Every evening when the setting sun creates long shadows against walls and pillars of bombed-out buildings, half a dozen flatbed trucks line up in the northern Sri Lankan town of Mullaittivu. They have become a permanent early evening fixture in this shell of a town, where some of the worst battles during the final phase of the island’s civil war were fought in early 2009.
As darkness spreads, men, women and even children approach the trucks to empty their small sacks of rusting pots, vehicle parts and other metals. Men on the truck examine the scraps to separate out quality metal. They weigh each lot, paying 20-40 US cents per kilogram.
Selling scrap metal has become one of the few reliable income sources for war returnees, especially in Mullaittivu District. Their chances of finding paid work elsewhere are low. Although official employment data for the region is unavailable, experts in the area estimate that up to 30 percent of the north’s population is unemployed, as opposed to a national rate of 4 percent.
So the returnees are cashing in on the thousands of bicycles, vehicles and other metal objects left behind in the former conflict zone when over 280,000 fled between late 2008 and April 2009.
Hostilities between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels, who had been fighting for an independent Tamil state for nearly 30 years, ended in May 2009.
Thousands of vehicles - a treasure trove for returnees who risk prosecution to scavenge resalable parts - rust away where their engines were last switched off or in abandoned car lots guarded by the Sri Lankan military.
“The metal is there everywhere. We just have to gather them,” said Sundareswaran (one name only) from Puthukudiyirupu town in Mullaittivu District. The father of two spends his mornings looking for scrap to sell in the late evening. “I make about Rs 300-400 [US$2.50-3.50] a day regularly,” he said.
Other than for vehicles, there is no permission needed to collect or resell scrap metal. “I have not been informed of any big operation to collect scrap. There is a verification process if someone is claiming a vehicle left behind,” Rupavathi Ketheeswaran, the top government official in Kilinochchi District, told IRIN. She said if people illegally remove or tamper with abandoned vehicles, they face prosecution.
“So far there have been no such complaints. The scrap metal trade is taking place in an informal manner where seasoned buyers will come to locations where they can buy the metal,” Ketheeswaran said.
Most of the buyers are businessmen from outside the north. “We have a ready market for this. We sell a kilogram for about Rs 80 [60 cents]. Per day we will collect about 300kg,” said one buyer. Wholesalers throughout the country buy the metal for melting down or for use as replacement parts.
Bicycle parts fetch the best prices with frames worth $5, said Sundareswaran. The buyer told IRIN that on the return trip more than 200km away to Puttalam District in the country’s northwest, trucks are fully unloaded at the military checkpoint at the entrance to the former war-zone where officers check for contraband and weapons.
Other jobs needed
The scavengers know scrap metal income is likely to run dry soon. “About a year and half ago I was making Rs 3,000-5,000 [$25-40] per day. Now even on good weeks I am lucky to make that amount [in a week],” Sundareswaran said.
Without more formal sector jobs, returnees will find it hard to make ends meet unless there are policy changes, said government official Ketheeswaran. “We need to create jobs or income opportunities. There is no other solution.”
Despite large-scale infrastructure projects, development has been uneven and jobs scant. Economists have urged the government to encourage private sector investments with incentives.
“We will encourage more opening up and providing more opportunities for the private sector to come there,” said Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the World Bank’s global managing director based in Washington, DC, following a recent visit to the country’s north. She said infrastructure projects need to be planned to create local jobs, something which is currently not happening as the state has opted for machinery-driven work rather than human labour.
The World Bank official also warned that if the government (as opposed to the private sector) continues to carry out most of the development work, pressure on the national budget is bound to increase.
“[Considering] the capacity or the resource constraints that are faced by the government, you definitely want to open up more and faster.”