The Sri Lankan village of Atumagaskoda is only 6km from the town of Vavuniya - the financial and business hub in the north since the end of the country’s long civil war - but in development terms it is years away.
Village roads here were cleared of jungle shrub and made suitable for vehicle travel only last week, almost three and half years after the war’s end.
“We have waited long for this. Finally, we got our roads cleared,” Punchirala Ranbanda, a village elder, told IRIN.
Rural residents in Sri Lanka’s former northern war zone (locally known as the Vanni) express frustration at being left behind in the fast-track development taking place near main towns and highways like the A9, A32 and A35, all of which are being widened.
Even the country’s president has noted the disparity. During a visit to the region on 25 September, President Mahinda Rajapaksa remarked that from the helicopter flying in, it was evident how development work in the towns has yet to seep into the villages.
In the village of Selvanagar, deep in Kilinochchi District some 10km from the main A9 highway, villagers were hand-digging a community well in early October. “We know it will take a long time if we wait for the authorities to do this. It would take months, maybe years, so we are doing it ourselves,” said Selva Ranjini, one of the female workers.
In neighbouring Ambankulam village, 17-year-old student Thanlaxmi Maheswaeri said jobs were so scarce that her family was finding it difficult to make US$40 monthly payments on a $1,500 loan taken out in mid-2010 to rebuild their war-damaged house. “There is no work, no businesses come here, no factories or anything that will give jobs,” she said.
She also spoke of erratic electricity, impassable roads and lack of public transport. “For any health emergency we have to get to Kilinochchi [about 10km away].”
In Mamaduwa village where 130 families displaced since the mid-1990s have resettled, conditions are similar. “If someone falls sick we have to take the patient to the hospital in Vavuniya 30km away on a motorbike, or a three-wheeler on a road filled with potholes almost all the way,” said 34-year-old resident Priyantha Dharmasena.
“Transporters charge extra because the roads are in such a bad condition,” he added.
Despite the slow pace, public officials in the Vanni say rural areas are receiving equal priority for development as towns.
“The results are evident in towns because there is so much activity there and all activities are centred around them,” said Roopavathi Ketheeswaran, Kilinochchi District’s highest-ranking public official.
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, principal researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna (the political and cultural centre of northern Sri Lanka) said historically, most business and economic activity in the Vanni has taken place along the main highways. He also said low population density in some areas makes it difficult to spread evenly the benefits of development.
In the districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi there are 38 and 93 persons per square kilometre, respectively, according to the 2011 census.
“It does not make economic sense, nor is it economically feasible, to develop all areas of these districts equally because of lack of markets and population,” Sarvananthan said.
But even in towns, the post-war building boom has created few jobs since the war ended in 2009.
Though there are no official state figures, experts estimate up to 30 percent of residents in the north are unemployed despite the region’s economy - driven by public sector infrastructure investments - growing by 27 percent in 2011, according to the Central Bank.
The main problem is the near non-existent private sector, said Sarvananthan.
Meanwhile, massive public sector construction projects are mechanized and require skills mostly lacking among residents and returnees.
Anushka Wijesinha, an economist at the quasi-government think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), told IRIN the local private sector, if provided incentives to expand, can spur development more quickly than “waiting for big investments” that are slow to arrive.
Private companies have reported a “wait-and-see” strategy on investing in the north, still viewing it as risky given the shortage of skilled workers, lack of investment incentives and unknown returns.
While joblessness affects towns and villages, the latter’s development lags far behind. Roads and new power lines have only begun to appear in villages, with some rural residents still oblivious to the post-war infrastructure spending spree.
Northeast Reawakening Programme
Robert Peiris, who oversees development in the northeast for the Ministry of Economic Development under the Northeast Reawakening Programme, told IRIN the ministry has allocated more than $12 million for village rehabilitation and development works in the northeast with a special focus on rural areas.
Ketheeswaran said more than 8,400km of rural roads have been constructed in the Vanni since early 2010.
Peiris added that grants of up to $45,000 are available for community-managed village projects. “The villages don’t have to repay the fund. If [the funds] are invested properly, they stay within the community as a financial resource,” he said, explaining how some village committees have reinvested interest paid on microfinance loans (funded by the grants) in the community.
According to the Economic Development Ministry, since 2010 about half of the 410 villages that have applied for funding have received support. Projects include a coconut fibre factory in Kilinochchi District, milk collection in Vavuniya, working with disabled civilians in Mullaitivu as well as shrimp farmers in Mannar District.
“Rural development is taking place, but it will take time to see the results because there is so much to be done,” Peiris said.