By Swasthika Arulingam
In July this year, a conference on social justice was held at the Jaffna Public Library. Amongst the many topics discussed in the conference were the social and economic challenges faced by the Jaffna Muslims amidst an incomplete and flawed process of resettlement.
Badusha Rameez, an activist and a returnee Muslim, spoke at the conference. She spoke of her struggles to resettle in Jaffna and secure a safe environment to live in. She said her story like many other Muslims have been that of discrimination and degradation by the authorities in Jaffna. The message was clear to her community from the bureaucracy. Go elsewhere. Do not come back here.
Two weeks after Badusha spoke at the conference a case was filed against her and two other Muslim women by the Department of Agrarian Development. They were charged for building houses on paddy land without obtaining permission from the Department.
Bureaucratic barricades to housing grants
Badusha is from one of the 2,115 Muslim families who registered to return to Jaffna after the war in 2009. The Government at that time had put an advertisement in the newspaper calling all families to return. However, due to lack of assistance in rebuilding houses and livelihood opportunities, almost 90% of the families remain a floating population between their districts of displacement and Jaffna.
When the 50,000 Indian Housing scheme was implemented in 2012, less than 30 Jaffna Muslims were approved for housing even though more than 300 applied. Only after protests and heavy lobbying was the number increased to about 50. Following this another 10,000 houses were granted by the Resettlement Ministry to the war-affected districts. Out of this only 74 slots were allocated to returnee Muslims in Jaffna and that too again after considerable pressure was applied on officials in Colombo.
Hundreds of Muslim applicants were rejected in the last seven years by the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat’s Office on grounds of not having proper title to land and not showing proof of continuous residence in Jaffna. The Muslim families have consistently claimed that it is not possible for urban families like themselves to live in temporary shacks for years while waiting for permanent houses. Lack of sanitary facilities, unclean environment and security concerns have pushed these families to live in a state of limbo between Jaffna and other districts since 2009.
The Jaffna bureaucracy has taken this as a criterion to adjudge that the returnee families have permanent houses elsewhere. In line with this thinking, sudden spot checks were done during the day time to see if families are present in their temporary residence, when a list of eligible recipients were prepared for the Indian Housing project. Families stated that if the house was empty at the time of visit by an official, they were automatically rejected from the housing grant. There were no further efforts to verify claims by the returning Muslims.
Unused paddy land
Prof. Shahul Hasbullah of Peradeniya University, in an advocacy document, has identifies at least 800 plots of readily available land in Jaffna, which can be used for housing for returnee Muslims. One such area is Paracheriweli a coastal land which officials claim is a paddy land. However according to the Farmers’ Organisation and locals this land has not been used for cultivation at least since the 1980s.
Before their displacement in 1990, Muslim and Tamil families had bought plots of lands in this area and were converting them in to a small community settlement. Foundations of houses and a bakery, wells and broken walls of a mosque are the only remaining signs of the old settlement. Everything else was destroyed due to heavy shelling of the area before and after 1990.
Paracheriweli was already a settlement area for returnee Tamil families when Badusha together with four other families came to resettle in 2013. However three families opted to stay in nearby rented houses till they obtained housing assistance.
Badusha, who could not afford to pay rent, constructed a temporary shack and resided in that area. It was only when she became eligible for the Indian Housing Scheme and sought permission from the Municipal Council and the Department of Agrarian Development to build a house, did the authorities intervene and prohibit construction.
According to sources, out of the 26 applicants (21 Tamil families and five Muslim families) who sought permission to build houses in Paracheriweli in 2014, 18 Tamil families were granted permission by the Department of Agrarian Development. Two Muslim families appealed directly to the Commissioner General of the Department in Colombo and obtained permission. It was only six families who were refused permission.
Many reasons were given by the officials for denying permission. One official told the families that the authorities have plans to recommence cultivation. Another said Jaffna rain water recedes into the sea through this area and hence housing construction will block the water flow.
A recent report prepared by the Government Agent of Jaffna on 10 October claimed amongst other reasons that this area functions as a water catchment area needed to preserve the ground water in Jaffna. This report also advised that it was unwise to continue settlements in light of the harm which may ensue to the families in that area and in adjacent areas.
However none of these concerns seem to have prevented the authorities from allowing 20 families to build houses on the same land. Nor were they compelling enough for the authorities to prevent new constructions coming up as late as 2014.
Northern Provincial Council resolution
The urgency to resolve the resettlement issue of the Jaffna Muslims have been highlighted by different Government officials and agencies attached to the Central Government. In 2015, the Northern Province Governor wrote a letter addressing the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture requesting these lands to be allocated for housing. Over the last year, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, headed by Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, also took an active role in advocating with relevant officials to resolve this matter.
The Northern Provincial Council which had until recently maintained silence on the issue of Muslim resettlement passed a resolution on 27 October. This resolution requested the Government Agent of Jaffna and the Department of Agrarian Development to convert paddy lands found in the Pommaweli and Paracheriweli areas into high lands for the purpose of Muslim resettlement. It is to be noted that this resolution was passed few weeks after the Government Agent’s report had recommended not to settle persons until further study has been conducted.
Central Government apathy towards Muslim resettlement
The Governor’s letter and the Northern Provincial Council resolution highlight the unsuitability of the Paracheriweli land for cultivation due to high saline content in the soil. Both documents also stress that the land has not been used for cultivation for decades. Yet the Agrarian Development Act No. 46 of 2000 has brought a land unsuitable for paddy cultivation under its purview. In addition, the Jaffna town area with an expanding population and dense housing spaces is short on housing land and the Government Agent’s rationale for using an area of land amounting to as much as 12 acres for drainage seems illogical.
Furthermore, all six families who were refused permission in 2013 by the Department of Agrarian Development commenced construction without permission. And yet it is only the three Muslim families that have been brought to Courts for violating the law.
Badusha and her community find themselves trapped in a grey area between the biases of the administrators and the rigidity of the law. They find themselves at the mercy of a handful of administrators who have selectively used the law. This naturally raises questions about the racial biases of the bureaucracy in Jaffna.
The Central Government has been churning out policies on resettlement year after year since the war ended. However, it is neither the lacuna in the policy, the lack of resources nor the complexity or sensitivity of the case that are preventing the Government from taking concrete action. It is the lack of political will and indifference that not only undermines reconciliation between Tamils and Muslims but also leads to a politically voiceless community to live in disarray and continue to suffer without proper shelter for years after the war.
(Swasthika Arulingam is a lawyer and has been working with the Jaffna Muslim community since 2015.)
– See more at: http://www.ft.lk/article/580951/Paracheriweli-and-the-Jaffna-Muslims–struggle-to-return#sthash.RuuL24Ft.dpuf