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Overdependence on Diaspora remittances discourages from gainful employment and fuels conspicuous consumption, unproductive investments in places of worship, wasteful expenditure, and personal debt burden – Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan

Founder of and Principal Researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, development economist Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan spoke to the Nation regarding the economic, social, cultural, civil and political issues affecting the Northern and Eastern denizens. 
Q : What are the pressing economic issues faced by the people of the North?

A : Suboptimal competitiveness of the agriculture sector (including livestock and fisheries) which is partly due to inadequate rain or underground water, lagging technological advancement, and the overuse of water, chemical fertilizer and pesticides.

Risk averseness among the youth, and indeed the general population. An education system that is lagging far behind the aspirations of the youths. Hyper dependence on public sector employment. Overdependence on foreign remittances that disincentivizes gainful employment. The enduring lure of perceived greener pastures overseas.

The personal debt burden mainly fuelled by conspicuous consumption and the ‘demonstration effect’ (attempts to imitate the lifestyle of their friends and kith and kin abroad). The lack of a work ethic and industriousness coupled with a general lack of entrepreneurship.

Q : What are the problems ailing the agriculture and fisheries sectors in the said areas?

A : Technological deficit and the lack of innovation in agriculture (including in livestock and fisheries). Illegal poaching and bottom trawling by Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Northern seas. The lack of private and public investments in agriculture and fisheries.

Although the agriculture and fisheries occupations are hereditary (passed on from one generation to the next) the children of farmers and fisherpersons are shunning their family vocations which in turn has resulted in labour shortages.

Q : What is the Tamil Diaspora’s contribution to the financial situation of the denizens?

A : The remittances from the Diaspora are a significant source of the household income in all the Districts of the Northern Province, especially in the Jaffna District. While remittances make a positive contribution to the livelihoods of many people in the Province, it also fuels conspicuous consumption and unproductive investments in places of worship.
The traditional thrifty way of life of the Northern people is giving way to consumption fuelled unproductive and wasteful expenditures.

Q : What is the current status of the real estate market in the Northern Province?

A : Although the prices of real estate shot-up enormously in the early years of the post-civil war period it has stabilized in recent years. However, real estate prices in urban and semi-urban areas and areas adjacent to ‘A’ or ‘B’ class roads continue to be on an upward trend.

Q : Previously, Editor in Chief of the Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences, Director – Research at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (Kandy) and retired Emeritus Professor at the Department of Sociology of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Peradeniya, Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva highlighted that those of the vellala caste in Jaffna were denying lands to internally displaced persons from the panchamar castes, or depressed castes, and those from disadvantaged communities in camps and welfare centres within the Jaffna peninsula owing to the vellala landlords stranglehold on the real estate  market. Does the aforementioned instance of caste based discrimination including also that pertaining to inadequate political representation as noted by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and doctors from the medical specialists’ community in their submissions to the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms, exist?

A :I   do however support the call for greater or adequate political representation for the people of dispossessed castes in the North and beyond. Moreover, we have also urged for a caste census to be undertaken in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in order to address the real and perceived grievances of the people of dispossessed castes through affirmative action and policies.

Q : Spokesman of the Global Tamil Forum, Suren Surendiran recently pointed out that general healthcare in the Northern and Eastern hinterland was extremely poor. Is this the case?

A : On the health status of the Northern people, I am not sure whether the claim that the ‘general healthcare in the Northern and Eastern hinterland was extremely poor’ is right or wrong. Anyone making such a sweeping claim should provide evidence to back-up their claim. Without such evidence, such lofty claims become just political polemics even if they are true.

Having said that, I should however also point out the enduring challenges to the health of the populations of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, challenges which are largely conflict-induced and will take a very long time to heal, especially with regard to their psycho-social wellbeing.

There was a complete neglect of the previous Government in addressing the psycho-social needs of the post-war populations.

Q : What is the state of the rule of law, law and order, crime and punishment, and demilitarization in the Northern region and what is the impact of such on the economy of these areas?

A :The military deployment in the Northern Province should be proportional to the population of the Province as I have been arguing for a long time. There are 1.1 million people in the Northern Province and therefore 11,000 armed forces personnel are adequate for the purpose of national security; which works out to be one armed forces personnel for every 100 civilian persons.

The military enterprises and commercial activities of the armed forces should be stopped in order to facilitate the establishment of civil peace.

Q : What is the state of the process of giving original lands back and resettlement?

A : The lands and properties owned by the civilians which were forcibly confiscated or occupied by the armed forces during the course of the civil war should be returned to such civilians with compensation for the illegal possession of private property. This process is too slow and should be speeded-up.

Q : What do you make of the Northern political representation and the role played thus far by the Northern Provincial Council and the Local Government authorities?

A : Abysmal and extremely disappointing.

Q : What is the situation in relation to ex-cadres?

A : The Government, the civilian administration of the North and the general population at large are apathetic towards the former combatants. Former combatants, especially female combatants, should be given a basic income and/or skills training in order for them to eke out a livelihood.

Q : What are the problems faced by the youth in the areas including unemployment?

A : The real unemployment is much higher than what the official statistics would reveal.

Q : How is reconciliation faring in the region?

A : It is moving forward albeit at a snail’s pace.

Q : What are the particular administrative issues plaguing the areas?

A : Administrative apartheid as is the case in most areas of the country.

Q : What sort of constitutional reforms are in your experience being expected by the citizens in the said areas?

A : For me an enforceable equal opportunities (in terms of gender, ethnicity, caste,
sexuality, etc) law is sine qua non for any constitutional reforms to be meaningful.

Q : What about the efforts and measures taken by the Government of Sri Lanka with regard to all the aforementioned concerns?

A : Largely at a snail’s pace, and at times lukewarm.

Q : Is the merger of the North and the East a common request of those living in the areas?

A : No, I do not think so; I am saying this from my gut feeling and not by way of any survey of opinion or any other scientific method.