Lack of proper planning leads to ad hoc development in Batticaloa

By: S. Somitharan - Spotlight

Two years into the ceasefire and weeks before a general election that certain political parties are using as a referendum to measure their performance on managing the peace process, senior NGO officials in Batticaloa expressed deep disturbance about the quality of rehabilitation and development of the past two years, the infrastructure laid to carry out such tasks and the politicisation of the delivery of these services.

Officials of the NGO Consortium in Batticaloa claim that that the major portion of the rehabilitation and development work that has been going on in the district has been undertaken by NGOs. The government’s initiatives in both these crucial areas have been minimal if not nonexistent in the Tamil areas of the district.“There has been very little assistance coming from the ministry of eastern development. The government says it does not have the money, which has left most of the initiatives in the hands of the NGOs,” said S. Rajan, president of the NGO Consortium, Batticaloa.

The Ceasefire Agreement, of which the government of Sri Lanka is one of the two signatories, speaks about the restoration of normalcy as a vital task for the peace process to be enduring and be meaningful for the people of the northeast who have suffered immeasurably in the past 20 years. Though it refrains from mentioning rehabilitation and development explicitly, the removal of checkpoints, vacation by the military of public buildings, permission for the movement of non-military goods and services to the LTTE-controlled areas and the opening of roads closed due to the conflict were ways whereby rehabilitation and development of the war-affected areas would be facilitated.

The Consortium coordinates work between the 14 international NGOs (INGOs) and the 43 local NGOs working in Batticaloa that are registered with the body. It is the INGOs that bring the funding and usually work through local NGO partners. The Consortium plays a role in the selection and allocation of projects to the NGOs and INGOs. Another area that comes within the purview of the Consortium is that of restricting wastage of funds and facilitating their optimum utilisation, which is controlled by ensuring there is no duplication of work. Finally, the monitoring of progress is also the task of this body.

In a situation where there is step-motherly treatment meted out to the Tamil areas by the ministry of eastern development, senior members of the Consortium, officials working in the Batticaloa kachcheri and the LTTE were unanimous that very little rehabilitation and development work was possible in Batticaloa.

“There has to be an overall plan that identifies and prioritises certain tasks over others and there has to be coordination between different projects for sustainable overall development. But there is no acceptable overall plan for Batticaloa,” said Rajan.

He went on to say that the Consortium tried its best to approve plans that were not ad hoc despite the absence of this overall framework. But the Consortium could not enforce norms and standards when INGOs and NGOs came up with work plans or when projects did not meet the required criteria because it did not have the legal authority of enforcement. The body only had a social legitimacy derived from the fact it was working with the people and for the people.

“Though we try to see the overall ecological balance is not upset, there is scant regard to the environment when plans are drawn up and implemented. For instance most of these plans leave no provision for cyclones that have devastated the east in the past,” said Rajan.

He contrasted this with what was taking place in Jaffna, where the Jaffna Development Programme or the Jaffna Plan was of prime importance in providing a framework for the development and rehabilitation tasks in the district. He said there was also a degree of legitimacy enjoyed by the Jaffna Plan because of the input of resource persons, scholars, intellectuals and the government administration. This had been done with foreign collaboration and paid by non-governmental sources as well.

In 1993 the presidential mobile service had undertaken a survey and a needs assessment of Batticaloa highlighting the requirements of the agriculture, fisheries, industrial and other sectors. Civil society, the LTTE and government officials say another study of a similar sort has to take place to update and refine the findings of the survey, but that it has not been done.

The business takes on a questionable hue however with allegations leveled by government officials at the Batticaloa kachcheri who refused to be named, claiming that a private company was entrusted with the task of drawing up the Eastern Development plan last year but that it had been openly favouring the areas of Muslim habitation and neglecting the Tamil ones.

“Both the Batticaloa District Development Committee and SIHRN, rejected this report,” said the official. SIHRN is the Sub-committee for Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs, set up under the Ceasefire Agreement with both government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE playing equal roles to identify and implement rehabilitation projects. SIHRN has since become defunct.

These sources also claimed that the document merely reflected and formalised what was in practical existence in the east, where the government initiatives under Minister of Eastern Development Rauff Hakeem openly discriminated against the Tamils who were affected in favour of the Muslims. These sources also said while there are NGOs that work in both the Tamil and Muslim areas, some NGOs worked exclusively in the Muslim areas, funded by countries that had a special interest in seeing the development of the Muslim areas of the district.

A Muslim resident of Batticaloa, while admitting that the Tamil areas in the district had suffered greater devastation than the Muslim ones said the bias towards the Muslim areas in rehabilitation work was inevitable. They said the SLMC and UNP Muslims had formed the government and ministers giving preferences to their constituencies were a fact of life. “Look at Douglas Devananda, when he was minister in the PA he supported areas, which he believed he could use for political advantage,” a Muslim resident said.

The feeling that government machinery could not be harnessed for rehabilitation or development work in the Batticaloa District had led to NGOs to assume a disproportionate share of the burden in the district’s rehabilitation. Since the INGOs were the principal donors they could either work through the kachcheri or the NGO Consortium to implement their projects.

“Certain Colombo-based NGOs however liase directly with the kachcheri and are given permission to do projects in the district. This adds to the ad hoc nature of the projects and the fact that they are not implemented according to principles of sustainability,” said Rajan.

He said if the Consortium protested that development was not taking place in keeping with the greater good of the area, certain INGOs took the criticism in bad part as interference in their work and threatened to withdraw. Caught between the option of implementing projects that were not strictly in conformity with overall goals of sustainable development and having at least minimal rehabilitation and development however inadequate, he said the Consortium preferred the latter and only advised NGOs and INGOs, but refrained from enforcing minimum standards on their work.

At a time when the UNF would be sticking its neck out claiming it has undertaken so much for the Tamils to make the peace process a reality, it will be useful to ponder on the shortcomings of the government’s systems of delivering rehabilitation, and chaos springing from the lack of planned development in the Batticaloa District.

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