BY MANJULA FERNANDO.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer Dr.Suren Raghawan, the first ever Northern Province Tamil Governor, spells out his aims and objectives to serve the people in the region and build bridges not only to send the farming produce from the North over to the South, but bring together the youth of our divided nation.
Q:You were appointed Northern Province Governor by the President 22 days ago, have you set your priorities and a team to execute your mandate?
A: – I am the first Thamil Governor to be appointed in the entire 32 year history of the Northern Province. I think there is a political signal by the President on the philosophy that Sri Lanka is a country with a multi cultural and multi linguistic society and Tamils can have their rights met under an undivided country.
To begin with, I can hear the cries and pleas of the Northern Tamil people in their own language. That is social healing. During the past three weeks the Tamil newspapers from the North carried encouraging news besides a few exceptions.
My priorities will be in the areas of resettlement and rehabilitation. We have nearly 100,000 refugees of Lankan origin living in India as of today. They have a right to return. The question is, where would they stay if they come back? They need land.
Due to the war the military occupied state land as well as private land, until recently. The President and the Army Commander have been working on releasing most of these lands that were of no use to the military, after the war. From 2010 we have been releasing the occupied land. Over 90% state and 90% private land have been released so far.
We must plan for the optimal use of these lands, where resettlement of the displaced would be a priority.
A few people still live in camps in Jaffna, and if they are fishermen they would need lands near the ocean. But if for some strategic reason the military cannot release beachfront land, we must ask the IDPs if they would resettle in alternative areas.
Estimates show that 65,000 houses in the region were damaged during the war, and efforts to rebuild them have not been successful. Today, northern development has become a priority. The Jaffna society comprise largely the grassroots, with 16,000 ex-cadres.The grassroots comprise farmers, fishermen or traders. Therefore, my focus will be on agriculture and sea harvest.The region suffers the biggest brain drain in the country, with educated youth leaving for greener pastures.
Q: The military says they have released all land possible to be released, in Keppapilavu. The people allegedly have agreed to accept compensation for lands that cannot be released. But, suddenly they have started to agitate demanding their land. Is there a solution for this issue?
A: I’m not surprised this is your second question. The Northern Province has 1.2 million people living in five districts on an extent of nearly 8,600 sq km.There are 934 Grama Niladharis, serving 3,885 villages. But this one village had been the talk in the media. An issue concerning 56 people has become the most important. There is politics behind it. The Keppapilavu issue surfaced in 2016. The war ended in 2009, no one raised it then, we know the reason.Near Keppapilavu there is another farmland, cultivated and held by the military, which they are ready to hand over. The military says, Keppapilavu is strategically important for them. I am not a military person to argue with them. Of the families who lived in Keppapilavu prior to the war, 56 families received land and houses about two kilometres away. The democratic space brought in with the new Government has given freedom to the reporters to highlight their issues, which the media has brought to the forefront.We are trying to engage with the Keppapilavu land owners. Unfortunately, this issue has been blown out of proportion by Colombo based NGOs. Some of the activists are my friends. Instead of finding a solution, they are fuelling one side. As a result when we are about to find a solution there is a new demand from the Keppapilavu IDPs. If the military says this stretch of land is an absolute necessity, who can challenge that.
Q: I heard that some of the IDPs have already received compensation. What is the stumbling block in finding a viable solution to this issue?
A: Yes, some have been compensated. In any negotiating process we ought to have a second best option. The war is a reality, so is post war, as well as the role of the military. Already 40 of these families are living in houses given to them by the State. Due to this unending issue, we have offered them more land in nearby areas. I cannot understand the demand for this particular stretch of land. We have ruled out emotional connection, hidden values or special memory connecting them to this place. Besides, the lady who is leading this agitation has accepted State compensation. I am hopeful we will find a solution soon, but they should not be confrontational. When they blocked a military gate, a court order was taken to evict them. I have spoken to the area MP, a war victim, who has the right to talk on behalf of these people. I think if the NGOs leave this matter, the people, the army and the representatives will work out a solution.
Q: There is high unemployment among the graduates in the region. How do you plan to address this?
A: The unemployment is due to mismatch of the job market requirement and their university specialization. Most of the unemployed graduates are specialized in Arts or Agriculture. We need Science and Math teachers. The agriculture sector is already full. I have vacancies for 3,000 graduates but there is a mismatch in job market requirements and our graduates. We might have to re-train them, provided they are willing to undergo crash training. I awarded 380 graduate appointments recently. We are working with the Vocational Training Ministry, as a construction boom is expected in the North, and we would need skilled labour to meet the demand.There are vacancies in the Police Department, but social stigma gets in the way. In the North we have Sinhala police officers who don’t speak Tamil. We are trying to seek assistance, to bridge the language gap. Unemployment is a complex situation in the region. We are making efforts to create jobs, such as, a cargo train from KKS to Colombo to send the agriculture produce from Jaffna. This will open up jobs for people with soft skills like trading and market management.
Q: Can’t these graduates find jobs outside the northern region, wouldn’t that be a feasible prospect?
A: We welcome that prospect. But language is a barrier. There is a possibility of their employment in the Central parts where Estate Tamils are concentrated and they can work in Tamil. Unless they are fluent at least in English we cannot send them. To address this issue we have initiated language training programs.
Q: The tenure of the Northern Provincial Council expired last year and the Governor is overseeing the functions of the NPC. How do you cope with this extra burden?
A: I am not an average ceremonial Governor. I have to oversee five Ministries, the Chief Minister’s Office as well as all legal matters pertaining to it. The NPC’s term has lapsed but new elections have not been held. Also,I have to attend the Public Day to listen to people’s grievances every Wednesday. Around 240 people attended the Public Day last week. Some issues are too complex to offer spot solutions. We have a staff shortage and I cannot go beyond the powers of a Governor’s office. I think the PC elections should be held soon. It will uphold democracy.
Q: You have an academic background. The former Chief Minister of the Northern Province was an academic but he failed to fulfil the common man’s aspirations. Will it be the same now?
A: I cannot comment on the former Chief Minister. If you are doing a comparison, he was a former judge but later nominated by a political party. So there is politics involved. In my case there are no politics involved. I was appointed to govern the Northern Province. I don’t take decisions looking at the vote base, I want to do the right thing for the people and not stick to popular decisions. There is no agenda involved. Thanks to the journalists who have viewed me positively, so far I am not looked down by the northerners.
Q: Are you satisfied that you have a good team with you?
A :The war has destroyed professional structures. I need tri-lingual or bi-lingual researchers. We need academics, skilled personnel, as well as volunteers to help in the areas of resettlement, surveying, etc. I have retained retired surveyors on contract basis, because we are short of a skilled and professional workforce in the North. I would like to invite the diaspora to return for a short spell and help us and their kith and kin. During the war, there was a notion that your only security is a dog, hence we are left with 300,000 stray dogs, that cause road accidents.We are talking of a region struggling to reawaken after a 30-year long war. Land owners have not been paying taxes, we need to introduce taxation, so that we have funds to serve the people. Jaffna’s land has not been valued due to the war. Over 15 per cent of city land belongs to people who left the country 20 years ago.Jaffna is still like a ghost city, we can’t do anything with the damaged structures as they are private property, I wish there is a policy like in Singapore, ‘develop or give up.’
Q: It is claimed that a major portion of budget allocations to the NPC goes back unutilized at the end of the year because there is no proper mechanism in place?
A: I will look into this. The Provincial Council budget is around Rs.25 billion. The provincial income is about Rs.600 million, we are talking about a Province that generates only 3per cent of their annual budget.The Central Government allocates money on the proposals submitted by the NPC and not arbitrarily. The new budget is due soon and we will maximize the grants and other funds allocated to be utilized in a justifiable and prudent way. No funds will go back to the centre unutilized, under me.
Q: There are concerns that the Office on Missing Persons process seems to be taking a long time from a victim’s perspective. Can there be an expedited process to heal their wounds and provide a closure for the victims? It’s been a decade since the war ended.
A: In the past four years a lot of things have happened in terms of improving democracy. The Right to Information Act was passed in Parliament, and the Office on Missing Persons established. These are new concepts for a country transiting from a post war era. It is a new terrain.The bone samples from Mannar were sent to California for carbon testing. The report is expected next week. I will give them whatever possible support to conclude this investigation successfully.For instance, the Mannar mass graves case was a sudden discovery, this country did not have a precedence of solving such cases, including the transitional justice cases. These things cannot be done overnight.
Q: Has the Northern Province lost its identity, is it being influenced by the violent South Indian entertainment industry?
A: Tell me which community is not influenced by globalization, you are always influenced by another strong culture, the war has uprooted the existing socio-cultural structure. Leaders have left, there are no role-models. There is a vacuum. So where would they learn from, they learn from the media, the entertainment industry. I do not know if the South Indian films are influencing the youth, the violent movies are not just influencing Jaffna, the entire world is being affected by them. The question should be, do we accept violence as a means of negotiation? The answer is a firm ‘no’. We need education and role models. I am bringing 100 youth from the South who have never been to the North on a home stay program in February, and we will repeat it with another 100 from Jaffna to Matara in May. They will share their hopes and future dreams with one another. The groups will have the opportunity to learn about their differences, values and religious observances, and also why Buddhism has a strong influence on this country. It’s a long journey, but we will do this to ensure peace in an undivided country governed democratically.
Pix by Rukmal Gamage / Sunday Observer