Leader of the Opposition and Tamil National Alliance R. Sampanthan has written to the President and the Prime Minster requesting a review of the contract given to Arcellor-Mittal Construction France to build 65,000 houses in North and east of Sri Lanka.
The letter follows:
Initiative to construct 65,000 Houses for Conflict-affected Families in the Northern and Eastern Provinces
I write consequent to a unanimous decision of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentary Group to raise very serious concerns in respect of the above matter.
The housing needs of the North and East are indeed dire. It is estimated that 137,000 houses are necessary to meet the housing needs of the North and the East following the devastation of the war. This issue must be addressed. The TNA thus welcomes the Government’s recognition of this, and its resolve to initiate a project to provide housing for conflict affected families. However, the serious concerns relating to the initiative in question repeatedly raised by a wide ranging group of civil society activists, professionals, and politicians cannot be ignored. This includes the recent report of experts of the University of Moratuwa on the suitability of the above mentioned steel houses. Following are some of the primary concerns that have been raised:
a) Concerns relating to the tender process selecting Arcellor-Mittal Construction France
Several concerns have been raised with regard to irregularities in the abovementioned tender process. Of particular concern is the fact that the decision to award the contract to the abovementioned company seems to have been made long before the tender process even commenced, as far back as August 2015.
b) Concerns relating to the durability of the houses
Several concerns have been raised in this regard. Experts state that the proposed prefabricated houses will not last for more than 10 years. Indeed, the model houses of this scheme which were erected recently have already – in a matter of a few weeks – started coming apart.
For the conflict affected communities in the North and East, a house is not merely a means of shelter, but an inextricable part of their culture. A house passes down from generation to generation; parents build a house with the hope of one day giving it to their children. For the Tamil People, a house is thus part of one’s culture, history and heritage, and is expected to last for several generations. Thus, these concerns relating to durability are a matter of especially great concern.
c) The environmental unsuitability of the proposed houses
The proposed houses are to be built of steel, instead of brick. This makes the houses extremely unsuitable for a tropical country like Sri Lanka. This is particularly so given the rapidly rising temperature and humidity levels.
d) The cost of each house:
Under the present scheme, the cost of each house is estimated to be Rs. 2.1. million. This is 2-3 times more than the more environmentally suitable, durable, permanent brick house provided under the Indian housing scheme which provided 50,000 houses in the North. This fact is of greater concern in a context where the housing need exceeds 130,000 and the Government is offering 65,000 – half of that number.
e) Implementation of the said construction project (employing local labour)
Similar to housing, another serious concern in the North is unemployment. In these circumstances, serious consideration must be given to use the opportunity provided by such a construction project to facilitate the use of available local labour.
In these circumstances, the TNA strongly recommends that the Government undertake a review of the initiative in question, and properly address all of the above concerns in implementing this, or any other initiative to address the housing crisis in the North and East.
The Government’s resolve to address the housing need of the North and East is indeed commendable. However, all such efforts must take into consideration the needs and culture of the people themselves, and long term implications the initiative will have on the community. It is only then that such efforts can be an effective part of reconciliation. Such efforts must not, instead, fall prey to corruption and become a means of benefiting a powerful few.
The present Government has been public in its commitment to bring about reconciliation. Initiatives to help conflict affected communities rebuild their homes and lives are important opportunities in this regard. However, merely using such opportunities for political mileage and disregarding the true needs of the Tamil People of the North and East can only be reflective of an unwillingness to effectively honour this commitment.
On behalf of the TNA and the Tamil People, I urge the Government not to waste this opportunity. If the Government is committed to reconciliation, then its actions must reflect that. For its part, the TNA remains committed to constructively engaging with this Government in order to bring about true reconciliation in this country.
Leader of the Opposition
Tamil National Alliance
18th April 2016