ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Rebuilding the Post-War North

If the Tamil National Alliance, consisting of a hodgepodge of actors, is to steady its course after winning elections to the Northern Province in Sri Lanka, Tamil professionals, intellectuals and leaders of social organisations need to become vocal about the economic concerns of Tamil population and in that process give substance to Tamil aspirations.

As the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in Sri Lanka led by Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran convenes on October 25th, 2013, economic problems have come to the fore in the North. Street wisdom in Jaffna rightly understands the market’s devastating impact after the war as well as much needed investment in factories and new avenues of employment. While these economic challenges also exist in the rest of the country, the North was for decades disconnected from the market and did not accumulate capital necessary for investment. Its production facilities – for carpentry, dairy and palm products – are decades behind, with little local capital to upgrade workshops and factories to meet competition from southern companies and multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the two major sectors responsible for livelihoods are also not delivering: agricultural incomes are crippled by successive crop failures and fluctuations in market prices, while fisheries are devastated by Indian trawlers poaching the Northern seas. Investing on infrastructure and banking on finance capital, the state’s development agenda has done little for rural livelihoods. In fact, faster roads have facilitated the expansion of the market, undermining local production, while unrestrained access to credit and pawning has created an indebted population.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan has been forthright in articulating that the immediate priority is the war-affected population’s livelihoods, even as the longer-term challenge of a political solution remains. This is a welcome change for Tamil politics, a politics that has always been in the opposition and has never governed. This new approach, however, has come under some attack by narrow nationalist sections of the Jaffna middle-class and Tamil diaspora. For decades previously, Tamil politics dwelled on ideological concerns about nationhood to the detriment of economic and social concerns. And now, the tension between economic life and ideological posturing has created an important shift in Tamil politics. The NPC’s plans to address livelihoods concerns and its medium term economic programme to reconstruct the war-torn region are its urgent and important challenges.

Lawyering to Economic Empowerment

A major drawback in Tamil politics has been its singular reliance on the law and the dominance of lawyers. Historically, this limited vision of politics rarely went beyond the lawyer’s brief, as if legal arguments on constitutional powers and rights could transform state and society. As for the economy, Tamil nationalist discourse assumed that with self-rule the northern economy would be miraculously transformed into a Singapore. The history, geopolitics or even the desirability of a technocratic city state such as Singapore were not considered.

In this context, chief minister Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court judge, while swearing in TNA members of the NPC spoke only of transparency and accountability; his vision for transforming the North remained unarticulated. More problematically, in his speech, Wigneswaran quoted the Indian leader (chief minister of Gujarat) Narendra Modi on people-oriented governance. At a time when the TNA needs to rebuild relations with the Muslim community, is Wigneswaran ignorant of Modi’s culpability in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat? The political economic vision of the TNA, including those of its chief minister, require urgent rethinking if the TNA is to seize the opening brought by the NPC election.

The immediate challenge for the NPC, whose moves are watched expectantly by the local population, will be to address the economic crisis. In the first six months of its office, it needs to focus on food security while launching a medium term economic programme. Negotiating a solution to the Palk Bay fishing crisis, uplifting the farmers’ incomes by controlling market fluctuations, addressing the rising cost of living and building factories to employ and provide steady incomes, should all be important concerns for the NPC.

The lack of employment with regular incomes is a central problem in the North. With the post-war construction boom, many agricultural and fishing households turned to mason work. But with the larger population now heavily indebted, pawning and mortgaging their assets for day to day consumption, even the housing schemes – including India’s 50,000 houses – may come to a screeching halt. When families are in hunger any funds including for house construction will be used for food. In addition, the north-eastern monsoon does not bode well for construction labour and others dependent on daily wage work. Meanwhile, with indebtedness resulting in defaults on loans, rural credit has tightened; those who survived on debt may now face starvation. While poverty and malnutrition have begun to ravage the population, the lot of women-headed households is, in particular, desperate.

Solutions to such economic problems require the participation of the local population. For this to happen, the TNA must change its role, from a party that mainly articulated political grievances of the Tamils to the international actors, to one that engages the variety of cooperative unions, farmers’ organisations and educational institutions, which are the backbone of Jaffna's society. The NPC should also use its good offices with the support of the centre to engage international donors including India for aid to address both the immediate livelihood needs and medium term investment to create employment.

Towards Democratisation

The existing Provincial Council system is riddled with problems. First, the constraints on devolved powers under a unitary state and second, even the limited provincial powers were never activated. Some progressive quarters understand the importance of the TNA taking an approach of cooperation with the centre and activating the less contentious powers and initiating the work of the NPC. Drafting statutes for the NPC to govern and a strategy for financial devolution is important. Creating such momentum will be critical to negotiate more contentious police and land powers, to make a major push towards demilitarisation and to work towards a longer-term political solution when the political climate is conducive in the south.

Tamil public engagement came to a standstill when Tamil militancy took over politics decades ago, particularly with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's authoritarian campaign of eliminating dissent. But the NPC elections have created public optimism and an opening. If the TNA, consisting of a hodgepodge of actors, is to steady its course, Tamil professionals, intellectuals and more importantly leaders of social organisations need to become vocal about the economic concerns of Tamil population and in that process give substance to Tamil aspirations. Such progressive engagement can also serve to neutralise the pull on the TNA by opportunistic and extremist sections in the country and in the Tamil diaspora who continue to be wedded to a polarising separatist agenda.

The major obstacle the TNA may face is from the Rajapaksa regime which has done much to undermine devolution and polarise the communities in the interest of its own consolidation in the post-war years. Politics in the country are characterised by authoritarianism; politicised state structures are such that the president can easily undermine the working of the NPC. Furthermore, aggravating inequality and uneven development are characteristic of the regime’s neoliberal development policies in the entire country. Any progressive economic programme of the NPC will be constrained by the regime’s push for centralisation, financialisation and the expansion of the market to the detriment of social welfare. That is a dilemma not just for Tamil politics but democratic politics more generally in Sri Lanka. And for that very reason, progressives from all three communities, Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese, must confront the politics of polarisation and jointly persevere for democratisation.

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