example, a single woman living with her children in the resettled area, earlier had support from her relatives living in Puttalam. They visited each other frequently when the road was still open. This is not possible anymore and the single women have been pushed, once against, to the most vulnerable category.

Wilpattu Park is a unique habitat for both fauna and flora, and needs to be protected. As people of the area we recognize its value. The destruction to this park has been caused by the armed forces not by the people. There have been new fences coming up and people have been told that such demarcated areas will be given for high-end tourism. It is poor peasants in the area who can monitor and report such land grabbing and abuses of resource. Complete closure of this road will intensify the damage to this natural habitat.

IDP women are not asking for a new highway to be built through the park- they are content to use the existing road. Women support the handing over of the administration of park to relevant wildlife authorities, with IDPs given access. Before the closure of this road in May 1985, people used this road while the guards appointed by the park authority and lately (after the break out of the civil war) military oversaw the use of this road by poor peasants of these areas.

What the northern Muslim IDP women are asking is restricted access like the one they had before. When the road was reopened in January 2010 to facilitate the Muslim IDPs return to Mannar mainland particularly to Musali DS division, there were many restrictions to protect the park (like the road was kept open for the public use only from 6.30am to 3.30pm and the speed limit was restricted to maximum 20km/h and every 100 yards there were navy and military personnel guarding the park standing by the side of the road.

With this, one wonders how the park is exploited or animals are harmed only by the IDPs?


The author is a Northern Muslim IDP and an activist.

  • iromi Goonesekera Poloni

    This article has to be analysed on different levels. Awaiting comment and analysis from those experienced in the human and enviromental issues mentioned in this post, I attach an extract from T.S Elliots beautiful but disturbing poem “Wasteland”. I think it is very poignient.

    “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
    Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
    You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
    A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
    And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
    And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
    There is shadow under this red rock,
    (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
    And I will show you something different from either
    Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

  • Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Ismail for giving an IDP point of view. The road opened during the day time for passenger traffic, with only rest stops in rest facilities would not affect the sanctuary adversely. Shops along the road, Commercial traffic and unrestricted eco-tourist enterprises will be detrimental to the wild life and the environment.

  • TT

    SL should move away from IDP centric decision making. There are others as well other than IDPs. Their interests, including their interests on the environment must also be protected. Govt should speed up IDP resettlement in their ORIGINAL places, not elsewhere.

    IDPs traveling to places OTHER THAN THEIR ORIGINAL PLACES OF RESIDENCE need not be facilitated at a cost to the environment. If they want to go, let them go but no need for special facilities or use roads that are likely to disturb wild life.

    I don’t think the govt understands what is meant by the environment, let alone its protection.

    • Can you refer to any “IDP centric” decisions that the GoSL is carrying out?

      • TT


        I’m not here to defend the govt DB.

        I’m trying to avert a possibility.

  • Asi Panditharatna

    TT- a good point. IDPs are Sri-Lankan citizens and must be treated fairly with respect. We have to make life easier for these people who have suffered, particularly enduring the LTTE. GOSL have to continue to support more SL NGOs and self help groups who can do alot of good in these communities, we can see examples of SOS Childrens Villages and other local organisations, with the right support, can also support Sri-Lankans living in the North and East. The park should be respected and environmental conservation can be done hand in hand with support for local communities.

  • Kuveni

    As a proud Sri Lankan, I have always positively celebrated the diversity in our small island nation. Indeed, as many other Sri Lankans may have experienced, it has never been smooth or easy to do so. Changing negative energies, such as TT’s comment, into positive is the key in this struggle. It is astounding and heart breaking to see, how the fellow concerned citizens are doomed in hegemonic traps. The Muslim IDPs in Puttalam are less concerned and/or facilitated compared to the Tamil IDPs in the Northern parts of the country. While not underplaying the devastating experiences of Tamil IDPs trying to resettle in their homes (totally lost where to begin in terms of rebuilding their lives), we cannot forget the Muslim IDPs who have been living in camps in Puttalam for the past twenty years. One of best ways to show that we, as a nation, have not forgotten about them is to allow access via Wilpattu road to Muslim IDPs. It makes a hell of a difference in their lives, especially in the lives of women and children. It is their ‘original’ homes where they wish to return to. I’ve witnessed that they have nothing left in their places of origins (have travelled on the Wilpattu road in early 2010). Though they stand up for their rights to ‘return to their homes’, there is hardly anything that constitute a home, like any other part of the country that was not directly bombed during the thirty year cruel war. Hats off to these women, wanting to return to their places of origins (despite the fact that there is nothing to look forward to), having managed to clearly put across their demands and standing up for their rights. Shall we please remove our prejudices and show them that we are there for them and we will stand up for their rights, at least on a selfish note, so that they will stand up with us, when we go starving due to food shortage (due to the recent floods across the country) and economic crisis. Let us hold hands despite our differences, may be first time in a very long time in our country, to show our government that it is their responsibility to allow access via Wilpattu road to our sisters and brothers. Please listen to the voices of women, men and children who need the road.

    • TT


      Diversity has NOTHING to do with IDP centric decision making nonsense.

      Bio-diversity is another thing that needs attention some delberately trying to ignore!! 🙂

      Diversity is best protected in an atmosphere of EQUAL INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS.

      If these IDPs are resettled in their ORIGINAL PLACES not any other place, most of these unnecessary problems could be avoided.

      BTW there were 20,000+ Sinhalese were there in Jaffna district in 1971. By 1981 after the Vadukodai resolution it fell to 4,000. Now it is near zero. That means 20,000 IDPs for 28 years! No one talks of them due to racist prejudices against Sinhalese! There are also Muslim IDPs for 19 years getting less attention. Equal individual rights is the way to go for ALL SLs.

  • Indira

    Thank you Sithara for this lovely piece.I also think we need to look carefully as to how and when the reason of environment gets used. As a woman who is very keen that the environment is protected I know and I assume many others do that Sri Lanka rarely gets Environment Impact Assessment done or gets a environment clearance when developmental projects are undertaken. When the Sampoor Power Plant was built environment was not a concern. When the government planned the Negombo Sea plane project it had scant interest in the environment, its only the protest of the people that ensured that project was abandoned. Usually development trumps environment and environment trumps people, it trumps poor people. Its the consumerist mentality of the urban population that destroys the environment. The environment is a very important part of peoples life and livelihood in these areas. So I hope we re think the environment debate because without local peoples knowledge and support the environment cannot be protected. The environment does not need protection from them.

  • sumathy

    Thank you for this article and for raising the concerns of people who are struggling to be heard. IDPs all over, whether they be Muslim, Sinhala or Tamil are making a valiant effort to rebuild their lives in this post war but not post conflict era. In fact, their unique position within Sri Lanka enables them to see the operations of power in ways that can be fundamentally different from the way many of ‘us’ who lead settled lives see. Travel and tourism have a particular kind of salience for people who have been displaced in the war. Their routes of travel are touched not just by wonder and nostalgia, but imbued with enormous courage and perseverance. It is about survival. IDPs are not internal tourists. when they travel they are thinking about home.

    Muslim IDPs made their way across jungle in many instances when they were evicted by the LTTE. Literally and metaphorically, it was the jungle that sustained them when human forces were arrayed against them.
    The Wilpattu national park will welcome them I am sure, to walk across its terrain in their new exploration of a settlement, of the dream of return. Nature is always on the side of the dispossessed. It is the marauders who will destroy nature, not those who have been displaced by war, cruelty and the thirst for power.

    I have travelled down this road, and only because of this road I was able to visit and talk to a number of resettled peoples along the Musali-Mannar-Vavuniya route. It was personally an invaluable moment for me, because i learnt a great deal about the different concerns of different ‘settlements’ and groups. As the article notes, arrangements can be made to restrict travel. But why close it altogether. It would only mean that those with means will enjoy the privileges of travel while those who are dispossessed continue to be denied and be marginalized.

    In solidarity with all those people from Puttalam and other places, who are making peace with the last 30 years and are making a peaceful return to their lands (or staying where they are having found their new homes hospitable). I wish them (and us) all good luck in getting the road reopened for travel.


  • Ameena

    This need not be an all or nothing situation. There are ways of protecting the environment as well as looking after the interests of the IDPs who desperately need this road. I am for the road being kept open with strict rules and regulations enforced to ensure that the environment is not damaged. There is talk of all sorts of violations happening within the Wilpattu park, but in the end it is always the dispossesed, the poor and the vulnerable who suffer the most – in this case – humans and animals. I believe that it is in our interests to ensure both have their rights. But as I have said before in writing elsewhere, for me the choice is easy.

  • thamirasa

    what all about this … i’m against this idea of having road through our joungles, you people saying things and cuting all natural resources and sure all benifits goes to big bosses and poor never get these, and most of these comments are from same people ? figers crosed waiting for the judgement , do not forget the epawala case , i’m not against community but don’t agree you distrying nature underthe name of community