Monday, June 30, 2014

Towards Success: The Sri Lankan Resettlement Process

-Ashwathy Vijayan

The second term of His Excellency MahindaRajapaksa as the Sri Lankan President was undoubtedly the outcome of the decisive nature of his first term. His decision-making has been attributed to being the major reason for the end of the thirty year old conflict between the militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan Army. Aristotle had once said, “It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.” Prophetically, ensuring durable peace has been the biggest challenge for both, the Sri Lankan government and President. No one had imagined of a warless state or a phase where people could think about development in Northern Sri Lanka. The victory over LTTE has not just given this beautiful island its share of peace but also its government a chance for development and integration.

Towards durable peace - Resettlement Criteria

In its path towards this focus, the first step of the Sri Lankan government was the formation of a Presidential Task Force (PTF) with Basil Rajapaksa as the chairman and S.B. Divaratne as the Secretary. This 19 member force was appointed to focus on the development and security in the Northern Province. They were given the authority to prepare strategic plans, programs, to resettle IDP’s, and rehabilitate and develop the economic and social infrastructure of the Northern Province. In 2014, looking back at the development and reconciliation of Northern Province, anyone would congratulate the PTF for its contribution and hard work.

However the challenge that the government and the PTF faced was regarding giving temporary shelters to the IDPs i.e. the persons internally displaced due to the protracted conflict in the island region. This issue was sought to be addressed through the united efforts of the government, PTF, NGOs and army.Around 95 per cent of people had been provided temporary shelters in Menik Farm ever since civil war ended in May 2009. These people have now been resettled back into their original places of habitation. Mr. Divaratne explains the four criteria that were followed in the process of resettlement. Firstly, he asserts, the resettlement process was voluntary. The second criterion was that displaced persons were resettled in their original places of habitation. Third, the process was sought to be dignified and safe. Fourth, the Sri Lankan army was involved in this resettlement process. The resettlement policy also envisaged criteria like involving informed choice of the displaced family/persons through facilitation of “go and see visits” prior to resettlement. Besides, the provision of housing or assistance of shelter and livelihood development was also made to the resettled families.

With these criteria PTF has been able to resettle (as per the latest data available dated April 30th 2014)153,265 families and 509,282 persons in the Northern Province. To be exact 16,350 families in Vavuniya, 31,188 families in Jaffna, 40,333 in Mullaitivu, 41,074 in Kilinochchi and 24,320 in Mannar. However programmes are underway to resettle about 60 families and 7,288 IDPs still remaining. Along with these 1,194 families in Jaffna are in welfare centers and about 4,560 with their friends and relatives.

Challenges to Resettlement

Demining: For the purpose of demining, Humanitarian Demining Unit was set up under the Sri Lankan Army. The demining process which included both technical and non-technical surveys was prioritized to facilitate rapid resettlement. It has an impressive record in demining operations although the forest areas will take some more time to be cleared completely.

Prior Arrangements for Resettlement: Foreseeing the fear and tension in the minds of the IDPs, arrangements were made for the IDPs to visit their places of origin before resettling. Special actions were taken up by the government to ensure the availability of basic facilities when the people were resettled. Security forces ensured protection and transport facilities during the movement of IDPs.

Restoration of Basic Structure: There has been rapid rehabilitation of infrastructure through the 180 Days Program.

Provision of Temporary Shelters: The first priority regarding the process of resettlement was to provide temporary shelters to the IDPs and the responsibility of providing proper shelter was take up by the government, army and NGOs. The PTF consulted several humanitarian agencies and decided on three types of shelters i.e. temporary, semi-permanent and permanent houses. Immediate actions were taken up to provide cash grants and shelter materials for the people to either repair damaged houses or to construct temporary shelters. Once the livelihood activities progressed, semi-permanent houses were constructed in place of temporary houses.

Projects to build Permanent houses were later on taken up by government, Sri Lankan Army, India and other INGOs.

Water and Sanitation: Ensuring safe water and proper sanitation was also given importance. About 15,000 wells were cleaned or renovated during this period as most of the wells in resettled areas were contaminated and damaged. In this regard, National Water Supply and Drainage Board took lead with support of UNICEF. Some NGOs also played a major role in the cleaning and reconstruction of wells.

Some of the other major challenges the government faced during the initial resettlement process were the reconstruction and development of roads and railways, transport facilities, health services, housing, education sectors, water supply and sanitation, restoration of electricity, revival of agriculture, fisheries sector, banking sectors, private investments etc.

Anyone who visits these areas can evidently witness the rapid development that has happened here. In a short span of 5 years, government has reached out to almost every corner with its development programs.

A Permanent Peace?

The biggest challenge that still remains is the process of reconciliation and this has to come from within Sri Lanka, its people and its government. This country alone has borne the brunt of a thirty year war. It is the Sri Lankan people, both Sinhala and Tamils, who have been affected by the war. People have just started to live in an expectation of peace. They are still trying to convince themselves that no bomb blasts are going to happen nor are they going to lose their family in war, no one is going to come and take away their kinds to join the militant groups. People have started to see a new light towards normalcy. And thus, they have to be given some time to adjust themselves and reconcile. What Sri Lanka needs is reconciliation and not polarization. Bringing the Tamils and Sinhalese together and restoring their mutual relations has somewhere fallen by the side.

It is imperative to give attention to the process of psychological reconciliation. It is important to build a bridge of trust amongst the communities. It is debatable if this can happen with the withdrawal of army from the North. With the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that the roots of the entire conflict lay on the issue of ownership of land, which came up along with the differences between religion and language. Besides colonial rule has also contributed its share in dividing both the communities and leaving a major attitudinal change among both. The real reconciliation process thus will come up only with the acceptance of both the communities of each other as the equal owners of this island and not as threat to each other.

Post-conflict, India and Sri Lankan relations have embarked on a new chapter with rigorous cooperation in various fields. However the conflict did create stress within the nations and its political affairs. With the end of the military operations, both countries are focusing on issues of relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and reconciliation. There is also focus on a permanent political solution of the ethnic conflict. With the change in Indian government after a decade, there are chances that both countries will start focusing more on strategic relations. Today with the current phase of progress it looks likely that though a permanent and durable peace will take a while, but stability is certainly a possibility for the region and this beautiful island.


*Photographs and graph taken from the presentation made by Mr. SuntharamArumainayaham, Government Agent/District Secretary, Jaffna District on 7th May 2014
*IDP current status and details provided in person and emailed by Mr. Divaratne, Secretary, Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security-Northern Province

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