The Sri Lankan government will give top priority to COVID-19 vaccination and livelihood support in the Tamil-majority North and East of the island nation, according to an official tasked with overseeing the efforts.
Nearly 60,000 people across the Northern Province — Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya — and about 74,000 people in the Eastern Province —Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara — have received both doses of the vaccine, according to Geethanath Cassilingham, coordinating secretary to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“We should be able to fully vaccinate everyone over 30 years of age very soon,” said Mr. Cassilingham, who is also the Resettlement Facilitator for the North and East. Locals are hoping for wide vaccine coverage in the region so they can return to their jobs. There is some vaccine hesitancy in the community, according to Sureshkumar Ushanandini, president of a Kilinochchi-based organisation of women who are sole bread winners in their families. “We need credible information on the vaccines, like who should avoid them, and what symptoms to look for in case of a reaction. The government could use its network of midwives to take this message to the community effectively.” she said.
The vaccination drive, however, cannot by itself turn the tide of economic distress, unless the government redoubles its efforts towards resettlement and livelihood revival, residents said. Although the pandemic has severely impacted the national economy and livelihoods across the country, families living in the North and East are worse off, as they were already struggling to put the devastating effects of a long civil war behind them. Studies have found that a quarter of those households are headed by women.
Survivors of the war have repeatedly blamed the former Mahinda Rajapaksa administration [2005-2015] for their persisting economic hardships. While officials point to “an estimated $1 billion” post-war investment on infrastructure in the area, people’s lives hardly show a corresponding improvement.
In fact, most families in the northern and eastern districts resorted to predatory microfinance loans to survive during the last decade, getting entangled in a stifling web of debt. The successor Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government [2015-2019] introduced some programmes to support indebted families but failed to see them through.
If housing needs in the area have increased, with families multiplying over time, retrieving land remains a challenge as owners return to their former plots, held by the military until recently. After successive governments’ efforts, some 3,500 families who were internally displaced remain to be resettled, data shared by an official source showed. While military-held land has been returned to the people in many areas, at least a few thousand acres of state and private land, including some six school buildings in Jaffna, are still with the tri-forces, according to the data.
“We are working with all stakeholders to ensure housing needs are met swiftly, and people are provided with land,” Mr. Cassilingham said. Additionally, building “strong livelihoods” in the agriculture and fisheries sectors is a “key priority”, he added.
Land, that is closely tied to people’s livelihoods, is being fiercely contested in the region, according to N. Vethanayahan, a former top bureaucrat, who has served as Government Agent [corresponds to the district collector in India] in all four northern districts.
“People’s lands, including agricultural lands, in many areas have been gazetted as forest lands now. They should be re-gazetted and returned to the people, who are the rightful owners of those lands,” he said.
On pending projects, he said completing the development of the Palaly airport and the Kankesanthurai Harbour in Jaffna – both India-backed – is crucial to drawing investments as well as creating jobs.
Twelve years have passed since the civil war ended, but the Tamils, especially women, of the north and east are yet to receive suitable support to sustain themselves economically, Ms. Ushanandini observed. “The government needs to focus on boosting production, value addition, and then access to markets. We need more manufacturing units or factories to come up here and provide jobs. All these have to happen for our battered economy to be revived,” she said.
The government also needs a clear plan for families who are still in India [about 1 lakh refugees] and are waiting to return, according to Mr. Vethanayahan. “They need support with documentation, land, and housing,” he said.