The Sunday Leader

Prefabricated Housing Project Moves Ahead Despite Concerns

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

The government is going ahead with the project to construct prefabricated houses for war affected families in the North despite concerns raised by Tamil politicians and other groups.

The government says it has made all arrangements to provide houses for those displaced during the war in the North and East.

Accordingly, the construction of these houses will commence by August.

One of the main issues that has plagued the reconciliation process is the return of lands and provision of housing for the displaced in the North and East. While lands are gradually being returned to their rightful owners, resettlement is taking far too long due to the issue of constructing new houses for these displaced.

The housing requirement for the displaced in the North and East is around 1.5 million houses. The government is still trying to figure out how this requirement can be met. Previous governments too did not have a conclusive plan to address the issue of providing housing for these displaced persons.

People in the North are of the view that their housing issues are not being resolved due to political haggling.

“Various political representatives visit our homes and inform us that we will be given completed houses through the Resettlement Ministry and they take our details.  On the other hand, others come and tell us to refuse these completed houses by the Resettlement Ministry and want us to say we don’t like them. I don’t know why that is. Then another group visits us and says they are the ones responsible for giving us the houses and want us to follow their instructions. Government officials tell us to ask for the money. I don’t understand this complicated situation. All I know is that we want a house to live in. We voted for the Good Governance regime hoping that they will take care of us and resolve our grievances. The amount of money that the government gives to construct a house is totally insufficient. This will be evident if you look around at the houses that are partially completed due to the lack of funds,” Rajendran, a resident of Kopai said.

Some residents in the North have managed to complete repairing or constructing their homes halfway and others have abandoned their construction due to the lack of funds. Although the displaced persons have obtained money allocated for the construction of their houses, now with construction at a standstill and with not enough money to complete these houses, their dream of eventually being able to move into a new house and commence their lives, has become a distant dream.  They now cannot appeal for another loan either and are now facing an even greater dilemma.

The government took measures to grant Rs. 800,000 for the people displaced by the war. This money will be given to the recipients in stages of completion of their houses. However, to date no one who obtained the money has completed their houses. The reason is clear. It is a mere dream to think that with the current cost of materials, one could complete a house with Rs. 800,000.

 If anyone has completed their house so far, it is definitely by utilising their own funds and certainly not with the money granted to them by the government alone. However, the percentage of those with such ability is only a fraction. These people lost everything with the war and most of them were practically on the streets with nothing to call their own. They have lost their livelihoods and most of them have no source of income. These people who were once proud members of society who never expected to be reduced to this current predicament, now have to resort to daily labour work in order to feed their families. Hence, it is unavoidable that these people might utilise some of the money given to them for the construction of their houses, to provide food for their families. The Sunday Leader has on numerous occasions brought to you the struggles and grief of the people of the North who have suffered untold hardships and pain due to the war. Sadly, there were few success stories that we encountered in most of our journeys to the North.

Providing housing for the displaced is an arduous task due to the construction methods used in our country. However, the government says countries such as Australia, Singapore, Dubai and many other countries use prefabricated houses which are cheaper and construction is faster.

“We have faced opposition regarding the construction of such housing in Sri Lanka, mainly from politicians. Some argue that for the cost of these prefabricated houses, solid brick houses can be built. However, considering the environmental implications in obtaining such raw materials as bricks, stone and sand, there are certain benefits in opting for prefabricated housing,” officials of Resettlement Ministry said.

The official said that the United Nations and the whole world is now focussing on sustainable development placing greater emphasis on the environment and under these initiatives, as a country Sri Lanka needs to focus on such new technologies that will fulfill our needs while protecting the environment as well.

“Even though these new methodologies could be unfamiliar to us it is the responsibility of the government to gradually wean the people to adopt these new methods of housing construction.

  Looking back at the past two years, we as a country have faced many natural disasters. Man made causes have been a major contributory factor in most of these disasters. The question however is whether as a country we have taken remedial measures to rectify the wrong we have done. With our families expanding the requirement for housing has also increased and we increasingly rape nature in order to fulfill our needs.

Bricks, sand and stones are all obtained for housing construction at the cost of destruction to nature. Due to our growing need for timber, we keep continuously destroying the forests to obtain this timber which is also having a huge negative impact on nature. On previous occasions too we brought to you the destruction caused to Gal Oya.

Not only are people engaged in large scale sand extraction, on the pretext of obtaining river sand people also excavate clay from the river banks. This has led to rivers overflowing during heavy rains and eventually flooding the surrounding villages.

The issue of obtaining raw materials is bound to crop up when constructing these 1.5 million houses for the displaced. Even on a previous observation tour to the Keeramalai housing project, we noticed that the construction had come to a standstill due to the shortage of raw materials. Hence, with this new ambitious project, it is inevitable that we will face raw material shortages which could hamper construction activities.

 The reason some of the people dislike the thought of living in a prefabricated house is because of their hard held beliefs that a house should only be constructed using bricks and cement. The cost of a prefabricated house is around Rs. 1.5 million and the Resettlement Ministry has promised to give them a lifetime guarantee on the houses.  Yet it is hard to change the mindset of people who still hold onto their traditional thoughts. Those who have been suffering in temporary tends and makeshift houses have opted to accept the prefabricated houses.

The current government intends to provide these displaced people with prefabricated housing instead of giving them the Rs. 800,000 housing grant. While the government has received around 75,000 applications for housing, they intend to grant 6,000 prefabricated houses for the displaced commencing this August and have also received Cabinet approval for it. The Moratuwa and Peradeniya Universities have conducted research on these houses and confirmed that they are environmentally friendly.

No matter what, it is the responsibility of the government to provide housing for the displaced people. They have suffered enough due to the war and they need not suffer further. It is time the politicians come out of their air conditioned offices and take note of the suffering of these people and fulfill their responsibility to the people.

“Under the sustainable development programme, the prefabricated houses are a good solution to the problem at hand. However, as expected there are many who simply want to oppose anything that is done by the government. Yet, this is a good way to address the housing requirement of the displaced as well as protect the environment at the same time. There is no purpose in pointing fingers at anyone. We need to put aside our political differences and work together to fulfill the needs of these people who have suffered enough due to the war. As a government it is our responsibility to take care of the people of this country. We must secure a better future for these children who have been affected by the war.   At the same time we can fulfill  the housing commitments of the people within a short frame of time with these prefabricated houses. Normally it takes around 7-8 months to complete a single brick house, but these prefabricated houses can be completed within just two months. These houses will also be equipped with solar power which will also be a great relief in terms of electricity costs. It is important that we preserve the environment so that the North and East remain habitable for the next 30-40 years and this method of housing can contribute to the preservation of nature. We certainly do not need to harm nature further as we are already experiencing the ill effects of harming nature,” the Resettlement Ministry said.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran had earlier demanded the resignation of the Minister of Prison Reforms, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs, D.M. Swaminathan for going ahead with the prefabricated houses despite several concerns raised.

Sumanthiran had said that he had submitted proposals to construct permanent houses for the war displaced people at a lower cost but the Minister had disregarded the proposal.

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