By Apratim Mukarji
A foreign correspondent revisiting Jaffna town after a gap of twenty years or so faces every prospect of being surprised.His memories had remained clouded by the many sites and sounds of the prolonged civil war. A9 highway and almost all roads in the peninsula had remained synonymous in his mind with hidden deadly landmines, and the landscape,to him,was always dotted with collapsed structures,such as,the Jaffna railway station,and civilian homes and churches.
During the daytime in those days,the town and its surroundings,and almost the entire peninsula remained eerily silent with little human movement.After dark,the town in particular would suddenly spring to life.Scores of bicycles would run furiously on errands,bringing home vegetables.People would be visiting relatives,and young boys and girls would be returning home from tuitions.There were few shops around;most necessities were unavailable.Every village and town sported a new type of shop selling vegeteble-based fuels to run the ubiquitous Bajaj autorickshaws (tuktuks in local parlance).It was dangerous to ride one of these during the day as the Sri Lankan air force was habituated to treat them as enemy vehicles and take necessary action.The air force would not,however,venture into the peninsula at night,and that was the safe period.
As this writer landed on a Friday evening in November 2017,he was positively impressed by the dramatically changed look of the town.Well-maintained roads,plenty of vehicles including expensive SUVs,hundreds of auto-rickshaws and private vehicles of various international brands.Shops were full of the latest merchandise;electronic goods shops had proliferated,and hundreds of shoppers milled around.At long last a normal urban hub with aspirational behaviour was all around him;that was the impression the visitor gained.
But he had another surprise waiting for him,and this took less than a day to dawn on him.As he began to move around meeting people from various sections of society,politicians,professionals like doctors,engineers,bankers and academics as well as restaurant workers,shopkeepers,housewives and young students, and as the visitor began to see more and more of the town,it came as a shock to him that almost no resident,including foreign diplomats, shared his positive impression of the post-civil war Jaffna town.
“It is not even skin-deep,” sighed former vice-chancellor of Jaffna University Prof.Balasundaram Pillay,whom the visitor had met way back in early 1991 working from an electricty-less office and helped by a single large candle. “What you are seeing is only the surface.You scratch the surface and the ugly,disappointing reality lies exposed.Eight years have passed since the war ended,and peace has since prevailed.There was a good deal of developmental activities under President Mahuinda Rajapaksa.International bankers and prospective investors trooped into Jaffna talking of making large investments and changing the war-ravaged face of the north forever.”
Within a short period of time,the picture began to pale,and soon enough the popular verdict became remarkably pessimistic and largely negative.Investment in manufacturing has proved to be a red herring.Banks are fighting a losing battle with private finance companies in granting loans to households and recovering them.As the finance companies charge exorbitant rates of interest on their clients,the latter turn to banks to get further loans to repay the finance company loans.A chain-reaction is thus set in motion,and as debtors get dragged into increasing indebtedness,banks too get involved to the detriment of their own income and profitability.The finances of the indebted are so precocious that the Central Bank has been forced to work out a bail-out package.
Agriculture and fishing,the two traditional occupations,show no sign of recovery with a majority of cultivable land still under military occupation (the irony being compounded by the fact that military farms are flourishing on the very same land while their owners cannot touch them),and an unequal competition from southern fishermen increasingly fishing in the east with liberal licensing by the Fisheries Ministry has become a serious issue,now being treated by the Tamil leadership as a political issue as well,requiring an immediate solution.
As both the provincial government led by Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran and the TNA have failed to concentrate on improving the economy,it is but natural that peacetime has brought only a cosmetic change in the battered former war zone.Bank managers this writer talked to wondered in unison what on earth had persuaded their managements to open so many retail banking outlets at the same time.Hotels have proliferated with every one of them reporting unsustainable room occupancy rates.”It’s only retail trade that is doing well; as much as 90 per cent of business is with traders,” pointed out bankers.”The rest of us are just twiddling our thumbs.”
But why is the environment so heavy with a sense of despondency in Jaffna? Why is it that the Northern Provincial government is largely viewed as a failure in bringing about improvement at the grassroots level by identifying,initiating and completing developmental projects and thereby generally improving the lives of the common people? The Chief Minister shrugs off the complaint,arguing that Colombo is uncooperative.The opposition claims that he is more interested in ensuring his continuation in office. “How many times has he talked to Colombo to expedite release of funds since he has been in office?”
The failure to attract investment in the manufacturing sector by foreign direct investors and their Sri Lankan counterparts has led to a situation where no industrial employment can be generated.
However,in a remarkable exception,Kargill Food City,a large chain of departmental stores so long dominating the south and which has now come to Jaffna, recently extended its banking operations to the north and east,and,within its limited capabilities,has ventured into manufacturing products required by itself and produced strictly from local resources and manned by members of families affected by the civil war.
However,banks,hotels and various shop establishments have generated only a very limited white-collar employment opportunity.Thus,high unemployment among the youth,who have survived the violent recent history of Jaffna,has bred a strong sense of betrayal by both the national and provincial leadership,and this has added to the general atmosphere of despondency in the population.Political analyst and activist Ahilan Kadirgamar points out that the educated youth are constantly leaving the peninsula in search of suitable jobs.”That is no sign of a rebuilding of a ravaged economy,” he says.
Academic and human rights activist Rajan Hoole identifies a severe lack of civic sense as a root cause of the Jaffna people’s inability to rise and rebuild their future.”Everybody is keen to take care of himself without caring to see what happens to his neighbour,” he says. “Members of the diaspora send hefty sums of money to their families who spend it all away on ostentatious festivities.But the roads are unclean;dirt is thrown around,and nobody is bothered.No fellow-feeling has been cultivated even though the whole North had suffered so horrendously.”
However,while the Tamil leadership remains confined to highlighting their political demands,the people in Jaffna recognize their economic woes as the most important issue,and this is where the provincial government has clearly failed to perform.”There is a very serious economic crisis;the infrastructure for development does not exist. Jaffna is educationally backward
(Apratim Mukarji was correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka from 1990 to 1996 and has written two books on the island- The War in Sri Lanka (2000) and Sri Lanka: A Dangerous Interlude)