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Amantha Perera files a ground report on the hardships of communities in the north

Date : 1 December 2013 Its early morning in Mankulam and I!m dri"ing along the A# $ the road is pa"ed in marked contrast to the giant potholes that dotted the track a decade ago% It looks more like one of those ne& high&ays that ha"e come up else&here in the country% 'his one is not as busy but dri"ers need to be mindful of cyclists and cattle straying onto the road% I am here to co"er the pro"incial council polls as are many other (ournos% 'he )parachutes! ha"e landed from *e& Delhi and else&here% And almost all of them are con"erging on +affna% Along the &ay &e hear the ne&s that the former ,''- arms procurer .umaran Pathmanathan /better kno&n as .P0 is planning a press conference in .ilinochchi later in the day% My colleague and I had made plans to tra"el into interior "illages such as 1ddusuddan and *edunkeni on the Mankulam2Mullaiti"u 3oad% 'hese "illages &hich used to be bloody signposts during the &ar are regaining a sense of normalcy% 'he .P press conference forces ma(or alterations to our plans% 4e think about &hat &e should do% Do &e change plans and co"er .P!s press conference5 Drinking sugar2laced plain tea sitting by the side of the A# 6igh&ay as "ehicles &hoosh past us I tell my colleague that .P is a big story $ maybe &e should forget the "illages and make our &ay to .ilinochchi% Dri"ing o"ernight from 7olombo &e had (ust about hit the road &hen the .P story broke% My colleague &ho is a photo(ournalist employed by an international agency isn!t con"inced% 6e stands to lose more than me if &e decide to co"er the press conference% 6e has the best chance for good frames in the early morning light% 'he presser he says &ill gi"e drab pi8 and sound bites that e"eryone else &ill get $ t&o things that both of us &ant to a"oid at all costs% +ust then the decision is made for us $ &e recei"e another call from 7olombo telling us that (ournos are being flo&n in for the press conference in .ilinochchi% As &e restart our (ourney I turn the (eep right at Mankulam (unction $ &e are headed for the "illages% 3ight from the onset &e had decided to a"oid the media scrum%

9oth of us ha"e been to the north on more occasions than &e care to remember% 4e had seen the destruction &rought by the &ar% Periodically like in March 2002 &hen the then PM 3anil 4ickremesinghe "isited 7ha"akachcheri there &ere media scrums% 9ut the &orst &as ,''chief :elupillai Prabhakaran!s press conference in April that same year% 4e &anted to a"oid all that% 4e &anted to tell the stories of the people as related by the people themsel"es% As &e dri"e to *edunkeni &e talk about our many pre"ious "isits to the region% I remember the first time I fle& to +affna almost 20 years ago &hen I &as a trainee P3 spin specialist &orking for the ;oreign Ministry% <itting on one of the side benches utterly ner"ous and in a&e I almost fainted &hen the aircraft released anti2missile flares= 1nly &hen it landed in +affna some 30 minutes later did I find out that the flares had been a precautionary measure% 'hese days my young colleagues fly to +affna in far more comfort and &ithout ha"ing their ner"es (angled% 'hey get to sit back and take in the scenery% My initiation process &as a tangle of ner"es fear and an8iety% I &as left &ondering ho& on earth I had managed to get here> and ho& I could get myself out &ith a &orkable story% My first trip to :a"uniya &as on an o"ernight bus &hich &as filled &ith fello& tra"ellers &ho had enough spirits in them to make the 122hour (ourney a blur% 'hough &e &ant to a"oid the media rush in +affna there!s a "alid reason for it% 'his election is a big deal% 1nly a fe& days ago the ?* 6igh 7ommissioner for 6uman 3ights *a"i Pillay &as in to&n and she had aired her not2so2flattering "ie&s of the north% Moreo"er India has called for this election all along &hich is also true of nations such as the ?< and ?. and the -uropean ?nion% 'he 'amil *ational Alliance /'*A0 sees the pro"incial council elections as a stepping stone to asserting at least a semblance of regional autonomy% And the international media!s periodical focus has fallen on <ri ,anka partly due to the run2up to the 7ommon&ealth 6eads of @o"ernment Meeting /761@M0 creating something of a feeding frenAy here% I speak to a B02year2old man &ho tells me that &hen the 'amil militancy started he had belie"ed in it and supported it% 4hile his neighbours and relati"es migrated to other countries he decided to stay back% C4hy5D I ask% 6e looks straight past me and retorts: CDumb decision%D I don!t kno& &hat it feels like to call a life2changing decision dumb &hen you are B0% I ask him &ho &ill get his "ote this time% C'he '*A D he deadpans C&ho else is there5D <tanding on the side of the road I realise that despite impressi"e de"elopment credentials /the 7entral 9ank @o"ernor estimated mid this year that the @o"ernment had channelled ?<E 3 billion &orth of de"elopment &ork0 the @o"ernment has failed to nurture an allied political leadership in the north &hich the northern population feel linked to and trust% 'his is aptly demonstrated by the outcome of elections in the north% 'he people "oted for the '*A dumping the @o"ernment and its allies &ho &ere probably sitting in the best seat to kick2 start the region!s sagging economy% I ask se"eral e8perts &hy massi"e de"elopment spending had failed to garner public appro"al% <ome are of the opinion that the people especially those in the heart of the 4anni still feel they!re second2class citiAens &ithout much of a say in their o&n affairs% 1thers belie"e that the @o"ernment has become the main focal point for the masses to blame for e"erything they suffered during the last bloody months of the &ar% 1ne e8pert I speak to offers a telling reason: he says that this is &hat happens &hen eight2lane high&ays are constructed in regions &here the cattle population outnumber human beings% 'he

ma(or pro(ects he argues are not in sync &ith the ma(or grie"ances of the 4anni!s population $ chief among them being lo& le"els of income% 6igh&ays are good but there!s no direct benefit to the local population if they don!t bring &ith them ne& markets ne& (obs and ne& factories $ none of &hich has materialised on a grand scale in post2&ar 4anni% 6o&e"er there!s no denying that the mega de"elopment pro(ects in the 4anni are impressi"e% ,ast year the *orthern Pro"ince recorded gro&th of 2F percent riding on the &a"e of ma(or infrastructure &ork in the region% In +une the ?nited *ations 6igh 7ommissioner for 3efugees /?*6730 compiled a detailed report on the displaced and returnees of the north% 'he report offers some insight into the anomalies in the 4anni!s post2 &ar de"elopment effort% 'he ?*673 report concludes &ith the obser"ation that Cconsiderable achie"ements ha"e been made in certain thematic areas and specific issues such as access to documentation access to education and freedom of mo"ement and security%D It found that Ca significant ma(ority /#3G0 &ere satisfied &ith their household!s durable solution choice of return relocation or local integration%D Impressi"e indeed% 9ut there are details that take a&ay the gloss% C@aps remain in the areas of li"elihoods adeHuate shelter and access to properties D the ?*673 report notes% 6ere is a snapshot of the general earning capacity in the 4anni: o"er I3 percent of the respondents reported a monthly household income of 3s% F 000 /?<E I00 or less% A"erage household monthly income is 3s% # 010% <ome FF percent of respondents say their household income is based on infreHuent daily &ork% 1nly nine percent ha"e regular salaried employment% A little o"er half /F2G0 report a total household debt of 3s% F0 000 or less /?<E I000 and IJ percent state that their household debts amount to 3s% 100 000 or more% <oon after the pro"incial council elections someone said that the 4anni "oted from its heart and not from its head% Perhaps that!s true% 9ut if the people of a region &orst hit by &ar are to reap the post2&ar economic benefits then someone should seriously consider ho& half the population is going to get out of earning less than 3s% 10 000 a month%

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