After the Independence Day celebrations at the Rehabilitation Centres in Vavuniya, I visited a couple of areas that had been resettled. I had been particularly anxious to get to the Rice Bowl in Mannar, since that had been the initial target for rapid resettlement. In the days when the hostile claimed that we intended to keep the displaced permanently in Vavuniya, we were well aware that the President was pressing for rapid cultivation by the returnees.
Unfortunately delays with demining, as well as security concerns, which may have seemed too intense but which could not be ignored, meant that the full benefit of cultivating the Rice Bowl last season was missed. Still, more than had seemed possible six months ago was planted by the end of the year, and I was able to see the sheer beauty of verdant rice fields when I visited.
I was also able to see shops stocked with goods, a saloon in operation, and traces even of what might have been a liquor bar, in the fervent camaraderie with which I was greeted by one of the returnees.
There is of course more to do, in terms of cleaning wells and ensuring a ready supply of water. Houses too need to be rebuilt, but there are more substantial ruins than in Kilinochchi, which suggests that the process here will not be quite so difficult. Signficantly, government had been able to rebuild the schools, and these were all in operation, though the problem of teacher shortages, which has nothing to do with the conflict, continues. I can only hope that, as part of a concerted programme of rehabilitation of these areas, recruitment of teachers from the area will be introduced as a matter of policy, to avoid the perennial difficulty of teachers from more developed areas seeking transfers the minute their appointments are confirmed.
There are other areas in which innovations would help, without sticking to the situation before the conflict. The army for instance had built a small runway, for use during the conflict, but this could be expanded into a small airfield for commercial flights. Many years ago Col Derrick Nugawela, who had been in charge of a couple of difficult areas during the 1971 JVP insurgency, had suggested developing domestic air transport as a means of ensuring rapid and effective communication, but the plea had been ignored.
Now, with a greater awareness that time is money, and the potential of Mannar as both a commercial and a tourist centre, it would make sense to move swiftly, before the customary lethargy of decision makers sets in. Certainly the need for rapid road transport has been recognized, and it looks like the railway too will be reconstructed soon, though I hope as a more comfortable and effective means of transport than previously.
Meanwhile, pleased as I was at all the progress in an area where I had been aware of the need for swift resettlement, I was also moved by a visit to another area in which I met some of the long term victims of the conflict. This was Rankethgama, in Vavuniya, a name I gathered had been created by President Premadasa when he reawakened a place that had been a sleepy hamlet for three hundred years previously.
That at least was what the villagers told me, led by a venerable old gentleman, who had been born there in 1933. In 1985 he had left, along with the rest, as the threat from Tigers and other militant groups became too severe. Some of them had come back in 2002, but in trepidation they said, and their fears had been realized as the Tigers flexed their muscles in the surrounding areas. They had left again rapidly, but this time, they made it clear, they had come back to stay.
Most of them however were old, and they said that the majority of their children would probably not return. The school significantly had not been rebuilt. Still, electricity lines had been laid, and the Water Board was there that day to look at the possibility of tube wells. The nearby tank was also in operation, and the paddy fields were flourishing.
There were also a few young people around, a young couple who were too busy clearing their compound to join us, a man who said he had gone away when he was 18, whose family now performed the duties of vel vidane, to distribute the water from the tank. While we were debating the merits of digging the tank deeper or raising the bund, we were joined by a veritable youngster, who said he had been three when his family left. He pointed out his mother’s house, very near the waterline on the other side, and said that he was getting ready to plant coconut trees along the edge. Raising the bund would spoil that plan. Since digging deeper would make the water difficult to access without pumping, it seemed that the tank was destined to remain as it had done for the last three centuries.
There were however problems about the land since, not in this village, but in neighbouring ones, squatters had taken over much of the land vacated when the owners fled in 1985. I was reminded then of what had happened in the East, when the government had resettled the recently displaced rapidly, only to be confronted with those who said they had been displaced previously, before the LTTE took over control of their lands and gave them to others.
Certainly it is necessary to move on these issues swiftly, taking advantage of the work in this field done earlier by the Ministry of Resettlement. Fortunately there is plenty of vacant land so I assume that, though the original claims will need to be honoured, the claims of those who took over these properties in good faith will not be dismissed entirely. They can surely be given some land in compensation in areas that could also be profitably cultivated.
These and other problems then require swift resolution. But the important thing is that people have come back in confidence. Whether it is Mannar or Vavuniya, or Kilinochchi or Mullaitivu, there is a sense that the conflict is over and life and work can resume. The people are resilient and hopeful. Already in Mannar we can see the tremendous impact of the new bridge, initiated so generously and so unswervingly by the Japanese government at a time when voices of doom were vociferous in other quarters as to such programmes.
Other countries too are now willing to follow in these constructive footsteps, and government must harness all such resources on behalf of people who suffered for too long. I have no doubt that, if government ensured that basic services, including utilities, are provided at the highest possible levels, if they work towards providing people with what they need to get on with their own lives, they will soon prosper in such fertile and productive areas of the country.