Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Jaffna and the Conflict-Poverty Symbiosis

by Tanuja Thurairajah, Poverty Portal, Colombo, May 1, 2011

The key issues in terms of the struggling Jaffna economy seem to revolve around fishing and agriculture...

At least my focus on issues of distribution is not simply for people to have an income above a cut off point decided by the state. I am interested many more issues. We need to begin a discussion of these wider issues. Sen's book Development as Freedom can be a starting point. - There are many more powerful reasons for reactionary politics than caste. The biggest reason for reactionary politics is the presence of a highly militarised state. Therefore we, including those concerned about poverty and development, need to begin a discussion on demilitarisation.

When discussing caste we need to look at the caste/class continuum. The impact of caste in this manner is seen in many parts of Sri Lanka where pre-capitalist relations still prevails.

The cause and effect dimension of the conflict-poverty symbiosis has been an integral aspect of the poverty discourse in Sri Lanka. The end of the protracted civil war in Sri Lanka while presenting a tentative but renewed sense of hope has also thrown in many challenges especially in terms of the rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement processes. Interwoven into these challenges is the issue of dealing with poverty, both in the economic as well as in the social aspect.

Jaffna is considered one of the more affluent districts in comparison to the other districts in the North. Nevertheless, poverty bred by inequalities in income, employment, infrastructure, health and educational facilities is seeped within the torn post-war social fabric; a poverty that remains distinct from the regions removed from the direct ravages of war. Prior to the eruption of the civil conflict, Jaffna enjoyed a robust economy led by fisheries, agriculture and market oriented cash crop cultivation. Ahilan Kadirgamar in his article ‘Waiting for the Jaffna Train’ (February 2010, Himal Southasian) observes that, of the approximately 600,000 people living in Jaffna, 50% receive foreign remittances support from relatives living abroad. The rest of the population to a larger extent suffer from some form of economic hardship and the situation worsens in the context of the war displaced people coming from government run camps.

The key issues in terms of the struggling Jaffna economy seem to revolve around fishing and agriculture. While restrictions on fishing areas have, to a large extent been lifted, other contentious issues such as encroachment of fishermen from the South as well as the depletion of the sea’s resources by South Indian fishermen using large trawlers (Livelihood of Fishermen in the Palk Bay- Sri Lankan Tamil Perspective, V. Suryanarayan, Paper No: 4304, South Asia Analysis Group, January 28, 2011) continue to remain unaddressed.

In terms of agriculture, the main problem revolves around access to lands due to encroachment, lack of/or unclear deeds and restrictions due to High Security Zones (HSZs). Furthermore, a large number of lands are owned by people living abroad affecting an unhealthy disparity between ‘unavailable’ landowners and people in urgent need of land. The issue of access to land is further heightened by caste politics as an emergent social issue in post-war Jaffna and becomes increasingly contentious in the context of the displaced Muslims returning to their native soil who struggle to identify their original lands and have to deal with encroachment and/or new owners as a result of their vacant land being resold prior to the final offensive. A growing anti-Muslim feeling amidst the Tamil community has also been observed which finds its roots in the clamour for resources and opportunities.

Indications of foreign investment especially from the Indians with a pledge towards rebuilding of the Northern Railway lines (Madhu-Talaimannar, Omanthai-Pallai, (http://www.hcicolombo.org/index.php?option=com_pages&id=74) and the reactivation of the industrial park in Atchuvely, Jaffna (http://print.dailymirror.lk/news/news/32159.html and http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20110105_01) are steps towards re-establishing a healthy economic base for the Jaffna region. Nevertheless, this positivity is strained by the continuous issues such as increasing tensions in Jaffna (as noted in Speech in Parliament - adjournment motion debate, TNA National list parliamentarian M.A Sumanthiran, January 20, 2011) due to targeted intimidation of business people and social/political activists which are serious obstacles for civil society mobilisation and the revival of entrepreneurship, deemed integral towards economic stability and eventually, the reduction of poverty.

This discussion raises the following questions;

• Can the poverty issue merely be addressed through equable distribution of resources and a sustainable economic base?

 • Can social issues such as caste as well reactionary politics be considered merely as the effects of poverty and non-equable distribution of resources?

• What would be a suitable economic model for the Jaffna region, agriculture/fisheries based or knowledge based?

• Can there be an exchange between ‘agriculture’ and ‘trade’, traditionally monopolised by the Tamil and Muslim communities, not only in terms of economic diversification but also as an option towards identifying solutions for caste and ethnicity based issues?

 • The regular flow of individual foreign remittances also creates dependency and stifles local entrepreneurship. On the other hand an increasing interest by the Tamil diaspora to contribute towards the development of their localities has been observed. What would be the measures that would ensure that these efforts happen in a streamlined and sustainable manner?

COMMENTS:

Priyanthi Fernando (Executive Director , CEPA)  

Interesting observations from Thanuja. Some reactions mainly from personal knowledge and anecdotal evidence from a recent visit to the peninsular. First, Thanuja's second question: Can social issues such as caste as well reactionary politics be considered merely as the effects of poverty and non-equable distribution of resources? Social issues such as caste and non-equitable distribution of resources is not a post-war phenomenon in the Jaffna peninsular. It was observable even at a time when as a teenager I used to spend my holidays with friends in Thellippalai; and while the war may have had a levelling effect, it is likely that in the post-war scenario these schisms will re-emerge. I would think caste and non-equitable distribution of resources are potential causes of poverty, rather than effects. On a visit to Jaffna in February this year, the overriding impression was one of 'production' - paddy, onions, beetroot (?!), tobacco, fish and dried fish - on every arable patch of land, and almost every inch of beach. So I think an agriculture/fisheries based economy is here to stay, but don't see why it cannot be combined with a knowledge based economy. It is not a question of either/or.

Ahilan Kadirgamar 

Tanuja has raised some very interesting questions, which require research. I can only make some tentative comments about the larger issues as well as point to some other sources. On the issue of caste in Jaffna, very little has been written in English in recent decades, and I would recommend Ragavan’s ‘Dalit Politcs and the Urgent Need for a Social Movement’ Pg 18-20, November 2010, Issue 1, dissenting dialogues: http://srilankademocracy.org/files/dissenting_dialogues_Nov_2010.pdf

Similarly, on the eviction and return of Northern Muslims, and their situation now in Jaffna, I would recommend Sharmila’s article Pg 25-26, February 2011, Issue 2, dissenting dialogues: http://srilankademocracy.org/files/dissenting_dialogues_Feb_2011.pdf 

In reading both these articles and in attempting to think through the question of poverty and the Jaffna economy, a larger question for me is the role of the state and that of social movements. Sharmila points to recent attempts by the Northern Muslim community to organise themselves and demand services and resettlement assistance from the state. Such engagement with the state requires strong social movements. However, given the devastation of broader society and the climate of fear that still continues in Jaffna, the emergence of social movements is going to take time. Here the fishing sector seems to be better organised than the agricultural sector.

Thus in thinking about attempts to address poverty, I would look for social movements whether it be around caste struggles, landless farmers, fisher people or for that matter Northern Muslims trying to resettle. With that in mind, returning to Tanuja’s first question about equitable distribution of resources and a sustainable economic base, I would argue that the forms of redistribution and the kind of economic base may well be shaped by social movements and their engagement with the state.

Sunil Bastian

Let me respond to questions posed by Thanuja at the end. - I think we need to expand our discussion beyond the notion of poverty. Notion of poverty is a conceptual trap. I think you hint at this when you say 'can poverty issues be addressed merely by equitable distribution of resources and a sustainable economic base'. At least my focus on issues of distribution is not simply for people to have an income above a cut off point decided by the state. I am interested many more issues. We need to begin a discussion of these wider issues. Sen's book Development as Freedom can be a starting point. - There are many more powerful reasons for reactionary politics than caste. The biggest reason for reactionary politics is the presence of a highly militarised state. Therefore we, including those concerned about poverty and development, need to begin a discussion on demilitarisation.

When discussing caste we need to look at the caste/class continuum. The impact of caste in this manner is seen in many parts of Sri Lanka where pre-capitalist relations still prevails. In the South in the Kandyan areas caste play a great role in this manner. One of the historical roles that capitalism does is to break these types of pre-capitalist relations through markets. We need to promote this. This does not mean caste will disappear but it gives the socially excluded people a better environment to struggle against caste discrimination. - I am not very interested in developing an economic model for Jaffna. Many economists and others linked to state planning apparatus are doing this.

What I am interested is to improve the lot of the socially excluded who struggle within each of the economic activities that Thanuja has mentioned. But there are other groups like the working class. Quite a lot of poor people are depending on wages. This is likely to increase due to dispossession of their land in the post war (not post conflict) situation. Therefore we need to, a. Understand the process of exploitation in each of the economic activities. b. Take a look at the resistance and struggles of poor people in this context. c. Tailor our work to contribute to this on-going struggle

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan(Point Pedro Institute of Development)

First of all, I have to confess that most of the observations made herein are conjectural because of lack of credible quantitative data on many aspects of the Jaffna people and society. Firstly, poverty in Jaffna appears to be largely relative poverty. Absolute poverty appears to be very low thanks to foreign remittance received by most Jaffna households. According to the Jaffna District Secretariat, over ninety percent of the Jaffna people are landowners. Therefore, absolute poverty at household-level due to lack of productive assets (especially land) could be marginal. However, individual poverty could be higher than household poverty because of intra-household unequal distribution of assets, income, food, etc, due to cultural discrimination of girls, women, and the differently-able persons. The intra-household inequality is common in relation to distribution of assets, especially land and dwelling, because of customary law of inheritance that discriminates against women and girls. Vast majority of the Jaffna population lives in owner-occupied concrete houses according to anecdotal and census data. The type of house people live-in is an indication of income level. In contrast, lower share of the Vanni population lives in concrete houses. Land ownership in the Vanni is also much lower than in Jaffna.

Hence, high land ownership and the type of house people live-in indicate lower absolute poverty at household-level in Jaffna. Secondly, my hunch is that social poverty is higher than income poverty in Jaffna. Social poverty is caused by social marginalisation or exclusion. Social poverty is mostly relative than absolute. Relative poverty caused by labour market rigidity is one of the distinguishing features of poverty in the Jaffna district. Social stratification based on hereditary occupation, i.e. caste, is an institutional / structural barrier to poverty alleviation in Jaffna because of non-competitive labour markets. Labour mobility among different traditional occupations, such as farming, fishing, palmyrah- related and customary vocations, is restrictive due to caste-based occupational structure. Labour mobility is restricted in both directions; i.e. not only that people of lower-tier caste/s find it hard to move to higher-tier caste occupation/s (which of course is the most common), it is also the case that people of higher-tier caste/s find it hard to move to lower-tier caste occupation/s. For example, it is the case that a palmyrah toddy tapper would find it hard to enter farming occupation (unless s/he owns agricultural land). But, it is also the case that a farmer would find it hard to enter palmyrah toddy-tapping. Not only palmyrah toddy-tapping, but the entire palmyrah-related processing occupations are dominated by the same caste people. The vast majority of the Palmyrah Development Board employees are drawn from a particular caste. Such monopolisation of traditional occupations has restricted knowledge transfer and technological innovation in various caste-based occupations. Similarly, farming occupation is deprived of hard and higher productive labour due to barrier to entry based on caste. Education, white-color jobs, and migration abroad have considerably dampened the caste-based occupational structure in Jaffna in the past thirty years, yet it remains strong.

Therefore, “constructive destruction” (as Karl Marx would put it) or “creative destruction” (as Joseph Schumpeter would put it) of the caste-based occupational structure is imperative for poverty alleviation in Jaffna. Of course people carrying-on with their traditional caste-based occupations can emerge out of absolute poverty, but if they would like to emerge out of relative poverty labour rigidity resulting from caste-based occupations should be removed. One of the positive outcomes of the armed conflict to Jaffna (North in general) is that traditional occupations are on the wane due to migration to other parts of the country and abroad. That is, less and less children of farmers, fisherpersons, toddy tappers, et al, are opting to carry-on their traditional family occupations. There is gradual upward mobility of labour from socially marginalised or excluded communities. In fact, the combined total of government, semi-government, cooperative, private sector employees, carpenters, masons, etc, outnumber the total number of people employed in traditional caste-based occupations such as farming, fishing, toddy tapping, etc. The foregoing are some of the reasons why the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID) is pushing for the transformation of the traditional economy of Jaffna into modern knowledge-based economy. Such transformation does not mean total abandonment of traditional occupations such as farming, fishing, toddy tapping, etc. It means the infusion of modern technology and production practices that would transform the traditional productive activities in Jaffna (and the North) into higher productive and rewarding occupations, which could lift them out of absolute and relative poverty. Of course, the envisioned knowledge-based development model would progressively reduce the relative significance/importance of the traditional economic activities and increase the production of knowledge and intellectual goods and services. Onions, chillies, fish, and palmyrah products could lift people out of absolute poverty, but it is highly unlikely that those could lift people out of relative (income and social) poverty.

As long as people in Jaffna, and elsewhere in the country, depend largely on the state, non-governmental organisations, and foreign donors for welfare handouts poverty cannot be eradicated. Foreign remittances cannot lift people out of poverty permanently if it is used only or mainly for consumption. Own initiative, individual entrepreneurship, and hard work are the means out of poverty. Of course, the state could help people move out of poverty by removing institutional / structural barriers to the labour market (such as caste). An equal opportunities law to outlaw discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, caste, etc, would go a long way to ameliorate social poverty. I would suggest two concrete actions to be taken to better understand and thereby address the issue of social poverty in Jaffna. The first step is to undertake a caste census. We cannot turn a blind eye to this social phenomenon. We have to better understand the complexities of inter-caste and intra-caste cleavages. Secondly, it is high time to compile and publicise a list of persons who have originated from marginalised castes and have been successful in their respective businesses / occupations / professions in order to be role models for the younger generations of the socially marginalised and excluded.

Tanuja Thurairajah

This blog entry was posted on the Young Researchers Collective on Facebook. I produce below the observations that were recorded by two of the Collective’s members.

Grace Kadirgamar: What would be a suitable economic model for the Jaffna region, agriculture/ fisheries based or knowledge based? Most people who are returning want to get back to their land and return to their old jobs of agriculture and fisheries. Guess it will take a very long time for a knowledge based economy to emerge. The regular flow of individual foreign remittances also creates dependency and stifles local entrepreneurship. On the other hand an increasing interest by the Tamil diaspora to contribute towards the development of their localities has been observed. What would be the measures that would ensure that these efforts happen in a streamlined and sustainable manner? Good question. How do we do this?

Andi Schubert: Well i don't know if a system that streamlines this is a good thing or a bad thing... I mean as it is all aid whatever it maybe has to come through the PTF... and then we move into a larger political discussion no Grace Kadirgamar: PTF may not be the ideal channel to do this. It has to go through a proper process for economic regulations etc.. and also looking beyond aid. There are direct investment interests and many of them still own land etc. which are either abandoned or earning returns that doesn't get circulated within the local community.

Ahilan Kadirgamar

Given the unverifiable nature of the data I present there from last year, and the limitations of the Census of Agriculture from 2002, it would be with the next 2012 Census of Agriculture, that we will have much data to really understand the major transformations underway. Now, the last Census on Population and Housing held in 2001 did not look at Jaffna due to the war. In fact, the last Census taken in Jaffna was in 1981. Thus the current Census underway and expected to be published next year will have some important data that will help us contextualize some of the empirical questions. However, the Census Department carried out a Special Enumeration of Jaffna in 2007 and it has basic population information. I would like to draw your attention to two pieces of information there. First on the Population of Jaffna District: In 1971, the population was 635,117. In 1981, the population was 738,788, resulting in an increase of 16.3% from 1971. In 2007, the population was 559,619, resulting in a decrease of 24.2% from 1981. Second, on the population distribution in the Urban and Rural Sectors in 2007: The total Urban population, here consisting of the Jaffna, Chavakachcheri, Point Pedro and Valvettithurai (Municipal/Urban) Councils was a total of 112,932 or 20.2% of the population. The rest of Jaffna District listed as the Rural Sector consists of 446,687 or 79.8% of the population.

Now, we must take any data also as tentative, particularly given the large movements of people and resettlement following the end of the war. In any event, I would like to highlight the following two points in relation to this data. First, there has been a dramatic fall in the population of Jaffna, and we have to think further about what this means for population density including land fragmentation. A related point is that land ownership and land use might be going through some change both due to displacement and migration, as well as a result of the reduced population. The second point relating to the urban-rural divide is more complicated. There is often much debate on what the urban or rural really means, and the economic dynamics in the relationship between what is characterised as urban and rural is changing as a result of the structural transformations; including access to jobs, transportation, the changes to the rural economy and shifts in the urban economy. The larger point I want to make here is the need for future research to understand the unique situation of Jaffna given the fall in population; including the changes to age, gender, caste and class distributions including the percentage of working aged population given the patterns of migration.

Secondly, the kind of Jaffna economy and its impact on poverty will be also linked to the economic and social transformations that are likely in urban-rural relations given the end of the war; the building of infrastructures, the infusion of capital and the path of development. As pointed by others who have also addressed these questions above, land will probably have a considerable impact on the economy, society, caste and class relations in Jaffna. Indeed, historically land ownership and land in relation to productive relations has been significant in determining gender, caste and class relations in Jaffna. Even though income from agriculture alone may not determine the economic well being of households, particularly given other forms of incomes and remittances, land is nevertheless likely to be an important factor. Anecdotal information coming out of Jaffna points to soaring land prices in Jaffna after the war. The infusion of foreign capital, the building of infrastructures and the expansion of the tourist industry, aspects very clearly impacting the rest of the country, including what seems like a real estate bubble linked to tourism investment, is likely to impact Jaffna as well. The problem with such sudden infusion of capital without a longer-term and inclusive vision of economic development is that it can lead to unsustainable social transformations and subsequently increase inequality and poverty.

In other words, with the flow of capital there could be increased jobs for construction and other services, but with the flight of capital or an economic downturn, an increase in unemployment can lead to urban poverty and rural dispossession. The real estate bubbles can lead to not only land grabs, but also people getting rid of their only long-term asset in the form of land for cash, and then finding themselves dispossessed. These are concerns that should caution us against too rosy a picture of economic development and the dangers inherent in certain paths of economic development that may persist in the economic marginalisation and poverty of the war affected population of Jaffna. Such persistent marginalisation coupled with the infusion of capital could further reinforce class and caste oppression. Thus there is an urgent need for solid political economic research around the kind of questions that this blog post has initiated.