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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, June 20, 2005

New Lankan town is far cry from recovery model

The Standard: 17/06/2005" David Fox

Six months ago, the bustling Sri Lankan fishing town of Hambantota was virtually wiped off the map by the tsunami.

More than 2,000 people died - most of them on a narrow strip of land that separated the ocean from a lagoon - and more than 5,000 homes or business premises were destroyed.

So complete was the devastation authorities decided the southeastern town should not be rebuilt. Instead, it would be moved nearly 10 kilometers north to a more sheltered inland area as the first of several model towns in the reconstruction effort.

To great fanfare, the president broke ground on the project January 19. But rather than being a poster town in the reconstruction effort, it is fast becoming a symbol of the notoriously inefficient bureaucracy and an advertisement for what is wrong with the recovery plan.

``We acknowledge that progress could be better, but there is much to do,'' said district secretary MA Piyasena, the government's chief representative in the area.

The plan calls for more than 5,000 houses to be built around a civic centre that will include a business arcade, school, clinic, government offices and police station. So far, however, just 47 homes have been handed over - and they lack electricity and water.

Ananda Dunusinghe, a 38-year-old nurse, was among the first to be given keys to a new home, but he has mixed feelings about moving in.

``As you can see, there is nothing here,'' he said, as he helped workmen lay foundations for a water tank. ``I don't mind moving to this new area, but where are the facilities and services?''

The home, a modest four-roomed brick bungalow with an outside shower and toilet that cost 800,000 rupees (HK$142,480), was paid for by a charity - as have 800 identical homes in various stages of construction. His old home would have been worth up to five times that, but there is no compensation.

This angers Thambin Sithimani, the 71-year-old matriarch of a fishing family that had a house near the beach until the tsunami, which left nearly 39,000 dead or missing in Sri Lanka. Eleven in her family of 17 were killed.

The survivors in the family have been put on a waiting list for a house in ``new'' Hambantota against their will.

``We want to stay and rebuild,'' she says. ``Why would we move? There is no sea there. How can we go fishing?''

The family's plight reflects the inadequacies of hastily drawn-up reconstruction plans that in many cases appear to have failed to take into account the needs of locals.

In the old town, a smart government worker's house may well have been flanked by a truck driver's more humble abode and a fisherman's shack.

New Hambantota - every house and street exactly the same - will be populated by carefully vetted inhabitants, although the government has been careful to mix Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.

Aid workers and Sri Lankan planners say greater coordination is needed to ensure aid pledges of US$3 billion is not wasted.

But there is the story of a fishing village with a gift of new boats, but without engines. Another village gets a gift of outboard engines but no boats.

The homeless are presented with shelters of sheet metal too hot to spend more than a few minutes inside, while Muslims are given clothing that offends their sensibilities. REUTERS

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