Buffer zone under intense pressure
With the debate over presidential polls taking centre stage and tsunami almost off the radar, officials from regional chambers say the government would be forced to allow tsunami victims to remain on their former land despite the 100-200 metre buffer zone restriction.

That is already happening in some areas. This was the unanimous view of tsunami-desk officers of commerce and industry chambers of districts like Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Kalutara, Batticaloa, Ampara, Vavuniya (also overseeing Mullaitivu) and Jaffna who met for their annual steering committee meeting in Colombo on Friday at the Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FCCISL).

The Galle chamber representative told The Sunday Times FT that almost all the affected 1,000-plus business persons have gone back to their homes and are staying put. “90 percent of the town is within the 100 metres zone. So where do they go from there?” he asked. He said the people however can’t get loans because their properties in the restricted zone are not accepted as collateral.

The Trincomalee chamber representative said the District Secretary had allowed residents and businesspersons to rebuild their damaged properties in the restricted zone in the town area.

Ampara chamber district coordinator Mohamed Hussain said the government relaxed the buffer zone to 100 metres from 200 metres at Sainthamaruthu village, the worst affected by the tsunami. “Circumstances have forced the authorities to change the rules.”

Across tsunami-affected Sri Lanka, regional coordinators spoke of long delays in permanent housing for reasons like lack of land for relocation, rising cost of building materials and high labour costs. Many fishing communities, some of whom are to be relocated five km away from their original homes, are refusing to budge.

“There is a sense of hopelessness and frustration among the victims that the government is not doing enough or hasn’t got its act together,” one official said adding that at meetings with.

TAFREN, “those officials agree with our plight and also that people can’t be moved out of their original homes but say they have no other solution.”
The regional representatives are implementing FCCISL’s Back to Business, donor-funded programme worth Rs 750 million aimed at restoring the businesses of the affected business community. The officials said great strides have been made in helping victims to seek bank loans and facilitating other support mechanisms.

In fact, the support that businesspeople are receiving including micro-level enterprises is far superior to the service provided by the government and NGOs to affected families. Dozens of affected businesspersons have been helped to receive loans and grants through FCCISL tsunami-focus officers.

Yasantha de Silva, CEO of the Matara Chamber, said they were helping put together the victims and banks in providing loans to the former. “The main grievance of the business people is that they have not received any support from the government – no grant only a loan -- and that it was through efforts by the chambers and others that they were rebuilding their lives,” he said.
De Silva said shopkeepers are in quandary as they don’t have money to buy stocks even if they reopen their shops.

Samatha Abeywickreme, FCCISL Secretary-General who led a delegation of these regional officers to the Indian state of Gujarat recently, said that region had come up with a unique way of tackling the disastrous earthquake three years ago. “The impact was worse that the tsunami in Sri Lanka but none of the residents was asked to leave their original homes. Instead earthquake resistant houses and buildings were constructed.”

The visit was mainly to learn from the Gujarat rebuilding experience. Next week, two officers of India’s Entrepreneurship Development Institute are visiting Sri Lanka to further share that expertise in the affected areas.
-- Feizal

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