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Peace Dividend Skips Remote Villages

By Amantha Perera
UNNICHCHAI, Sri Lanka, May 28, 2011  – The road to Unnichchai in eastern Sri Lanka makes for a nerve-wracking journey trying to avoid large crater-like potholes, squeezing across narrow bridges, and passing by a patchwork landscape of paddy fields – both abandoned and cultivated – with not a building in sight.

The road looks like a remnant from the time when getting here involved a bit more than a rough ride. This remote village in Batticaloa District was once a hive of activity for the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who fought a bloody war for two and half decades, demanding a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.

At the height of the war, development projects stayed away due to security fears. There was some effort to get a few projects going between 2002 and 2004, when the Sri Lankan government was negotiating with the Tamil Tigers, but nothing much came out of that.

The Tigers lost the war in May 2009, but lost their hold on eastern villages like Unnichchai two years before that, in mid-2007. Since then, development in general has been fast-tracked on the island, though it seems to have bypassed Unnichchai.

The road that connects Batticaloa, the main town in the district, with central Sri Lanka is newly paved; there are new water projects, power projects and employment opportunities as the country breaks out of the shackles of war.

“We expect that the range of investments made in these provinces (the former war zone in the north and east) will result in a growth rate of around 13 percent per annum in these provinces, from 2011 onwards for the next five years,” Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal said during a recent lecture promoting fiscal inclusiveness of the region.

On paper, Unnichchai’s dark days should be long over. But in reality, the shackles of war are still very much here, rusted into the skin of the village, making it hard for it to break out.

Kajayanthi Nishanthi, a 23-year-old mother of one, calls Unnichchai her home. She says she could do very well if growth rates reach half the level projected by government officials. “Life is hard, life is still very hard,” she told IPS.

Her family survives on whatever her husband makes by fishing in the Unnichchai tank, an artificial lake.

She fled the fighting in March 2007 and returned later that same year. Her house was in terrible need of repair and has remained in that state for almost four years now. “Where is the money? The fish can only be sold in the village, there are no new jobs, no transport to take the fish to town,” she laments, “so how can we think of improvement?”

To make matters worse, assistance provided to the East by international humanitarian agencies has dropped in the last two years. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are among the large agencies that have pulled out of the East since 2009.

Nishanthi, who left school before sitting for her grade 10 exam, says that if permanent jobs or assistance for self-employment were available, the pull-out of humanitarian groups would not have been felt so hard. “At least when they were here, we got some assistance; now we have nothing.”

She told IPS that villages like hers that bore a terrible cost during the war need special attention. “Over 20 years of development was held back, we cannot catch up without help.”

There is help. The government is spending millions in the former conflict zone to pull it out of the two and half decade old rut, as are donors. Central Bank Governor Cabraal said that in the last two years, over 2.1 billion rupees (about 19 million dollars) had been disbursed as loans in the eastern province alone. The province recorded an impressive growth rate of above 14 percent last year.

But such development still seems to be stuck in the main towns like Batticaloa that straddle the busy highways or is directed at important economic hubs like fishing harbours. Interior villages like Unnichchai are being left out.

In Unnichchai, there is none of the nervous anticipation for the fruits of peace, felt for two years now in places like the capital Colombo, 330 km away. This remote village is still praying for simple facilities, like a bus that arrives on a regular schedule and does not break down halfway through a 27-km journey in the middle of an abandoned paddy field.

Even when development does arrive, most of the villagers are too poor to benefit. A new water pumping station at the tank brought electricity to the doorstep of the village. But only a few can afford it.

Sinnathambi Mailvanagam, a 61-year-old grandfather who lives in the nearby village of Mullamallai, feels that their villages are left behind in the rapid development drive because there is hardly any industry or economic activity here. “There is some farmland, but what else?” says Mailvanagam, who lives in a small compound with 12 other members of his extended family.

“The best resource we have is the water (from the tank), but that too is now pumped out (to supply Batticaloa),” Mailvanagam told IPS. (END)



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