S.Rubatheesaan With Additional reporting by N. Lohathayalan
Why aren’t the northern people protesting over rising prices and shortages of essential items? The answer: Economic hardships are not new to them.
When the war was raging in the Northern Province just over a decade ago, electricity was a luxury for many families in the region.
To survive and overcome life’s difficulties, people were forced to look for alternatives and innovative techniques during the war.
When the war ended, bringing in its wake normality, a change in lifestyle and development activities in the region, the northern people would not have imagined that they would be undergoing similar difficulties and have to adopt the same tactics once again–this time due to the Government’s mismanagement of the economy.
Back then–almost every household had homemade oil lamps made out of a bottle and a wick. Known as Kuppi vilakku in Tamil, it has made a comeback, as the country is experiencing prolonged power cuts. It has turned out to be a useful item for the poor who cannot afford a hurricane lamp, which has gone up in price from Rs. 1,400 months ago to Rs. 3,000-3,500 today. T. Veluppillai, 64, from Madhu in Mannar remembers his long gone days when he worked as a transporter of goods and people in his Honda MD 90 motorbike covering the 28 kilometers distance from Pallamadhu to Mannar, as there was no bus service to connect the two areas.
“Those days, the price of a litre of petrol in the war-affected areas was Rs 2,000 and kerosene Rs 300. The severe shortages taught us to use fuel and other items sparingly,” Mr. Velupillai told the Sunday Times.
In those days, they adopted an innovative technique to conserve petrol by connecting a medical glucose drip tube to the carburetor. The petrol in the tube is externally injected into to the spark plug to start the engine while the vehicle was being pushed. “We bought one ounce of petrol – 0.03 litres — at Rs 100 for this purpose alone. We started our vehicles by putting drops of petrol into the tube and blowing into it simultaneously,” he said, explaining the process.
Mr. Velupillai also recalled another homemade invention the people had adopted to survive during the separatist war. To help children study in the night, elders would keep pedaling a bicycle on stand with the dynamo lighting up the mini study lamp.
With long queues outside fuel stations in the wake of the current economic crisis, many Northern middle class families have switched to bicycles to travel short distances, just as they did during the war period.
For retired principal K. Rajendram, 66, from Thiruvaiyaaru in Kilinochchi, economic hardships are not something new. He together with other family members took to farming in the early 1970s when the then Government of Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike had imposed restrictions on imports to promote local production. He said the experience he gained in the 1970s became useful for him to survive during the war days when essential items were in short supply.
“The current economic crisis is not something new to us, though it poses even more challenges when it comes to prices of groceries. We understand, the crisis has come as a sudden shock for the people in the south. We can relate to their ordeal,” Mr Rajendram said.
K. Thangavelayutham, 70, worked in the tourism industry in the South before he was forced to return to his native town Point Pedro during the pandemic lockdowns.
He recalled how the northern people were able to secure adequate supplies of essentials such as rice, flour and locally manufactured palmyrah products at reasonable prices, in the midst of the raging war.
“When we were displaced and found shelter in the Wanni, we did not encounter massive shortages of food and other essential items. The price of an egg at that time was Rs 2 and now it has skyrocketed to Rs 35 and continues to rise along with other goods. How can people face this situation?” he asked.
Mr Thangavelayutham said the crisis had been aggravated by the lack of an effective mechanism to monitor or regulate local traders who were making a killing by selling products at exorbitant prices without worrying about consequences.
Navanthurai resident Joseph Pathmanathan, 67, a driver by profession for the past 47 years, said he had not seen an economic crisis of this scale in the past, with prices of goods changing on a daily basis.
“Based on our experience with the current ruling lot, we repeatedly warned the southern people about them before they came to power, but they did not heed our advice. So it is up to them to send this government home before it is too late for all of us. We are also struggling and ready to protest but the ball is in the court of the South now,” he said.