The situation was even more acute in highly densely populated Kalmunai and Maruthamunai, which had the highest death toll in the whole country. More than 11,300 died in Kalmunai alone. It did not seem practically possible to find suitable land in sufficient quantity within a reasonable distance from the sea in these areas for the affected fisher families to be relocated.
There was no vacant land even to set up a temporary camp for the displaced. ‘Settlements have extended right to the edge of the sea because of the lack of land. Here, relocation can only mean migration to an area many miles away. I do not think anyone is prepared for it. I certainly am not’, said a displaced person in Kalmunai. The other displaced fishers I met in Kalmuani and Maruthamunai expressed similar sentiments. One of them said, "We are not opposing relocation blindly. If land were available beyond say 50 meters from the sea, I would consider relocating. The important point is that 100 or 200 meters buffer zone makes no sense here. Perhaps some may have other options, but for most of us there is no option but to return to our coast, start fishing and rebuild our lives."
He said that about 50 meters of land was already lost to sea as a result of the tsunami and complained that it was difficult to do coastal fishing because debris had been dumped on the coast. The fishers of Kalmunai staged a mass demonstration on 24 February, nearly two months after the tsunami, to voice their demands and concerns. They demanded free and exclusive access to the proposed buffer zone and registered their opposition to any future use of their lands for security camps or tourist hotels and industries. They appealed for financial assistance to rebuild their fishing assets.
The displaced from Kathiraveli, which lies in an LTTE-controlled area, seemed to have reached a consensus to relocate. There were 275 families living in tents provided by an international NGO, which they said was doing things in close consultation with them. There were another 138 families from the neighbouring village of Poochakerni in the same camp. Many from these two groups practised both fishing and farming and some were also migrant workers. ‘We have suffered too much to go back to the same place to live. We lost 53 lives. We have decided to move to a safer area. There is enough land for all of us. An international organisation has promised to assist us’, said a spokesperson.
However, there was a dissenting voice. ‘I want to go back to where I have lived for 45 years. My land is just outside the 200 meters limit. It has a well and I have already started putting up a hut there. The land identified for relocation is a bit too far from the coast. I am sure there will be practical problems regarding taking care of the boats and nets, which have to be left on the beach. People will realise only after moving there’, said a 60 years old man. ‘Of course, we are not giving up our lands. We shall put up wadiyas (huts) on our beach to keep our nets and other things and for us to stay. The Grama Sevaka (village officer) has informed us that the government in Colombo will not take our land’, said the spokesperson. A woman sounded a sceptical note: ‘Yes but what does the Grama Sevaka know about the plans the government may have? Has any government kept its word in this country? We have an acre of homestead with some coconut trees. I did a lot of home gardening and I will go back to our land and start doing it again. My husband is a fisherman and I am a farmer. We must have at least a hut on our land so that we can continue to practise both."
She said that soon after the tsunami when the international NGO asked them what their first priority was they had said ‘housing’ in one voice. The NGO then began to work on their first priority. ‘But now, after two months of living on relief, we feel reviving our own economic activities is also equally important. Now we think it was a mistake not to make both housing and getting back to fishing or some other work such as farming as the first priority.’
A young fisherman responded: "Well, we have missed a great opportunity to make some good money because we don’t have our boats and prawn nets. This is the prawn season, which began in January and will last till the end of March. A man known to me made 30,000 rupees the other day because he had a big catch of high value prawns. His boat was not damaged because it was anchored in a safe place.’ He said that ideally there should have been a scheme to provide them with soft loans to revive their fishing during the prawn season, as it would have helped them recover faster with the high income from prawns. He was not talking of grants but soft loans to invest in the basic capital goods to revive fishing. He was aware that banks would not lend to disaster-stricken, assetless fishers. He talked of a special group credit scheme involving the fishermen’s organisation and a willing NGO as partners. ‘But I am not going to wait for it. This is just an idea, which might not interest anyone. Now I am prepared to do any job including farm labour in neighbouring Sinhalese areas until I am able to return to fishing’, he said.
Perceptions regarding post-tsunami reconstruction in the South
A widespread view among the people I met in the East was that the government, while neglecting them, was providing a lot of assistance to tsunami victims in the South. ‘I have been listening to the radio ever since the tsunami struck’, said a displaced man from Thambiluvil, ‘everyday a new programme is being launched by some minister in the South. The President opened a big project in Hambantota the other day. Something is happening there everyday but nothing here. Many ministers and powerful politicians are there to take care of them.’ It was quite common to hear such statements.
Apparently, they were not aware yet of the complaints and protests by the tsunami victims in the South. When I told them about this, the immediate response was, ‘well we should start our own protests too’. They had serious doubts about the commitment and capacity of the government to address their grievances. However, everyone, Tamil and Muslim, I spoke to remembered with deep feelings the material and moral support they received from fellow Lankans. In Kathiraveli, Tamils recalled with emotions how a Sinhalese from far away Moneragala and some Muslims from a neighbouring area brought cooked food for them.
Need for Rethinking
The government’s decision to introduce a buffer zone without consulting the people concerned has created confusion and uncertainty amongst them. Recently, the government has publicised the steps it was taking regarding the enforcement of the buffer zone, housing of tsunami-affected people and tourism development. ‘The government’, says an official advertisement, ‘will set up special Tourism Zones covering all the tourist areas in the coastal belt. These zones will have modern infrastructure with an unencumbered view and access to the coast. There will be special incentives provided to promote sustainable and value added tourism.’ (Daily Mirror, March 2, 2005)
The most widespread concern among the coastal communities in the country as a whole is that that the government has framed post-tsunami reconstruction as a programme of privatisation and commercialisation of the coastal zone and marine resources without paying adequate attention to their long-term livelihood security. The fishing communities in particular have valid reasons to fear that they may lose their customary rights to coastal zone resources. An activist in the south of the country told me that, ‘the policy of tourism development and large-scale privatisation of fisheries is likely to accelerate the ongoing marginalisation and exclusion of sections of the coastal communities. Tourist hotels and the recreation industry will effectively privatise long tracts of our beaches. There will of course be some local beneficiaries but many small fishers including women are likely to lose their traditional livelihoods and become displaced and unemployed or under-employed. This is why we are speaking of a second tsunami and the only way to prevent it is to defend the right to livelihood of the vulnerable sections of the coastal communities.’ Campaigns and protests have already been mounted in the South and in the East. The signs are clear that the people are not happy with the government’s policy and its handling of post-tsunami recovery. In many parts of the North-East, post tsunami reconstruction cannot easily be separated from the tasks of rebuilding war-torn communities and livelihoods. The government and the LTTE have yet to reach an understanding regarding a joint mechanism for reconstruction. An opportunity to link reconstruction, reconciliation and peacebuilding seems to be drifting away. The use of emergency regulations and militarisation to enforce the buffer zone is ill advised. The consequences could be disastrous if this is not abandoned in favour of a better informed and more realistic approach that would take account of the ecological and socio-economic variations and the views of the affected people in the coastal zones of Sri Lanka.