By Namini Wijedasa
The Prime Minister’s Office has notified a consortium of humanitarian agencies led by UN-Habitat and The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) that the Treasury cannot allocate money for their long-overdue initiative to build 25,000 brick houses for the war displaced in the North and East.
The Government will, however, set aside around Rs 8bn in the forthcoming budget to fund 7,000 prefabricated concrete houses in the East. These will be built by a recently incorporated local entity, Yapka Construction (Pvt) Ltd.
The company was set up by Ravi Wethasinghe, who has campaigned to build prefabricated houses in the North and East, since late 2015. He is backed by former Resettlement Minister D.M. Swaminathan. Mr. Wethasinghe’s project to permeate the North and East with steel prefabricated dwellings from ArcelorMittal failed, however, owing to widespread concerns about suitability.
Separately, the Government has also released money through the recent vote-on-account for 10,000 brick-and-cement-sand-blocks type traditional houses in the same areas. The first phase of building 4,750 houses started in January under the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Ministry, which now comes under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s purview.
The Cabinet approved the UN-Habitat/UNOPS initiative last year. However, the signing of the contract was delayed. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s office summoned the heads of the two organisations and told them the Treasury could not allocate funds for the project and that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had objected to their initiative.
The Consortium’s proposal envisaged financing from a local bank and offered three housing options. The first would cost Rs 1,099,500 per house; the second Rs 1,117,700 per house; and the third Rs 1,116,800 per house. It pledged to use local labour, materials and small contractors to benefit the local economy.
TNA frontliner M.A. Sumanthiran categorically denied that the party had opposed the project. He said the TNA was initially informed that, while the houses were suitable, the local bank’s financial terms were not. It was suggested that the Treasury could, instead, back the initiative directly.
Last month, however, the TNA was told the Treasury had refused funding. Mr Sumanthiran also said his party had not specifically supported Yapka’s prefabricated concrete houses in the East. For instance, he pointed out, each house was Rs 1.3mn and not Rs 1mn as brick dwellings were.
“We also maintained that, if we introduced a different type of house to the equation, it would cause unnecessary complications among beneficiaries,” Mr Sumanthiran told the Sunday Times. While some TNA MPs had last year inspected a model house and found it acceptable, he proposed that a technical team take a second look to determine suitability.
It is learned that the Prime Minister’s office has also been pushing for the 7,000 prefabricated concrete houses, saying they could be offered to beneficiaries who wanted them. This was conveyed to Mr Sumanthiran and TNA leader R Sampanthan during a meeting in the Prime Minister’s office in Parliament. But they had raised the same concerns.
Subsequently, however, several TNA Eastern Province MPs met the party and urged them to accept the concrete prefabricated houses saying their areas were not getting sufficient dwellings. “They proposed that they could be given to people who want it on the clear understanding that they will not thereafter be entitled to a brick house,” Mr Sumanthiran said.
“We said, therefore, that if they want to do it, the people can take it,” he clarified. “However, we twice rejected it. We preferred the UN-Habitat doing it.” The Government’s housing project for the war-displaced in the North and East is already years late. “War affected people need their houses as soon as possible,” said Raga Alphonsus of ZOA Sri Lanka, an international relief and recovery organisation. “It really does not matter who gets the mileage for it. What is important is not to compromise the people’s empowerment to have a say on the design, quality of materials within the agreed budget and also to supervise the construction with adequate powers.”
The Government, he insisted, must hurry up without any further delay.