Politics of dispossession

08 Sep 2013 - Commentary

Four years after the end of the devastating war in northern Sri Lanka, the much-delayed elections for the first civil administration in the Northern Province are to be held in September. There have been many debates on the viability of such a Provincial Council, including on the kind of powers it will enjoy and the possibility of it becoming the starting point for a political solution to the ethnic problem. The delay on the part of the government in holding the elections, the continuing militarisation of the region, the watering down of provincial powers in recent years, and the pressure by India and other international actors to hold the elections have been reported widely. However, less attention has been paid to the economic context of the post-war years and the everyday challenges facing the war-torn people as they approach the elections.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which includes the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), are the two major coalitions contesting the elections in the Northern Province, which comprises Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts.

During the last decade of the war, Jaffna was not directly hit by the fighting, but the land route to it was blocked even as Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu were razed to the ground in the last two years of fighting.

Just one-twentieth of Sri Lanka’s population, that is one million people, reside in the Northern Province, of whom 580,000 live in Jaffna district. There is scepticism among the ordinary people in the North about the changes either of the coalitions will be able to bring about. This article sketches the social and economic challenges that are being increasingly articulated on the ground.

Reconstruction, market and debt

The government’s reconstruction strategy for the North soon after the war was to rebuild infrastructure. Banks and financial companies were encouraged to provide credit. Furthermore, the reopening of the crucial A9 highway resulted in retail businesses flooding the market with consumer goods, not seen for decades in the North.

The government’s early strategy of reviving agriculture and fisheries encouraged the rural population to return to the land and the sea. The reconstructed highways and carpeted roads connecting the North with the rest of the island, and rural electrification benefited some rural households that never had electricity. The reconstruction of railway lines, the resumption of train services between Madhu and Mannar and the imminent opening of services to Kilinochchi, and to Jaffna in 2014, constitute a major contribution to post-war connectivity.

Various housing schemes initiated by the World Bank and other donors, and, more recently, the Indian government’s massive grant of 50,000 houses have for the first time placed thousands of families in concrete houses. Several families are getting assistance to rebuild or repair their houses that were destroyed in the war. Given this picture of reconstruction, how and where did the local economy go so wrong that the people have been reduced to desperation?

The answer lies in the emphasis on big infrastructure, the ravages of the market logic, the faltering incomes and the expansion of rural debt. The focus of development was on major roads, and low priority was given to building roads to remote villages, providing small harbours for fishermen or for that matter digging wells and repairing irrigation tanks.

The meagre cash grant of Rs.25,000 to put up a shack was not distributed properly. Only an initial loan of up to Rs.200,000 at subsidised rates of interest was provided through commercial banks to households to resume agricultural operations and fishing activities. Thus, the first steps in rehabilitation process themselves proved to be a bad start for reconstruction.

The sudden flooding of the market with consumer goods, such as television sets, refrigerators and scooters, made the population in the North go through a binge of consumption. Such consumption was facilitated by lease-hire purchase, with payment made in instalments dipping into the savings and remittances. Consumption on credit has led the Jaffna community, known for its tradition of saving, into a mire of debt, especially in a situation in which livelihoods have been troubled by the lack of a steady income.

Some families tried to revive the farmlands that had remained fallow during the war, but two consecutive crop failures with untimely rains and fluctuations in the market prices for agricultural produce have affected both the cash crop cultivators in the Jaffna peninsula and the paddy cultivators in the Vanni region.

Landless labourers have been hit hard by crop failures and the consequent fall in the demand for farm labour. In the Vanni, the situation is aggravated by the introduction of harvesters, which has made labour redundant.

The fishing community has been devastated by trawlers from Tamil Nadu poaching in the northern seas. The environmental damage from bottom trawling is already resulting in a smaller catch on the non-trawling days of the week. Such a situation has led a section of the agricultural and fishing communities to seek work in West Asia, where a limited but steady income is possible. Others are switching to masonry and road work, which are in demand in view of the rebuilding programmes. But this demand for labourers is likely to fall when the reconstruction and road-building boom ends.

The opening of banks and other financial institutions to make credit available for economic recovery has had the opposite effect of strangling the Tamil population. The banks not only offer easy loans but have changed their business practices to provide loans against valuables. Subsidiaries of banks and other financial companies are into the instalment-based lease-hire purchasing business. Microcredit is distributed at exorbitant interest rates. Thus, exploitative banking and debt have taken over the countryside.

The rural people have taken one loan on top of the other to make monthly interest payments and have, in the process, got into a debt trap, which they will find very difficult to recover from.

Goods purchased on lease, including trishaws and tractors, are being seized for payment default. Thus, the rural people are losing what little assets they had, which were used to make the initial payments. In recent months, bank managers and the police have been visiting rural homes to recover loans, aggravating the climate of fear and social tensions. In sum, much of the farming and fishing communities are drowned in debt even as their incomes are declining.

Resettlement, Land and Housing

Despite the push of development policies in Sri Lanka towards urbanisation, in Jaffna the failure of reconstruction is leading to contrary movement.

Many of Northern Muslims, who had been evicted and had lived in Puttalam as displaced people for two decades and were enthusiastic to return to Jaffna, have now lost hope of rebuilding their lives in Jaffna in view of the lack of supportive resettlement mechanisms for housing, education and jobs. While the predicament of the Northern Muslims may also be related to the politics of Tamil-Muslim relations, there are also large sections of Jaffna Tamils who have found it hard to restart life in Jaffna.

In the early 1960s, when Jaffna’s population was approximately the same as now, pressure on land had pushed Jaffna Tamils to settle in the Vanni for cultivation. Such waves of migration from Jaffna to the Vanni continued even during the exodus forced by the Tamil Tigers as they shifted their centre of operations from Jaffna to the Vanni in 1995.

Many residents of the Vanni went through horrendous suffering at the end of the war. They came back to Jaffna in 2010 after they were released from internment camps. Their attempts to restart their economic life in Jaffna having failed in the past two years, many of them are returning to the Vanni, where there is a better chance of subsistence agriculture.

The situation in the Vanni, particularly in Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts, where the population faced the worst phase of the war, is terrible. There are large numbers of women-headed households (war widows and separated women) in recent years partly because of the socio-economic pressures affecting families. Such problems at home are also affecting the education of children.

Militarisation is also much more repressive in the Vanni where any meeting requires the permission of the military, and its presence is ubiquitous. The large amount of land taken in the Vanni by the military for its bases, and more recently for military-owned farms, points to a long-term process of militarisation. Resettlement has remained contentious, and the reality and rumours of settlement schemes that are ethnically biased have deepened ethnic fault lines.

Indeed, Muslims and Sinhalese, if they were previously displaced from the North, should be resettled along with the war-displaced Tamils. The problem, however, is that government ministers and the military attempt settlements that are ethnically motivated, that is, meant to gerrymander electoral constituencies. Land has always been a central concern for the Tamil community. The announcement a few months ago by the military that it would not return and would seek to purchase lands in parts of the Valikamam north area of the Jaffna peninsula led to major protests and in many ways sealed an anti-government constituency that will cast its protest vote in favour of the TNA. Militarisation and land will be central issues before the provincial government. In this context, the President’s statement that land and police powers will not be devolved means that the issues of land and security are bound to continue after the elections.

The housing schemes, while giving a significant boost to the living standards and dignity of the lower classes, have some problems. To qualify for a house, the applicant must fulfil certain criteria relating to the size of the family and the legal title to land. The Northern Muslims, who have returned to urban Jaffna, for example, lack plots of land that meet the criteria as the urban lands have been fragmented over generations. Some of these challenges around land, including the granting of land, are being met by the government.

In this context, an important concern with the Indian housing scheme, which provides about Sri Lankan Rs.550,000 a house, is that it is likely to increase the debt of the households. This is due to the lack of proper monitoring by the implementing agencies to ensure that the house is completed within the stipulated cost. Without such monitoring, households are likely to take other loans and end up building a house on the order of Rs.900,000, countering the rationale of the housing scheme and getting deeply indebted.

Trauma, Dependency and Flight

Some actors who have been working with the war-affected claim that the Vanni population is now in need of counselling to address the trauma of its predicament in the post-war years. This comes in the context of the Presidential Task Force, responsible for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the North, discouraging non-governmental organisations (NGOs)from providing psycho-social care to those affected by the final phase of the war in the Vanni. The social effects of the war and its aftermath are apparent in the increasing instances of family break-ups, domestic violence and abuse, and school dropouts and a hopelessness that has enveloped the rural North.

Progressive community leaders claim that lethargy and a culture of dependency have taken hold of the community. In part, this is a consequence of the war and the process of post-tsunami rehabilitation, where NGOs provided humanitarian assistance. However, the culture of receiving handouts combined with the difficult job prospects has reinforced the culture of dependency. Local initiative and organisation has been done a great disservice by the short-term outlook of NGOs and, more recently, by political patronage, as part of which community meetings are held not with the idea of organising the community but to distribute handouts ranging from cash to chickens.

The Jaffna middle class survives with remittances from relatives living abroad and hopes to send the younger generation to join the diaspora, to the detriment of the social institutions in Jaffna. However, remittances from the diaspora are also decreasing, and with Western countries tightening immigration rules, the dependency on the diaspora and the pursuit of migration to the West undermine both social cohesion and individual aspirations.

Rural people are desperate to seek other exit strategies, such as dangerous boat journeys to Australia. Such desperation is tied to the decades of war, tremendous loss of life and the destitution of the survivors; they lost most of their possessions.

In the absence of an inspiring political and economic vision, the option seems to be flight to another land or a downward cycle of social desolation characterised by alcohol and substance abuse, social and domestic violence, and all the trappings of poverty. During the war years, a survival instinct managed to keep society going in the hope of a better future. The economic predicament in the post-war years has destroyed the last vestiges of such hope.

Cooperatives, Education and Caste

The resilience of the people during the decades of war owes much to some of the social institutions built by previous generations. Every village in Jaffna has one or more community centres often linked to the local temple and shaped by local caste relations. Farmers’ organisations have been important for reviving agriculture after the war. While the strong tradition of consumer cooperatives has declined, producer cooperatives have survived.

The fisheries cooperatives have a hierarchical structure with unions at each fishing village, an office for a group of villages, and finally a federation of fisher cooperatives at the Jaffna district level. Such a strong structure was a source of strength for the fishing community to survive the war and later to advocate free access to the seas and revive fishing. Similarly, the Palmyrah Coconut Cooperative Society, formed 40 years ago, had won dignity for the toddy tapping community and was instrumental in negotiating arrangements to continue its work even during the war and in a state of displacement.

These rural institutions, which were consolidated by the economic growth and accumulation in the North before the war, and which managed to survive the war, are, ironically, under severe strain. Fishermen’s cooperatives caught in the Palk Bay fishing conflict with poaching Indian trawlers are increasingly becoming politicised even as their economic rationale has been hit by low catch and fishermen staying away from the seas. The demand for toddy has been on the decline with the opening of bars in Jaffna and with the influx from the south of beer, which has social status, and of arrack, which has higher alcohol content. Thus, the fisher and toddy tapper cooperatives, which survived the war, may now succumb to the onslaught of post-war politics and the open market.

The strength of the Jaffna Tamil community, in particular, was the strong tradition of education and vibrant schools. While large sections of Northern society continue to invest in education, particularly by spending much on after-school tuition for their children, such widespread reliance on tuition, not different from the rest of the country, is a reflection of the crisis in education. The worst-hit again are the rural schools, where teachers commute from Jaffna town rather than reside in the villages in the North, and the slightly well-off send their children to better-performing town schools. That leaves the children of the oppressed castes, who are also the children of the landless labour, in rural schools, in a cycle of social exclusion where the school and home environment and social desolation undermine any chance of educational progress.

Government investment in big infrastructure and the opening of markets exclude marginal communities. Similarly, social investment by the local population and their brethren in the diaspora has been focussed on temples and some of the leading Jaffna schools, reinforcing the caste and class make-up of Northern Tamil society. Indeed, the return to land, the turn to temples, and the subtle segregation of schools point to a dynamic of reconsolidating caste relations in Jaffna and the rest of the North. The contemporary character of caste relations is not one of aggression and violence, but rather one that works through processes of social exclusion and dispossession while silencing any discussion of caste. The post-war economic changes are wearing out social institutions and throwing the rural economy into a crisis, even as education for the marginalised is in dire shape while class and caste inequalities are reinforced.

Politics in a Time of Economic Crisis

This is the economic background to the upcoming Northern Provincial Council elections, where conversations in villages inevitably emphasise the economic predicament. However, neither Members of Parliament nor candidates for the upcoming elections nor the Tamil media have anything substantive to say about economic issues. Worse, they reduce the socio-economic problems to “cultural deterioration” after the war, blaming the problems on women’s sexuality and freedom. The nexus of Tamil nationalist politics and the largely irresponsible, virulently nationalist Tamil media has created a political discourse that is far removed from the everyday reality before the people. But such a discourse is reinforced by militarisation, repressive surveillance and the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist thrust of the current government.

The flash of hope in recent weeks is that the people are talking. Elections before the war, building on the long tradition of universal suffrage in the country, which came as early as the 1930s with the Donoughmore reforms during late colonialism, had a carnival feel to them, with people talking politics on the streets, at community centres and in their homes. That spirit of democracy continues in the conversations at the village level.

There is much criticism of the candidates chosen by all parties. Questions are raised as to why representatives who had served the various villages, rural sectors and social institutions are not there on the lists? After many decades the issue of castes was raised by people, and both the TNA and the UPFA were forced to nominate candidates belonging to the oppressed caste, even though the respective parties do not wish to deal with the issue of caste oppression head on. The elections have provided an opportunity for self-critical talk among the people about their socio-economic predicament and the importance they would like to see placed on their social institutions.

The government’s reconstruction and development programme has clearly failed. The neoliberal idea that market and finance can revive a war-torn society through the expansion of private business and self-employment has had the opposite effect of indebtedness and destitution. The farmers, the fisherfolk and the toddy tappers know one reality, that the market undermines their livelihoods, and are clear about the need for price controls. The need of the hour is also investment that can create steady incomes, which means state-supported factories, which the international donor establishment, to whom the government is wedded, opposes. Reviving the vibrant tradition of education in the North requires not only interventions by the state and society but also a transformation of the rural economy, particularly the situation of landless labourers. And there, employment generation for the youth is a priority.

Caught between a repressive state and a bankrupt Tamil nationalist politics, the people are using the elections to articulate the politics of their everyday life. Their priorities are jobs, education and housing, which they see as elements of a decent life. Yet, their dignity is also dependent on political representation and respect for their democratic rights. The government squandered the opportunity to win over a devastated people and crushed their hopes. There is likely to be an overwhelming protest vote for this. The TNA, which is slated to win the elections, and the allied Tamil media need to do some soul-searching about their problematic role of peddling Tamil nationalism and disregarding the concerns of the people. One challenge before the soon-to-be elected provincial administration is to ensure that the Central government devolves the powers that rightly belong to the provinces. But an even bigger challenge is to start the process of self-criticism within the Tamil community so that democratisation and socio-economic revival of the war-torn population, particularly the marginalised and socially excluded sections, can begin.

This article also appears in Frontline 20 Sept 2013