Human Rights Issues in the
Post Tsunami Context
Sri Lanka, July –
Seven months after the tsunami, TAFREN
is setting up regional offices. Another mechanism known as Tsunami
Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU) has also been set up to implement
the permanent resettlement processes. While there is recruitment
of officials for implementation of post-tsunami reconstruction policy
at the highest level, including the act of calling back retired
government officials to fill posts of consultants, there are many
unfilled vacancies on the ground level. For example, there has been
no Divisional Secretary in Ambalangoda since the tsunami. There
are also vacancies for 14 Grama Sevakas and Village Technical Officers
(Village officials). The lacunae created by these posts remaining
vacant has a tremendous impact on the capacity of people affected
by the tsunami to file claims for their entitlements and also to
have intercessions made on their behalf at the higher levels of
local government. For example, the TO is the person who has to make
the damage assessment on the basis of which compensation is computed.
Despite constant lip service to the significance
of women’s concerns in post-tsunami reconstruction, once again
the consolidated report (and /or the Executive Summary) of the massive
Needs Assessment Survey commissioned by the ADB in May has only
a passing reference to women. The regional reports made by the individual
teams that did the field level assessment contain information regarding
critical aspects of the impact of the tsunami on women and the potential
areas in which women’s advancement and empowerment could be
achieved through the post-tsunami reconstruction process. This is
what makes the exclusion of gender and women in the final report
all the more a matter of concern. In addition, the lack of gender
disaggregated data remains an issue.
The payment of the Rs. 5000/- grant which was received by most persons
for two months (February and March) has not yet been re-instituted
throughout the island, In many places, the Grama Sevakas are yet
to finalise their lists for payment of this benefit, excluding all
salaried and employed persons from the list. It is estimated that
the list would be cut down by as much as 20% following this re-assessment.
Tsunami-affected persons are still receiving
rations of rice, flour, oil and sugar. It is expected that the issue
of rations will continue upto August 31 and then people would have
to revert to a Food for Work programme supported by the World Food
Programme of the UN. Much of the rice and flour issued on the rations
has been unsuitable for human consumption, largely caused by poor
storage facilities at distribution points. In addition, much of
the food sent in for distribution among tsunami-affected persons
at the beginning of 2005 is now out of date and there are many reports
of canned and processed food items that have past the date on which
they would be suitable for human consumption are reaching the public
The continuing lack of clarity regarding
the buffer zone continues to cause tensions among communities who
have been divided in terms of benefits according to whether or not
they lived within the buffer zone or outside it. It is those who
lived closest to the beach and therefore suffered the greatest losses
in terms of life and property, who are now living with no sense
of where they could have a permanent home while those who lived
even a few meters outside the zone are already re-building on their
original locations. Following the publishing of the report of the
Committee appointed by the President to review the buffer zone issue,
some communities and some individuals have begun reconstructing
their own houses within the buffer zone. Whereas when such unauthorized
reconstruction took place in March and April, government officials
and the Police moved in to prevent it from taking place, in August
it seems there is no such adverse reaction from the authorities.
Given the commitment of the government
of Sri Lanka to the fulfillment of the indicators defined for the
fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals, the post-tsunami
reconstruction programmes must also be filtered through the lens
and perspectives afforded by the MDGs, with a special focus on MDG
3 relating to gender equality and women’s empowerment.
It is also necessary that TAFREN and all
agencies engaging with the post-tsunami reconstruction and resettlement
process take cognizance of the nature of State obligations vis-à-vis
the right to housing that have been set out by the Committee on
Economic Social and Cultural Rights in General Comment 3, which
allows for progressive realization of this right but also recognizes
that deliberate retrogression is a violation of the right to adequate
housing (RAH). In addition, General Comment 4 of the Committee entitled
“The right to adequate housing,” sets out minimum core
obligations of the State in the context of the right. These minimum
core obligations are as follows:
1. Legal Security of Tenure – There
should be protection against forced eviction and harassment.
2. Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure
– Facilities essential to health, security, comfort and nutrition
must be made available. These facilities include but are not limited
to, safe drinking water, sanitation and washing facilities, and
energy for cooking, heating and lighting.
3. Affordability – Expenditures for housing should be commensurate
with income levels as basic needs should not be compromised.
4. Habitability – There should be adequate space and protection
from the elements. Conditions conducive to disease and structural
hazards should be eliminated.
5. Accessibility – All should have access to adequate housing.
6. Location – Adequate housing must allow for access to employment
options, healthcare, schools and other social services. There must
not be excessive financial demands on the household with respect
7. Cultural Adequacy – The housing configuration must not
compromise cultural expression.
Security issues in the tsunami-affected
areas of the East have remained a matter of concern through the
months of July and August.
There have been many attacks on army check-points
and on offices of political parties. On August 5, there was an attack
on the LTTE office in Kaluwanchikudy, and on August 7, the office
of the JVP organizer in Kantalai, Trincomalee, was fired at. On
August 9, the army camp in Vavunativu (Batticaloa District) came
under fire. In the Amparai District, a member of the Civilian Volunteer
Force in Sammanturai was shot and seriously injured while on guard
duty in Karaitivu, and a water bowser taking water to Special Task
Force (STF) camps on Potuvil-Komari road in the Eastern province
was also shot at on August 9.
In addition, there have been attacks on
civilians. A grenade flung into a fruit stall at market in Chenakalady
(Batticaloa District) on August 6 injured the shop owner Visvanathan
Ravindran (40) and a shopper Arumugam Srimohan (46). On August 12,
farmers N.G. Rohitha and N.G. Kumara from Mangalapura (Seruwila)
were shot at and injured when they were retuning home from their
fields; there is still no information regarding two farmers from
Amparai District, Nalaka Prema Jayantha (21) and Ranjith Dissanayake
(18) who were abducted, allegedly by the LTTE, on July 30.
The increase of child abductions by the
LTTE during the June/July temple festival season in the east has
continued throughout August, heightening the climate of fear and
intimidation that has been created by the impunity with which killings
have been taking place in the east. The helplessness of the authorities
to curb this clear violation of the CFA as well as of child rights
undermines the capacity of the state and government officials to
exercise their authority over the civilian population of these areas.
A particularly tragic and brutal death
of an unidentified young woman whose body was discovered in a locked
hall at Central College Batticaloa on August 3 highlights the vulnerability
and helplessness of the people of the East. The Judicial inquiry
into her death showed that she had been brutally tortured and raped
before being murdered by a blow with a blunt object to her head.
Evidence of prior injuries including an operation that required
a skin graft have led to speculation that she may have been a member
of a militant group at some point in her past. The fact that her
body was buried as that of an ‘unidentified’ person
has made sure that the Police investigations regarding her death
are proceeding at a very lackadaisical pace. Women’s groups
are demanding a full inquiry, alleging that at the very least the
Police should be able to inquire as to how the body turned up inside
a locked hall in a fairly public building.
Persons living in welfare camps and transitional
shelter sites speak of insecurity and anxiety that have a very real
basis. Already three male residents or visitors to the IDP centre
at the Paddy Marketing Board Stores in Batticaloa have been assassinated
in locations very close to the camp which is situated in the heart
of Batticaloa town.
On August 12, several grenades flung into
the premises of the welfare centre for tsunami affected persons
at the Sivankovil in Kalmunai resulted in injuries to Police constable
Nimal Premasiri and Home Guard Charlin Weerasinghe as well as two
civilians, Nadaraja Subendraraja (34) and Subramaniam Parvathy (50).
In most tsunami-affected areas, the transfer
of people from welfare centres to transitional housing is complete.
Those communities that remain without transitional shelter are also
primarily those who refuse to relocate to the places where transitional
shelters have been put up, due to security or cultural considerations.
For example, the families still living
in tents in Katugoda, Galle, are largely Muslim and feel that to
move to the relocation site proposed for them in Walahanduwa not
only removes them from their livelihoods but also removes them from
their mosque and the religious school and community centre that
operate out of the mosque premises. Some families in the Paddy Marketing
Board Stores are reluctant to move to their proposed relocation
site in Thirayamadu because of security considerations; they feel
that they would be far more vulnerable to attacks by the LTTE there.
Although the houses put up by various
NGOs under the Transitional Accommodation Programme (TAP) of TAFREN
technically abide by the universally accepted Sphere Guidelines,
there are many variations depending on where the site is and which
NGO has been in charge of the construction. In addition, there are
several overlapping and different Guidelines – the Sphere
Guidelines, the guidelines issued by the Electricity board, the
Guidelines issued by the Water Management Institute, the guidelines
Officially, the houses all must be 200
sq. ft. at a minimum; every three housing units should have a tap
or source of water and every 20 persons should have access to a
toilet. Each of the houses should be wired for electricity connections,
with one plug point, three bulb holders, one trip switch and one
fuse box per unit.
In spite of all the focus on gender-sensitive
disaster management policies and programmes, many of the transitional
housing units including those put up with adherence to the multiple
Guidelines lack kitchens, or safe cooking areas. Hazards of fire
and smoke in close and cramped quarters pose a genuine threat to
displaced families; there are already records of several incidents
of fire in transitional shelters. After protests and demands by
women, many of the shelters now have small add-on and lean-to kitchens.
Sadly women will continue to have to bend in two to enter their
kitchens and to squat over smoky wood fires for a further period
However, there are many transitional shelters
that were constructed without any reference to any of these Guidelines,
in the months of January and February 2005. In some areas, these
are now being up-graded, with kitchens being added on and houses
being wired for electricity connections.
In some areas the transitional houses
have been built entirely of tin sheets. In others, the walls are
of wood, or of coconut thatch, and the roofs of tin. In some cases,
a natural fibre-based roofing sheet (like a heavy-duty cardboard)
has been used, which is less hot than the tin but liable to ‘melt’
during the rains. In Thirayamadu in Batticaloa, you have a situation
where 2000 transitional houses are under construction, with different
NGOs taking responsibility; World Vision is building 500, Oxfam-CAA
another 500 and TRO the balance 1000. There are such marked structural
differences between the three lots of houses that one can only imagine
the tensions and frustrations that emerge when people begin living
in them. At present only some of the houses built by Oxfam-CAA are
occupied. Since there is no electricity connection available at
the location yet, the place is pitch-dark at night and women have
voiced their concerns regarding the safety of themselves and their
children when the men go fishing at night time.
In each case, the transitional accommodation
sites are like urban slums set in the middle of nowhere. The houses
are built very close together, in some areas they are actually constructed
like ‘line rooms’, with four to eight units being attached
to each other. The land is unhospitable, there are no trees or green
anywhere since the natural environment was destroyed in order to
enable the construction of these houses to take place. There are
often no direct sources of water, and many communities are still
dependent on the bowsers bringing in water from outside. Arrangements
for garbage and waste disposal is minimal (in Walahanduwa, for example,
it consists of a large open pit) and the sewage systems are those
that require regular cleaning and evacuation through the use of
heavy equipment available only at the Municipal Councils and Urban
In the face of widespread discontent among
tsunami-affected communities regarding the slowness of permanent
resettlement, the government launched a campaign against large NGOs
that had several months ago signed Memorandums of Understanding
with the government for building permanent houses for tsunami-affected
persons. Among the organizations named by the Sunday Observer, the
state-owned newspaper, on August 21, 2005 were World Vision, Care
International, SOS, Caritas, the Sri Lanka Red Cross and the Tamil
Rehabilitation Organization (TRO). The government’s contention
is that the government has ‘handed over’ suitable land
for resettlement sites to these NGOs and that they are delaying
the actual building.
However, organizations working on the
ground are aware of the range of problems that are besetting NGOs
as they try to move into the permanent re-housing modality.
Among the key issues are:
- There are questions about the clear
title of the land handed over by the government. Some of the land
is vested in various state corporations such as the State Plantations
Corporation and the Land Reforms Commission. Although a President
has issued a circular calling for the quick release of land for
the purpose of building homes for tsunami-affected people, the transfer
processes take time due to the bureaucratic procedures; even in
‘normal’ times, the process could take over an year.
- Other land identified for re-settlement
is land that had already been ear-marked for public use, such as
the land in Thirayamadu which was originally set aside for a playground.
Other land belongs to private individuals and the state has yet
to actually pay the compensation; some owners are naturally reluctant
to let NGOs proceed with building until the money is deposited in
their bank accounts. No organization is going to start a large-scale
building project on land until they are very sure that the ownership
issues are legally and finally resolved.
- There are also issues about the nature of land identified and
its suitability for permanent resettlement. For example, in Galle
District, Galabodawatta estate is a plantation identified for resettlement
of persons from the coast. The land is full of large rocks (hence
it’s name) and almost uncultivable. In Amparai District, some
land identified in Akkaraipattu is wetlands and the NGO entrusted
with rebuilding on that location has raised concerns regarding the
environmental consequences of filling natural drainage areas and
the potential for flooding as a result.
- The large number of bureaucratic hoops
that NGOs have to jump through in order to finally secure permission
to build also create a set of obstacles that take time to surmount.
These include the Survey Department, the Government Valuation Department,
the National Housing Development Authority, the Urban Development
Authority, the Coast Conservation Authority, the various local government
authorities, the Electricity Board, TAFREN and its newest mechanism,
the THRU (Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit). Despite many appeals
from MoU holders for a fast-track system to be put in place, the
government has been unable to do this.
For example, even if an NGO has the land
surveyed by a private surveyor, they must obtain the official certification
from the Government Survey Department before the Valuation Department
will take the process on to the next step.
- In the face of growing concerns regarding the lack of consultation
with affected people regarding their preferences when it comes to
permanent housing, including housing design, building materials
and so on, many NGOs entrusted with the construction of permanent
houses are engaging in a process of consultation which is often
time-consuming. However, shifting from a process of telling people
what they can have to one in which people are asked what they want
is a task that most officials, government and non-governmental,
are ill prepared for. In addition, building consensus and agreement
among diverse individuals and groups of individuals regarding the
physical relocation of homes in which they have lived for their
entire lifetime is not an easy task.
- There are also no finalized lists of
beneficiaries for permanent re-housing. There are appeals pending
regarding allocation of specific beneficiaries to specific sites
which should be resolved prior to this finalization of the lists.
- The models of potential houses put forward
by various agencies including the UDA are not adaptable and do not
offer people much choice regarding future expansion, for instance.
The lay out of resettlement communities, the distance between houses
should all evolve out of a process of consultation with the community
and with experts in the field.
- There are also issues regarding the
potential for conflicts emerging within resettled communities due
to the fact that different NGOs are spending widely divergent sums
of money per house and there will be very visible differences in
the quality and nature of the houses.
- There is also an issue regarding persons
considered eligible for transitional housing according to TAP, who
are not eligible for permanent re-housing according to TAFREN standards.
In Galle District, this sector constitutes about 10% to 15% of those
presently in transitional shelters. These are persons who for example
lived in rented homes or shared homes as members of an extended
- Issues of the future prospects of conflict-displaced
communities who are still awaiting resettlement are also not being
factored in to the present resettlement schemes and some NGOs are
aware of the resulting tensions that could arise between these two
lots of displaced persons.
- Additional costs to be incurred by NGOs
that have MOUs with the government to build permanent houses –
for example, filling up of waterlogged land, or carrying out a survey
, or building multi-storey housing – have also skewed budgets
and financial management of programmes.
- In addition, the high costs of building
materials, scarcities of essential items such as sand, and a labour
shortage pose problems for those attempting to undertake building
programmes. At present, for example, in Galle District, the average
daily wage for a unskilled worker is Rs. 500 whereas in the pre-tsunami
era it was Rs. 350.
- The tensions between government officials,
who call for the construction of multi-storey housing close to the
beach and donors, who refuse to release the funds for reconstruction
of multi-storey housing, and communities who find nothing attractive
in this proposition.
- Discrepancies also continue to prevail
between different Districts when it comes to permanent resettlement.
In the south, the differences between Hambantota District where
MOUs were signed for more than the number of houses required, and
Galle District where only half of the number of required houses
has been pledged, are very stark.
- The situation is made all the more difficult
because the relocation sites at present are bare of trees and other
infrastructure facilities, such as roads and primary health care
centres; there is often no public transport available close at hand,
and traveling to school presents a problem for children of school-going
age. If communities could be convinced that the relocation sites
would be better served in terms of common amenities and other facilities
necessary for a decent standard of living, their reluctance to shift
may be mitigated. However, such a focus on persuasion does not seem
Experiences of women from all communities
affected by the tsunami continue to point to the fact that more
women have moved into the public arena and are developing their
leadership capacities as well as making practical interventions
at every level, locally and nationally. However, the patriarchal
nature of the different government and non-governmental institutions
and agencies that are engaged in making decisions and designing
policies and programmes results in the almost complete exclusion
of women from these higher levels of engagement. It is clearly the
lack of consultation with women and the lack of any sensitivity
to women’s issues and women’s multiple roles in rebuilding
and sustaining their own families as well as their communities that
led to the absence of kitchens from many designs for transitional
housing, for example.
As the post-tsunami process becomes more focused on permanent resettlement
and livelihoods, the need to keep a gender-sensitive approach and
focus becomes all the more imperative. In particular, a gender-sensitive
approach the focuses on men and on male responsibility in all spheres
of life would be critical if the post-tsunami phase is to facilitate
the advancement of women.
In addition, issues of equal rights for
women in land allocation and housing and other grants and benefits
still must remain a priority on the agenda because the categories
of women who slip through the faultlines in the system – widows,
female heads of household, single women, disabled and elderly women
– are large and varied.
While the tsunami-displaced communities
were living in Welfare Centres in public buildings in the immediate
aftermath of the tsunami, there were several different ways in which
they could access health-care. There were various groups that conducted
clinics within the Centres and the Centres were located in urban
areas with somewhat easy access to public and private healthcare
facilities. However, most of the transitional shelter sites lack
these facilities. In many of the transitional shelter sites there
are no regular mobile clinics and lack of access to transport means
that traveling to the nearest public health facility consumes time
and money. Particularly women with specific needs including reproductive
and sexual health care needs, are most affected by this situation.
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre,
237/22, Vijaya Kumaratunga Mawatha, Colombo 54, Sri Lanka
Telephone: 94-11-2809538; Fax: 94-112-809467; e-mail email@example.com