Restoring Livelihoods: Supporting Returnees in Batticaloa

For someone who has spent a significant part of his adult life displaced from home, Sinnathamby is quite happy with the way things have turned out.

Sinnathamby Saravanamuthu, 51, is a farmer and a father of 7. He lived a simple life in the Kiran Division in Batticaloa District. The family did not have much – a clay hut and a few acres of land on which they grew paddy and highland crops. It would perhaps be wrong to say that Sinnathamby did not want anything more from life but he was content. “I was able to plan my life on my own”, he puts it simply.

A series of displacements snatched away this right as well. Sinnathamby no longer had the luxury to ‘plan’ his life. “My family and village people faced several displacements, since 1983 up to March 2002, until the peace agreement signed between [the] LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka. We were often vacated and temporarily camped at Santhively, which is close to [the] main road on the eastern side of Batticaloa.”

A major displacement, however, took place in March 2007. Sinnathamby, along with hundreds of other families sought temporary shelter in Palaiyadithona, another village in the District. “We spent 14 months there and were not allowed anything except one extra cloth for us and some documents. There was no livelihood opportunity but the Government assured us of food by providing us with dry rations and food stamps through the World Food Programme (WFP).”Government rations and the paltry amount that Sinnathamby earned, as an unskilled labourer, were barely enough to meet the needs of the family. “My children also lost a year at school”, he says, shaking his head sadly. Far worse than all of the material deprivations was the feeling of helplessness-of not being in charge of one’s own life. “We wanted to go back to our villages and resume our lives. We prayed to God to make this possible.”

Sinnathamby’s dream was finally realized.  The Government decided that the situation was safe enough to allow people to go back to their homes. “We returned to our village on 22nd May, 2008”, says Sinnathamby, a soft smile on his face as he gazes into the distance, perhaps reliving the excitement. Many other families joined Sinnathamby in Kiran, a resettled Division in Batticaloa District.

The families were promised food rations for the first six months to make the resettlement process easier. However, livelihood opportunities for the resettled families were not in place. It was with the intention of providing sustainable livelihood options that the UNDP led Recovery Coordination Initiative (RCI)[i] was introduced. The initiative focused on creating livelihood opportunities for the resettled families to support them once the temporary food rations were over. “UNDP visited our village and selected my family as [a] beneficiary family and supplied inputs for highland crops cultivation, barbed-wire for fencing the vegetable garden, and other agricultural tools.”

Sinnathamby has already begun harvesting vegetables and selling them to the local vendors. “You can see the high yield from my garden”, he says “and most importantly my children are back in school”. Sinnathamby earns about LKR 3000, every two weeks, from his sale of vegetables. He no longer needs to depend on food rations and hand-outs and is confident about the future. The successful harvest has ensured a regular income and supply of seeds for the next round of cultivation. Sinnathamby plans to sow the next batch in the end of January and beginning of February. He expects the yield to go up substantially in the next few months.

The initiative has helped many others like Sinnathamby. In addition to agricultural support, the project introduced agro wells for irrigation (in areas where sufficient water was not available), cash-for work programmes and vocational and business training for selected beneficiaries. Finally, as more and more land is being cleared, most of the families have seen their area of cultivation grow from 1.5 acres to almost 2 acres.

When asked about some of the barriers he faces at present, Sinnathamby responds thoughtfully “Yes, if we could sell the harvest directly to the market, we should be able to earn more income. But the main problem is the road and the culverts, and transporting facilities.” He is right; there are problems, such as poor roads, damaged culverts and small bridges, lack of transportation facilities for the harvest, low marketing and pricing power of the communities.

But Sinnathamby isn’t complaining. He understands that such changes take a while to implement. For the moment Sinnathamby is happy that he can go back to planning his life on his own. Sri Lanka. 2016