by Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha
I have noted previously that the failure of government to make its position clear on a number of issues has been one of the main difficulties about Reconciliation.
I say this because, by and large, the government position on most issues has been extremely positive, and inadequacies are more due to inefficiency than policy. But because the system does not encourage transparency, very good practices do not get the appreciation they deserve.
With regard to Resettlement, the government achievement in sending back so many within a couple of years to their original homes has not been paralleled in other countries which have suffered similar conflicts. Our determination to discourage the displaced from establishing themselves elsewhere, and instead concentrating on returns, with efforts to build up essential infrastructure, has borne fruit in the enhanced economic activity we see in both North and East.
Certainly the North has not taken off as rapidly as the East, but the fact that so many in the Vanni are able to live off the land, and build up their own houses and businesses, is a tribute to the plans that were implemented so expeditiously, with roads and irrigation and electricity in a much better condition than could have been imagined two years back.
However, a failure to explain clearly the policies involved, and involve the people in the process, has led to some resentment. In particular, we did not do enough to get rid of the culture of dependency that life in welfare centres induces, with handouts and responsibility for shelter and food going hand in hand with opportunities to earn money that can then be spent on other things.
To put it crudely, the complaints I get about alcoholism in almost all areas suggests that there is no great shortage of funds, and that we should have done more to revive the culture of self-reliance that the last few years has damaged.
I believe the initial start up support given by government with Indian and UNHCR assistance was enough for most people, and basic shelters have in many cases now been transformed into solid homes. However it was also desirable to provide housing for the vulnerable, and this has been done on a major scale by the Army and some NGOs, with a massive Indian programme also in implementation to help several more of the displaced. However, we failed to make it clear that this full scale support was intended only for the most vulnerable, and that others, with earning capacity restored, were expected to build up their own homes.
For this purpose, we should also have done more concerted training for the construction industry that we knew would be so important, and indeed I found the brightest amongst the former LTTE combatants who attended the entrepreneurship workshops conducted on my decentralized budget keep to set up construction companies, with special attention to piping and other lucrative specialist work.
Unfortunately we did not set in motion early enough the credit schemes that would have laid the foundations for such entrepreneurship. And instead, in part because of the pleasure politicians take in giving handouts, we laid greater stress on assistance rather than encouraging self reliance.
Thus we still find people waiting for houses and pointing out resentfully that others have benefited, and we fail to make clear the policies that should have made such assistance redundant.
We have also not been clear about the rationale for not giving basic assistance to those who had been displaced earlier. While we should make it clear to those displaced in 2009 that they have got more help to assist with swift resettlement than those who had suffered earlier – and for much longer periods, such as the Muslims expelled by the LTTE in 1990 – we must also make it clear to these earlier victims of terrorism that, since they have had some relief in the areas in which they had sought refuge, and have developed livelihoods there, they cannot have the same level of assistance. At the same time we should recognize an obligation to provide basic assistance to those who are still languishing in camps, who had not benefited from the housing schemes that were constructed during the last five years with World Bank Assistance.
In short, we need to explain very clearly why assistance has been provided at the various levels at which government has worked, and why those provided with support that enabled them to return swiftly and resume their original occupations should get on with their lives instead of awaiting further assistance. And we should also be developing more and better programmes for employment generation, vocational training with soft skills, entrepreneurship development, micro-credit with particular attention to women and women’s cooperatives.
Better information mechanisms would also help with regard to land issues. These can be divided into;
a) Provision of title for those who had worked on land before displacement
b) Settling conflicting claims between owners and those who had occupied / worked on land after the original owners were displaced
c) Returning lands occupied by the Security Forces or other government institutions or else acquiring them legally and providing adequate compensation
Provided the principle of giving concerned parties a hearing and avoiding injustice is affirmed, settling these issues should not be difficult. With regard to the provision of title, it should be noted that there was a policy problem for many years.
While the SLFP which was the principal partner in the 1970 government that instituted land reform basically wanted to empower the peasantry, its Marxist partners believed in a philosophy of state ownership, and therefore perpetuated the principle of permits that required renewal – which was a recipe for disaster with the upheavals that followed.
Government should therefore, as indeed was envisaged through the Bim Saviya programme, move swiftly to correct this historical anomaly, and bestow ownership on all those who can lay claim to have worked on particular lands.
Where there are conflicting claims, they should give primacy in chronological order, but ensure adequate compensation for others who have worked on specific lands, by providing alternatives.
A similar principle should apply with regard to lands which owners abandoned, which were then occupied by others. The Minister of Justice has now pledged that the legislation prepared by the Law Commission to deal with such conflicting claims will be introduced soon, and this should be given priority.
With regard to lands occupied by government agencies, I believe the problem is aggravated by those who use it as a stick with which to beat the armed forces, which is a populist activity appealing to many. While I have no doubt the forces should move swiftly to settle cases in which they are involved, we should also remember that there are others of different sorts. The two cases of which I have personal cognizance, one involving the family of a former TULF MP who seems sadly to have been forgotten by his successors, involve occupation by a Grama Sevaka and a putative orphanage.
I believe that, if the forces require land for security reasons, they are entitled to take it over with adequate compensation. This should not be a matter of others telling them what they should acquire or not acquire, but equally the forces should limit their acquisitions to what is essential, and should explain why this is needed.
They should also decide swiftly on what is essential, because three years after the conflict ended is time enough for making decisions and for informing stakeholders accordingly. Where land or buildings are needed for a further period, but not permanently, as in the case of the many police stations where building on new sites is proceeding slowly, owners should be assured of dates for vacation.
Government should realize that transparency on such matters is not only right, it is also of practical benefit. In the few cases I have experience of at Reconciliation Committee meetings, I have found both the forces and those who had raised questions very willing to listen to the other.
Opportunities for such interactions should be provided, and discussion encouraged, because as with so many things in life, contention develops when interaction is avoided.