Feature Article

A question of land

[TamilNet, Monday, 07 February 2005, 03:04 GMT]
“We appealed to the President, we appealed to the Special Task Force, we wrote to the Government Agent and we wrote to several ministers in the government. We pleaded with all of them to find us suitable land to restart our lives. We explained to them why we wanted to leave the camp for Tsunami refugees in Akkaraipattu. But no one responded. That’s why we packed our belongings and came here when we heard of this opportunity”, Ms. Pathmanathan Seetha, told TamilNet, explaining her decision to move to Kavudaapuddi, a mound overlooking the lagoon behind her Tsunami destroyed village on Sri Lanka’s remote southeast coast.

Ms. Seetha
The twenty five year old woman lost her home and ice making business in Thampattai when the surging sea wiped out the village.

Thampattai is about 70 kilometres south Batticaloa. It is an ancient village, where, according to the medieval dynastic history of Batticaloa called ‘Mattakkalappu Poorva Sariththiram, a South Indian Tamil king had settled a group of ‘Pattar’ Brahmins to serve the temple in Thirukkovil.

Thampattai, like many villages on Sri Lanka’s east coast, is sandwiched between the ocean and the network of lagoons that lie parallel to the Bay of Bengal, linked to the sea at regular intervals by estuaries that open during the monsoon.

Hence, when the sea struck, every permanent structure of the village was wiped out or seriously damaged. Many who were killed by ocean’s fury were found in the far corners of the lagoon behind the village.

Memories of the giant black waves engulfing Thampattai are still so scary that some families here are determined to rebuild their village on suitable high ground beyond the lagoon.

“In fact representatives from our village saw senior government officials at the Amparai District Secretariat. We pleaded with them to let us settle on bare land on the western side of the lagoon. We wanted to leave the school where we camped as soon as possible”, Ms. Pathmanathan Seetha said.

Ms. Seetha’s apprehensions are shared by thousand from the Tsunami ravaged southeast coast who, fearing that the Sri Lankan government might forget them in due course as it had done in the past, are seeking land for settling down and rebuilding their lives on a permanent basis.

But all along the east coast, finding state land is well nigh impossible not only because few places are available but also because of apathy in Colombo, according to Parliamentarians in the region.

Most of the suitable land that is available for resettlement belongs to private owners and temples.

State lands offered by Sri Lankan government officials in the Batticaloa and Amparai districts were rejected by people from villages destroyed by the tsunami largely because there is little or no opportunity in those places to rebuild their communities and ply their trades.

Thampattai refugees arriving at Kavudaapuddi

Reports in Sunday papers (February 6, 2005) that the Sri Lankan government is planning to acquire private land to resettle Tsunami refugees were dismissed as sham by Tamil MPs in the east.

(TRO) was the first NGO on the southeast coast to secure private land in places which the refugees find acceptable.

Kavudaapuddi was leased by TRO from a local temple. The land here had lain fallow for many years. A small part of it was leased by the temple to some families to plant maize. There was no access road to the land.

Only the statue of the Thampattai temple was spared by the sea
work at Kavudaapuddi
Metal frames for TRO transit centre huts
building toilets for Thampattai transit centre
Health care centre at Thampattai transit centre
At the TRO stores in Akkaraipattu
“We worked overnight to make this road with rubble and gravel. We got moving as soon as the Tsunami affected people of Thampattai who were at the Rama Krishna Mission (RKM) School approached us”, said Mr. Ponnambalam Aathavan, director of TRO in the Amparai district.

“Thirty seven families who were at the RKM School wanted to leave immediately when the TRO said it was possible to find land in Kavudaapuddi. Most of our men fish in the lagoon. This place is not far from it. But the authorities did not want us to move out of the refugee camp in the school. We were repeatedly pressured stay on in the school. Our people are determined not to become permanent refugees again”, asserted Ms. Pirapaharan Latha, 24.

Many Tsunami hit people from the coastal parts of Tamil villages in this region such as Thirukkovil , Thambiluvil and Thampattai had the bitter experience of being forcibly evacuated from their hamlets in the interior by the Special Task Force (STF) in 1990/91.

They were relocated in a cramped refugee shelter in an inhospitable place called Kalliyanthivu near Thirukkovil.

As the years rolled by, the camp was forgotten by the authorities. Some of the inmates who had resources and relatives in Thriukkovil, Thambiluvil and Thampattai bought land by the coast and settled.

Tsunami has rendered them refugees again. Therefore they are very wary of staying on in refugee camps.

“We do not want to get caught in the refugee trap again. It wont be long before the Sri Lankan government forgets us”, says Ms. Theiventhiram Vasanthakumari, an outspoken young woman who has decided to make home in Kavudaapiddi.

Lured by the prospect of a settlement coming up in the area, an enterprising person opened a little makeshift restaurant at the usually deserted spot where the new path to Kavudaapuddi that TRO is building turns off from the Akkaraipattu-Saakaamam Road.

His calculations were not wrong.

Mr. Aathavan told TamilNet that TRO has now drawn up plans to build a transit centre at Kavudaapuddi for five hundred families from Thampattai.

“TRO plans to build a permanent settlement here for all the families”, he said.

“We are encouraged by expatriates who come to work with us in these parts, even briefly. Two weeks ago, Mr. Ramesh Nagarajah, an American TRO official from Sacramento, California, was with us here”, Mr. Aathvan said.

TRO is building a transit centre for five hundred families in Thampattai itself. A suitable land on high ground and at a safe distance from the sea has been cleared and construction work on huts and sanitary facilities begun.

“Each hut will have a floor space of 150 square feet. We will cement the floor. Roofs would be thatched. In other places such as Karaithivu, we are making the prefabricated metal frames for the huts of the same size. These huts will have corrugated aluminum roofing” said Mr. S. Anparasan, a TRO official supervising the project in Thampattai.

TRO’s main regional office and stores are in Akkaraipattu.

The organization is currently building transit camps for southeast coast Tsunami refugees in Karaithivu, Naavithanveli, Senaikudiyiruppu and Thirukkovil. It is also working with Muslim refugees in the region.

However, some civil society leaders in the region say that the TRO is not doing enough, given the magnitude of the Tsunami disaster on the southeast coast.

When asked about this criticism, Mr. Aathavan pointed to logistical and manpower problems. There is a dearth of skilled construction workers according to him.

“This is a serious challenge, particularly because we have to soon begin constructing permanent homes and public building for these people”, he said.

“The STF’s attitude towards us is negative. This makes our work somewhat harder in these parts. But we are trying to do our best”, the TRO officer adds.


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