Sri Lanka’s tragic postcolonial history is marked by lost opportunities. Regimes in Colombo were unable to forge a political settlement for six decades and after 1987, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unilaterally returned to war closing every opening for a political settlement. The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime bent on consolidating power rejected the golden opportunity at the end of the war.
With the military defeat of the LTTE and the recent electoral defeat of the Rajapaksa regime, there is now a post-war moment with considerable potential for democratisation, demilitarisation and a political settlement for the minorities. Befitting this moment, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan, one of the architects of regime change, recently participated, after an absence of decades, in an unpretentious Independence Day celebration in Colombo. Indeed, fulfilling this great opportunity for reconciliation will depend on keeping both the Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil nationalists at bay. The change in Colombo is also reshaping India-Sri Lanka relations, evident from the high-level state visits by leaders of both countries. In what ways could India support this new found opening for reconciliation?
A first step would be to address the economic crisis affecting the wartorn population. The Rajapaksa regime’s post-war development plan focused on infrastructure buildout, financialisation and expansion of credit. Neoliberal policies stimulated economic growth, largely through debt, and the rising cost of living and mounting inequalities eventually led to the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime. While post-war reconstruction of the North and East mirrored such development policies in the country, a deeper economic crisis emerged because the challenges of reintegrating a war-torn society were not recognised. Expecting credit to stimulate self-employment had disastrous consequences for a population that had lost most of its assets during the war. While livelihoods in agriculture and fisheries, the mainstay in the North and East, were resumed, incomes fell, in part, due to external factors such as bad weather and the encroachment of Indian trawlers. Farmers and fisher-folk could not face the onslaught of an expanding market, which they confronted for the first time after decades of war.
Job opportunities in the industrial sector were few to provide regular incomes, and with hardly any value addition, local produce lost in prices resulting in falling incomes. However, expanding access to credit resulted in people consuming on debt and eventually massive indebtedness. The result was dispossession and an attendant social crisis with broken homes and deprived youth and children.
The backdrop to the upcoming high level state visits between India and Sri Lanka is fraught with India’s mixed engagement in the North and East. India’s two flagship reconstruction projects, a grant to build 50,000 houses and a credit line to rebuild the Northern railroad, are significant sources of support for reconstruction. While the housing project injected funds into the economy and created demand for labour, particularly of masons, the northern railroad has potential for economic and social connectivity and regeneration.
At the same time, a couple of thousand Tamil Nadu trawlers continue to poach the northern coastline destroying the livelihoods of the war-torn fisher-folk. In fact, Indian trawlers are the primary cause of misery for 20% of the northern population that depends on fishing.
The hypocrisy of Tamil Nadu politicians on the trawling issue is paralleled by the indifference of the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council to the economic crisis. Both regional governments are caught up in self-serving political rhetoric that does little to advocate for the wartorn population. Will the continuing suffering of the people, including the fisher-folk, be addressed in the talks between state leaders in the upcoming weeks?
The need of the hour is reconstruction policies to provide jobs and enhance the livelihoods of the war-affected. Fisher dialogue to address the Palk Bay fishing conflict with the full backing of both governments could once and for all resolve the conflict and arrest the alienation of the northern fisher-folk. The North has a strong tradition of producer cooperatives, in fisheries, agriculture, dairy and the palm development sectors. Women leading cooperatives in the North emphasise the double burden for many of them who have to scrape a livelihood while also care for their children and elders. Increasing production and services by cooperatives run by women sensitive to their own needs is a priority.
A broad small industries scheme drawing on Indian financial and technical assistance rejuvenating cooperative production can add value to the produce, increase incomes and create employment. A variety of cooperative-run small industries peppered throughout the still rural northern and eastern provinces can increase employment, with accumulation benefiting and reinvested in the local people.
In the course of time, and once a new regime in Colombo consolidates itself, the longer-term challenge of a political settlement to build a plural Lanka will come to the fore. Meanwhile, addressing the economic crisis will be critical to maintain the new found confidence and hope of a broken people.