When Sri Lanka’s long-drawn civil war ended in May 2009, the Tamil majority northern and eastern provinces of the country had been laid waste. Many Tamils living in these areas, who survived the war, were placed in refugee camps from where they were released in batches over the years to areas that had been cleared of land mines and other hazards. While some returned to areas they belonged to, others were resettled elsewhere as the Sri Lankan government demarcated their villages as high security zones, with some still waiting to leave the camps.

The majority of refugees who were resettled returned to destroyed homes and overgrown lands.

“Our lands had been overtaken by jungle shrubs and we found them infested with wild animals,” recalled Prema, a single mother of five in Mannar in the Northern Province. “Snakes, wild pigs and elephants were running amok. We did not possess the funds necessary to clear our lands at that time. So we sheltered under trees until aid agencies came to our rescue with temporary shelters for us to live in.”

The temporary shelters were made of corrugated iron and tin sheets, meant to provide accommodation for only six months, but they have served as homes for three to five years and more. There are still people living in these shelters today for lack of a better option, even though many such structures have become derelict.

Dream houses

Three years after the war ended, the government of India signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sri Lankan government to build about 50,000 permanent homes for the war-affected people of the island nation. When the agreement was signed, people were ecstatic. They had lost all their belongings in the war, and having a permanent roof over their heads was but a dream.

Under the $270 million project that is nearing completion, 41,950 two-room stone house units with an attached kitchen and toilet were built while a further 1,000 damaged houses were repaired.

Under the project, each beneficiary was given approximately Rs 2.5 lakhs in staggered instalments to construct the house. The instalments were released as the construction progressed. This was meant to ensure that people used the grant only for its intended purpose.

The Indian government enlisted the help of several high-profile aid agencies such as UN-Habitat, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Habitat for Humanity and the Sri Lankan government’s National Housing Development Authority as implementing partners in a supervisory capacity.

However, the grant was not enough as it costs between Rs 3.4 lakhs and Rs 3.6 lakhs to build the most basic house in Sri Lanka. The shortfall in each grant was estimated to be Rs 1.15 lakh that the beneficiaries were later asked to contribute to.

Debt trap?

Despite the aid, however, some beneficiaries struggled to construct their houses.

The problems people faced ranged from the large amount of paperwork aspiring project beneficiaries were required to submit, the project design that required beneficiaries to contribute labour towards the construction of the house, and cost overruns that resulted in impoverished beneficiaries having to take high-interest loans from banks and moneylenders to complete construction, which many could ill afford.

For instance, applicants had to fulfil rigorous criteria to prove that they were genuinely war affected, were in need of a house, and possessed titles to their own land. While this was necessary to ensure that the process of choosing beneficiaries was transparent, it was difficult for people who had been displaced for years and had lost everything in the war to get hold of the required papers.

Also, though the Indian government prioritised certain special needs groups such as war widows and the war-disabled for the project – the project design did not take their specific needs into account. For instance, when it became clear that the grant money was not enough to construct the house, implementing agencies told beneficiaries that they had to contribute towards the shortfall. This was a problem for these special needs groups.

J Nirmala, an aid agency employee and activist working in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, said that the housing project was designed to suit a family with an able-bodied male as the head of the family, who could help with the construction of the house as well as supplement the grant’s shortfall with his own earnings.

“Nuclear families that had such an able-bodied man about the house were able to build the housing with relatively little difficulty,” said Nirmala. “Yet most of the families left behind in these regions are those of war-widows and war-disabled men. They were not equipped to put in the bodily labour work needed, or earn the Rs 115,000 [Indian] that was the shortfall...”

With most of the war-ravaged people working as daily wage labourers, several beneficiaries who took loans to construct their houses are struggling to pay off their debts. Over the years, this has led to threats of foreclosure of the newly-built houses on land mortgaged by banks, along with attempted suicides by the traumatised beneficiaries.

S Niranjan, consul (development-cooperation) at the Indian consulate in Jaffna, admitted that though a pilot study had been conducted the cost overruns due to inflation were unforeseen.

“We did a pilot study in the provinces before we launched the project that made us believe that this amount was enough,” said Niranjan. “However, due to later inflation in cement and other materials’ prices, many people did struggle to complete their houses within this allocated grant money.”

Indian Consul General A Natarajan, who is stationed in Jaffna, said that hiccups were bound to happen in a project this size.

“Imagine planning for something as simple as a family wedding? How many months would you plan in advance to make it go off without a hitch?” said Natarajan. “And even then you would experience some hiccups along the way due to unforeseen and uncharted challenges. Extrapolate that then to what the Indian government tried to gift the Sri Lankans. Of course some things went awry and we drew a lot of criticism for it.”

But the housing project had unanticipated positive spin-offs too.

Said A Selvarasa, 32, a farm labourer who had taken up masonry work as it was more profitable: “For as long as the project lasted, able-bodied men in these areas did not lack for work opportunities. Everybody became masons and carpenters overnight and we were able to earn well with it.”

Exploitation of women

However, there were also whispers of far more serious transgressions against the beneficiaries that were aired occasionally and then hushed up such as the sexual abuse of women, especially war widows.

Like Prema, there are many war widows struggling with the traumas of the war while bringing up their children as single parents in a traditional Tamil community that has not equipped them to be breadwinners.

“The women were vulnerable,” said an aid worker who declined to be identified. “In a culture where widows are heavily stigmatised and marginalised, where there would be heavy social repercussions of being seen even talking to men, where they were not equipped to know anything about carpentry and masonry work, where they were not equipped to be breadwinners either but had to pay out significant amounts of money in order to complete the house – what would you expect? The builders robbed them blind, and often tried to take advantage of their vulnerability to gain sexual favours.”

The allegations have mostly not been proven. “Only one Jaffna based paper carried allegations of this sexual abuse. I did not hear of it from any other quarter,” said Natarajan. “These allegations were taken so seriously however that they were discussed all the way up in the Indian Parliament.”

Natarajan added: “At the end of the day, we fail to see how the Sri Lankan people could fault the Indian government even if such transgressions did take place…If despite all this strategic care, some women were abused under this project, it is their own fellow Sri Lankan men who are culpable, for which we should not be held answerable.”

Indian project the most suitable?

Though many war survivors in the northern and eastern provinces are yet to get permanent houses, various other housing projects sponsored by the Sri Lankan government and other countries are expected to make up for the shortfall. However, these projects have been criticised for their lack of suitability to the environment and terrain, the people’s needs, and for the lack of transparency and accountability in choosing beneficiaries. Thus many people agree that the Indian Housing Project was the most suitable despite its shortcomings.

A house constructed under the Indian housing project. (Photo credit: Indian High Commission, Sri Lanka).

Housing security

For instance, while some countries like Saudi Arabia have funded housing projects, they are for Muslims only. Similarly, the Sri Lankan government signed a deal with Indian-French steel giant ArcelorMittal to provide 65,000 pre-fabricated houses at the cost of Rs 9.5 lakhs each but this project is being criticised as the cost of each house is several lakhs more than the cost of a house funded by the Indian government. The Sri Lanka-ArcelorMittal houses also use far inferior materials that are not suited to the people’s needs or the environment. While the Indian houses are solid structures made of stone and cement, the ArcelorMittal-Sri Lanka project houses are attractive but flimsy pre-fabricated structures.

The Sri Lanka-ArcelorMittal houses cost Rs 9.5 lakhs each but have been criticised for being more expensive than the India-sponsored houses and for the use of inferior construction materials. (Photo credit: Humans of Northern Sri Lanka/Facebook).

As the Indian housing project draws to a close, several stone houses dot regions where tin shacks once stood.

R Kala, 26, a single mother of one, is relieved that she finally has a roof over her head despite the fact that she is in debt. “I had to go into severe debt and contemplated suicide several times during the process of house building,” recalled Kala. “Now, however, it’s finally over. I am still in debt but I am slowly paying it back. It’s humiliating to get lambasted by debt collectors when I don’t have enough money to pay them, but at the end of the day, I do have the security of my house to sleep in. It means a lot to me and my son, and I am thankful that the Indian government facilitated it.”

“Nothing worth gaining is gained without stress, sweat and tears,” said Palasivarasa, 74, a farmer from the war-torn Vanni region, who was displaced along with his family in 1983, and only returned 27 years later.

“When we finally saw our village in 2010, we found our houses destroyed, our wells caved in, and our lands overtaken by forest,” he said.

He added: “For nearly 30 years as we were displaced, my family and I were dependent on the goodwill of strangers who would allow us to set up a hut on their land. To now finally have this security of my own permanent house on my own land is not something I could have achieved on my own, so soon after the war ended. I’ll be paying off debts for quite a while but it is worth it. If this message is going to reach the Indian government and the Indian people, please tell them we said thank you.”

Another criticism of the Sri Lanka-ArcelorMittal homes is that they do not take into account local needs. For instance this modern kitchen in a pre-fabricated home has arrangements for a gas stove while most low- and average-income families in Jaffna use wood for their cooking as it is cheaper. (Photo credit: Humans of Northern Sri Lanka/Facebook).

Thulasi Muttulingam is a freelance journalist based in northern Sri Lanka.