Douglas Devananda speaks about what needs
to be done to develop the Northern parts of Sri Lanka
The new Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Kathiravelu Nythiananda Devananda, commonly known as Douglas Devananda, leads the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). A former separatist guerrilla who joined the democratic parliamentary path after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, he is Member of Parliament for the Jaffna District, in the Northern Province, where Tamil people are the vast majority of the
He believes that the Tamil people have not received proper leadership, that the existing leadership lacks competence. “The Tamil community got so many opportunities,” he says, “which the Tamil leadership didn’t use properly. Even the late SJV Chelvanayagam [1950s-60s leader of the Federal Party] could not settle the problem. In his last days he said ‘Only if god comes, can the Tamil problem be settled.’ From my experience, if the Tamil Community is being misled like this, even if God comes, you won’t be able to settle the problem.”
The main issue, the Minister believes, which impedes the development of the northern parts of the country, is the sense that some sort of revenge needs to be extracted from the Sri Lankan state, for the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in three decades of civil conflict.
“America bombed Japan and Germany in the Second World War,” he reminds us, “but after the leadership changed at the end of the war, the new leaders shook hands with the Americans, and were friends, without any idea of taking revenge for their defeat. Because of their friendship, they were able to grow their economies faster than the USA itself. Now we use all Japanese and German goods, whereas in the old days we used to use American equipment. They have developed that much, economically, technology-wise.”
The implication is that the Tamil community needs to forget the past and concentrate on building its future, in a united Sri Lanka.
“In Tamil there is a saying: ‘only if a person sits properly in a chair, can the barber cut his hair properly’ … once we took up arms, we thought that through an armed struggle … because comrade Mao said that ‘Power grows from the barrel of a gun.’ After the Indo Sri Lanka agreement, we did not use it properly. If we had, today the Tamil-speaking community would have been in a land floating in milk and honey.”
Devananda’s base of support in the Jaffna Peninsula lies in the islands and the coastal regions, populated by people of the fisher caste, and he is very conscious of the need to dissipate caste consciousness – an archaic social differentiation which stands in the way of development. This significant barrier to progress does not feature often in economic discourse.
“The fishers’ name, also I am not happy about,” he says. “There are other communities, as well as the fishers. They brand fishing as caste-based employment, but this is an economic activity, not a caste based activity. We need to give fishers an income commensurate with their hard work. The people of some castes may not like me saying this.
But I believe all people are humans, we are Sri Lankan. So if we upgrade the poorer people’s livelihood, that system will also disappear. If we develop these things economically, caste will no longer be a barrier. In the Northern Province, we have plenty of aquatic resources, we are going to develop it.”
Devananda speaks about his plans for the Ministry in the next few months before the dissolution of Parliament (expected in March) and the general election.
“If you take the fisheries and aquatic resources sector, there is immense potential. Now we are preparing projects for utilising the resources of the sea and of the inland waters, our lagoons, estuaries and tanks. We are preparing a master plan.”
He does not expect that they can achieve any of the requisite targets within three months, but he is assured that they can give confidence to Sri Lanka’s fishers very soon.
Devananda thinks that the opportunity exists to develop many sectors in the North, including agriculture, tourism and human resources. He does not think the existing assets have been made use of.
“We didn’t tap northern water resources, he complains. “At the same time we couldn’t bring Mahaweli [River] waters from the South. The Tamil leadership said ‘they will also take over the northern water resources and settle Sinhalese people there’. But that is not correct.”
He imagines immense potential for tourism in the North, especially on the islands, which are close to the popular concept of the lonely desert island. In developing the economy of the North, he makes clear that simultaneously, the economic framework must be transformed towards encompassing the tourism sector. People in the area should be trained to adapt to ecological tourism, community tourism and fishing tourism.
The Jaffna peninsula is known for its highly educated populace. However, a large section of the less-privileged fall though the educational net.
“Our president has raised the matter at cabinet level of people with sub-standard education. In the old days, when Dudley Senanayake was there, they had the Land Army. Similarly, we must collect them, the poor element of the population, living under the poverty line, to identify them and train them as skilled labour, so that they can be employed either in Sri Lanka or abroad.”
A major human crisis in the North is indebtedness particularly that of people caught in a micro-credit debt trap.
“We have not yet discussed at the cabinet level,” he explains, “what we are to do about people who have been rendered destitute due to misuse of micro-credit. I intend to meet the President in the near future and discuss how we can alleviate rural indebtedness. If these people have some form of livelihood, they will not delay repaying their loans. The people who have no income, who cannot earn their livelihood, they are the ones who cannot repay their loans.”
Investment and biriyani
The Minister admits that there has been far too little investment in the North. He thinks that the negative outlook of the leadership the people received, hitherto, has stymied and discouraged investors – including small and medium investors in the vast Tamil Diaspora. Nevertheless, he exudes confidence.
“After the government changed, the share market went up. If this steady leadership continues, I think we can get the foreign investors to come here. There are plenty of people in the Tamil Diaspora who are willing to come and invest, but unfortunately the Tamil leadership has not given them guarantees. Now I think I will be able to do so.”
He understands that there are more than a million people in the Tamil Diaspora, which he considers a vital resource available to the North. These potential investors have not come forward to invest in the North, although many have invested in the South. Devananda wants to give them the confidence to invest in the North.
“If a half-million of the over one million in the Diaspora just gave us tea money, say USD 10 per month, we can tap that, use that to develop the North.”
Much given to idiomatic Tamil, he says the government’s aim “is not to give people biriyani, but make such an arrangement that the people can earn money and eat biriyani.”
The idea being that they do not intend to follow purely welfarist policies, but to create an economy and society where the people can prosper by their own efforts.