Expatriate Tamil contribution to the development of the Northeast

 by G.G. Ponnambalam, M.P.

(A paper presented by G.G.Ponnambalam M.P. on "Expatriate Tamil contribution to the development of the Northeast," on the occasion of the 15th anniversary seminar/lunch of the International Tamil Foundation, on 21 September 2003)

Mr. Chairman, members of the International Tamil Foundation, guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is indeed a great honor and privilege for me to be addressing you today, on this, the 15th anniversary of the International Tamil Foundation. But it is an even greater honor, that despite the many distinguished and eminent personalities that you could have invited to address you on this important occasion, that you chose to invite me. It truly is a humbling experience, and I thank you.

As you well know, the topic that I will be speaking to you on, "Expatriate contribution to the development of the Northeast" is of such tremendous importance with respect to the current political context, that the task seems almost daunting. My mission today will be two-fold:

(1) Firstly, to present you with what I would call a "Ground-Reality-Check." The primary purpose of this part of the presentation would be to give you a glimpse, a brief overview, of the scale and extent of the destruction the Tamil Homeland has faced. Naturally, this part of the presentation will by no means be comprehensive. Rather, it is merely intended to be an eye-opener to the immense task ahead.

(2) The second part of the presentation will be directly addressing the role that you, the Tamil Diaspora, can actively participate in.

PART A - "Ground-Reality-Check"

You might be wondering why I have chosen to give you an overview of the current situation prevalent in the Northeast in the first part, when I can straightaway spell-out how best you all can help, which I intend to doing in the second part. Especially when, by doing so, I run the real risk of overstepping the mark, and creating a sense of futility in you all, rather than achieve my true intention, which is to use the ground reality in order to mobilize you expertise. But I have decided to take the risk, since it is only if you have an idea of the ground reality, will you be able to truly decide as to how you as an individual, and as the Tamil expatriate community as a whole, can help.

As you well know, the Northeast or the Tamil Homeland constitutes 29% of the island's landaus. It is currently divided into eight (8) districts, namely Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Manner, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. It is estimated that the region currently has a population of about two (2) million. The population is largely rural, where nearly 88% of the people live outside the principal towns. Agriculture, livestock and fisheries dominate the economy of the Homeland, where nearly 80% of the population depends, either directly or indirectly on such activities.

Since the commencement of the armed conflict, it is estimated that nearly 80,000 lives have been lost, with several times this amount being rendered disabled. Over a million people have been displace, with some 150,000 families being forced to seek refuge with relatives and friends, and nearly 50,000 families having to reside under miserable conditions in refugee camps and welfare centers.

Of the million odd Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs nearly 65% to 70% are expected to return to their homes, yet the conditions are far from conducive for any large-scale organized resettlement. The physical destruction of housing and other property, Government Military High Security Zones, (HSZs), mine contaminated and infested areas, and property rights issues are the notable impediments, along with the lack of infrastructure and basic services. It is estimated that nearly 330,000 houses are damaged partly or totally in the Northeast. Despite some reconstruction efforts, nearly 60% of the damaged units remain totally uninhabitable. Therefore, conditions conducive to physical, legal, material and social safety must be created before displaced populations can return.

A moment ago I mentioned the problem of Mines. Due to the long period of conflict, it is believed that over 1 1/2 million mines and unexploded ordinances are yet to be discovered. Just to put things in context, a the present rate of mine detection, it is estimated that it would take a minimum of 15 years for the Homeland to be considered safe from the dangers of mines. Clearly the de-mining effort needs to be speeded up by improving the methodology and by introducing cost-effective new technology.

The long drawn-out conflict has also created several Vulnerable Groups in our society. The most important of them happen to be Women and Children. A preliminary survey revealed that women and children account for the most number of civilian casualties, in addition to them making-up 80% of the refugees and IDPs. It is an indisputable fact that women and children have been the worst affected by the conflict. Therefore any effort to rebuild the Tamil Nation must give priorities to the weak and the vulnerable, who are going to be one of the main foundations of the new society.

The problem with regard to the safety of drinking water is something that everyone seems to be grossly underestimating. We have had nearly 20 years of high intensity warfare in our Homeland. Tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs and explosives have fallen and exploded in our soil; therefore we have to seriously address the danger of our ground water being toxic and potentially lethal. Further, all the water supply schemes have been damaged or destroyed due to the war. Hence immediate rehabilitation of all water supply schemes is imperative.

Health Sector

Health infrastructure has suffered heavy damages or been completely destroyed in the Tamil Nation. Of the 400 odd institutions that currently exist, almost all have been affected by the conflict in varying degrees. 55 institutions have been totally destroyed and 49 others are so badly affected that they are unable to function. Damage extends to water supply and sanitation systems, and the lack of facilitates to treat health care wastes poses serious environmental concerns. 34% of the existent cadre remain vacant, and that too in mainly skilled categories. As a result the availability, accessibility and quality of health care has deteriorated. Preventive health care has also been severely affected due to the conflict. Matters have been made even worse due to the severe restrictions that were systematically imposed by consecutive governments, leading to serious shortages in medical supplies, equipment, human resources and response system available in times of emergencies, and the establishment of such systems is essential, considering our past experiences. Therefore, all these issues need to be addressed, with some priority being given to primary health care and preventive services, initially in areas where IDPs are being re-settled.

Education Sector

Most schools have either been completely destroyed or severely damaged. Of the schools currently functioning, 321 are functioning in temporary sheds. 199 schools need to be completely reconstructed. The dropout rate for children in the Northeast is 15.8%. At least 65,000 children are not attending school. There is an 18% shortage of Tamil medium teachers; 51% shortage of English teachers. 36% shortage of student furniture; 52% shortage of teacher's furniture; 51% shortage of something as fundamental to a classroom as blackboards. The inadequacies in teaching and learning materials, science equipment and activity rooms are much higher. The quality of teachers, which used to be something that the Tamil Nation was proud of, has deteriorated drastically.


All aspects of the infrastructure in the Northeast have been badly affected by the conflict.

- The existing transport infrastructure is probably the worst affected. All roads, railways, bridges, ferries, ports and harbors are either beyond repair, destroyed or need repairs.

- The telecommunications sector is also badly lagging behind. The total teledensity is about 2.9 per hundred in the North, and around 4 in the East, compared to over 10 in the rest of the island.

- In the case of the power sector, the total power demand for the Northeast is in the region of 240 MW, of which only about 110 MW is being met. Systems in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi have been totally damaged and no repairs have been affected so far. Attention must also be paid to the promotion of Alternative Renewable Energy Sources, some examples of which already exist.

Farming Industry

The farming industry has suffered immensely. This sector includes irrigation, agriculture & livestock, agro-forestry and agro-industry. Along with the fishing industry, farming accounts for over 80% of the economy. Unfortunately, due to issues such as HSZs, displacement, land mines, severe restrictions on disease control products, damage to infrastructure, and destruction due to military activity, the quality and productivity of the industry has dropped to alarming levels.

Fishing Industry

The fishing industry too has taken a severe beating. The Northeast has the potential for producing more than 100,000 m.t. of fish annually. However, due to a large proportion of the assets (fishing boats, fishing gear, ice plants, etc.) having been damaged or lost, and because of HSZs, Naval operations and continued restrictions on fishing imposed by the military, the industry is nowhere close to reaching its true potential.

Ladies & Gentlemen, all that I have just described is just a glimpse of the real situation..."The tip of the iceberg," if you like. So, you can just imagine the immense task that the Tamil Nation has to dedicate itself to.

However, there is a danger, that in our eagerness to pick up the pieces and to move one, that we will allow anyone who is willing to contribute towards the reconstruction of our Homeland to set up shop and begin work. We can currently see this trend with some of the work that is being done. However well intending such efforts might be, it must stop. Our thinking must go beyond mere relief and reconstruction, and must move towards sustainable development in the immediate and medium terns. And for this to be done, all rehabilitation, reconstruction and development work must be undertaken through a thoroughly coordinated effort. We will have to do away with the ad hoc, narrow, fragmented and sectionalized project approach that currently prevails, and look to a political economy as a whole...a strategy that would take into consideration the wider cultural, socio-political dimensions of the Tamil Nation, and avoid many of the pitfalls in similar transitional situations elsewhere.

It is absolutely essential that this new financial architecture for the Tamil Nation, that we envisage, does not go down the same miserable road that Sri Lanka has gone down, which has resulted in a failed State, and contributed in large measure to economic mismangagement, corruption and inefficient/wasteful use of financial and other resources. Our basic objectives will be to create an efficient, self-reliant, sustainable economy owned by the people, which can compete over time in a liberalized local and global economy. And we hope to achieve such sustainability by creating:

- A self-reliant people's sector

- A Socially Responsible Private Sector, and

- A supportive re-oriented and innovative Public Sector

I am happy to say that I am personally aware of the efforts being made to finalize such a policy document. Therefore it is not my intention to spell out matters of policy today, since I believe it is an area that is outside the scope of the presentation. Besides, I am sure that you would much rather hear on such matters from someone learned in the field of development strategy. However, regardless of what the details of the final policy would be, there are many ways in which the Tamil expatriate community can help.

PART B -Role of the expatriate Tamil community

Growth through a socially responsible Private Sector

There is most definitely a need to encourage a vibrant Private Sector. And this is one definite way in which the Tamil expatriate community can get involved. However, it is quintessential that we recognize the ground reality, in that our people back home are in a very vulnerable position, and therefore, although it is appreciated that the Private Sector is profit-oriented, under no circumstances can the Private Sector be allowed to exploit the masses. Initially at least, the Private Sector will have to enter into socially desirable economic activity that will help address the need to create conditions of normalcy in the Homeland.

The Private Sector involvement will be a two levels. The small size involvement, which would be geared towards the production, trading and services sectors, and the large size well-organized Private Sector and other joint venture foreign investment activity. Although we live in hope that the current uncertainty that is prevalent will give way to a secure environment that is absolutely essential to encourage large scale investment, I still believe that it is premature to expect the Tamil expatriates to come forward at this stage. But there is no doubt that, in the future, the expatriate Tamils will have a definite role in this field.

But this does not men that the expatriates cannot, or should not, bring in their skills and expertise to strengthen the small size Private Sector that already exists. Even if direct investment might be premature for most of you to consider at this stage, you can help in the immediate term by educating the masses with the new technology available, and by showing them how to add value to the production, trading and services sectors, with special emphasis on the agriculture and fishing industry. After all, agriculture and fishing contribute to over 80% of the economy.

Capacity utilization, strengthening and building

Another area in which the expatriate community can most definitely help is in the field of Capacity Utilization, Strengthening and Building. This is probably the most immediate and important challenge that the Tamil Nation faces.

No matter how much money is made available for the Tamil nation to rebuild herself, if we do not have the capacity to absorb such financial help, we are bound to fail in our endeavors. Capacity is central to the effective implementation of all aspects of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development of the Homeland.

The challenges facing any future administration of the Northeast are substantial. Since we have had a conflict situation for nearly 20 years, in addition to the severe brain drain that has taken place, the existing workforce is gravely lacking in skills as well as manpower. what we have in plentiful is the sheer determination of our people to somehow succeed, and above all their eagerness to learn and be taught.

As you will appreciate and acknowledge, as mentioned earlier, there has been a severe brain drain of Tamils out of the Homeland and into foreign countries, Compared to our people back home, you, the expatriate Tamils have been able to create a success story out of the unfortunate circumstances that led to your departure from home. By and large, not only have you all made a success of yourselves, but more importantly, you have over the years accumulated an immense amount of knowledge and experience that our people at home have been deprived of. You all have been exposed to the most modern and advanced ways of doing things, and the latest techniques in every field imaginable. Therefore, your help in Capacity Utilization, Strengthening and Building is absolutely essential.

Confidence to the people

Friends, by you, the expatriates, coming forward to help in any of the above-mentioned ways, you will also be inadvertently helping in a third way. I have personally traveled widely, and especially in the North. I have seen for myself the many expatriates working on the ground. They range from well-established professionals, such as doctors, engineers, accountants, to young students and retired individuals. They have worked with the people from a few weeks, where the purpose of the visit has been specific, to others spending several months, and some even returning for longer periods. But regardless of the nature of their work and the duration of their stay, they all had one very distinct feature in common. Which was, that they all gave tremendous confidence to the local population by coming forward to work with them.

I mentioned earlier that our people are vulnerable. But, by you, the expatriates, showing a keen interest in their well being, you will be giving them the confidence that is so badly needed to overcome their vulnerability. And thereby, you will in effect be empowering them. a point, I am sure you would agree, that cannot possibly be over stressed.


In conclusion I would like to say this. Like it absolutely essential for us back in our Homeland to be well organized to cope with the immense task of Nation building, it is equally important that the Tamil expatriate community be as organized, if you are to play a definite and decisive role in the reconstruction, rehabilitation and development work that has to be undertaken.

Currently there are significant populations of Tamils living in Europe, North America and in Austral-Asia. If all these expatriate Tamils can find some way of organizing themselves so that their efforts can be coordinated with the Tamil leadership on the ground, I believe that there is nothing that cannot be achieved. I sincerely hope that I do not disappoint anyone, or even worse, hurt anyone, when I say that there is no point in having several organizations such as ITF, if all that happens is that these organizations merely compete with each other, and work at cross purposes, without having any substantial contribution to point to. And I am a firm believer that, if there is to be any substantial contribution, it can only be achieved through coordination and unity of purpose.

If Tamil politicians and political parties that have fought one another for decades can realize the utility of remaining divided, and above all, if we can have the determination to put behind us petty politics and partisan interests and rally behind the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in realizing that it is only they who can deliver us the liberation that the Tamil Nation so very dearly craves, I see no reason why well-intending individuals and organizations such a s yourselves, that have as their core the welfare of the Tamil Nation, cannot unite.

I also would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the role the Tamil expatriates have played in strengthening, both politically and financially, the Tamil liberation struggle. At times when our Nation was facing death and destruction of genocidal proportions, and when we back home were busy running to save our lives, or silenced by the threat of incarceration and death, it was you who exposed to the world the atrocities that were being committed. You were our voice, sometimes at your own risk.

Well, today, we have come a long way. We have proved to the whole world that the Tamil Nation's quest for liberation cannot be simply wished away. We have come a long way and are today standing at the crossroads. It is as much today, as ever before, that the Tamil Nation must recommit herself to our cause and goals. And this recommitment must come not only the locals, but from the expatriates as well. If we are to succeed, your help is needed, as much as ours. So "come then let us go forward together, with our united strengths."

I would like to end by striking a personal note. I have on many occasions accompanied my late father on his trips abroad to address the Tamil expatriate community on various occasions. For someone who used to be so passionate about wanting to see the Tamil Nation liberated, he naturally used to suffer from extreme disappointment and depression when he thought about the suffering the people were undergoing. At times I used to wonder whether he would give up agitating for the Tamil cause, because it seemed to take such a heavy toll on him. But almost always, it was the enthusiasm and the support of the expatriates that revitalized him and strengthened his resolve. If he is respected and admired for his courage, then it is you, the expatriates, who invoked that courage in him. I salute you for that. He would always say that some of the happiest and most rewarding times in his public life were experienced during his travels abroad. He was especially moved by the respect and affection shown by the expatriate community, as I am moved by your gesture today, in inviting me to speak to you. I thank you very much.


Posted October 18, 2003