JAFFNA, 13 May 2011 (IRIN) - Peace dividends have yet to reach thousands of unemployed graduates returning to Sri Lanka's northernmost, conflict-affected Jaffna District.
In Jaffna, the impact of graduate unemployment is significant and more pronounced compared with other areas of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, with limited state employment opportunities and few alternatives, local graduates and professors say.
According to Muthukrishna Sarvananda, principal researcher at the Jaffna-based Point Pedro Institute of Development, a private social science research institution, the dearth of opportunities in an area once ravaged by war is taking its toll.
"It is an important aspect of developmental planning and the [unemployment] numbers are presumed to be large," Sarvananda said.
Addressing this problem is important to prevent the disenfranchisement of youth, a contributing factor to the country's 26-year civil war in the north that ended in May 2009, experts say, and will prove key to the country's future peace and stability.
Some say the Sinhalese majority, mostly in central and south Sri Lanka, had long enjoyed better access to education and jobs than the Tamil minority, in the north.
Despite the war coming to an end and a consequent increase in the country's economy and decrease in overall unemployment, graduates claim the divide continues, with rising unemployment and poverty in the Northern Province.
In Jaffna alone, 6,000 graduates are finding that state jobs are not available.
Post-war economic boom
According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the national unemployment rate was 4.5 percent in 2010. The government attributed this decrease, from 5.8 percent in 2009, to the post-war economic drive attracting foreign direct investment. [ http://www.statistics.gov.lk/samplesurvey/Bullet2010q4-final.pdf ]
Yet, there is little reflection of this emerging prosperity in Jaffna, said the president of the Unemployed Graduates Committee, Thyagaraja Dhanam. "Nobody pays attention to our plight," he said.
Unemployment statistics do not include Northern and Eastern provinces and a district breakdown is not available for the entire Northern Province. "The rate [in Jaffna] is expected to be more than double the national rate of unemployment," Sarvananda said.
Sunil Navaratna, the Higher Education Ministry Secretary, told IRIN more than 400,000 students sit for university entrance each year, with only about 20,000 succeeding.
He said every year at least 6,000 graduate and more than half join the unemployed, with 42,500 jobless graduates nationwide.
"This is despite schemes to absorb them. Of course the Northeast is worst affected as job creation is still low despite many initiatives," he said.
Private sector doors closed
Jaffna's graduates say they see a number of industries - private companies and banks - moving to their province, creating jobs that elude them.
"There aren't many opportunities in the private sector. The practice is to bring employees from the south, excluding locals," Muhunthan Sivayohanathan, an unemployed graduate, said.
However, according to one private business operator in Jaffna interviewed by IRIN, such graduates are "unemployable", because they have no information technology skills and lack English proficiency.
Sarvananda agreed, saying universities needed to increase the calibre of both their staff and graduates. But he said perhaps a boom in private sector opportunities was imagined.
"There are small private companies coming in, but there are no strong corporate sector investments. The centralized system does not encourage it. The ongoing projects generating employment are all government-driven," he said.
Government jobs, please
The young graduates feel it is the government's role to absorb the unemployed into the public sector, but high expectations of government jobs will likely not be the answer.
Jaffna Government Agent Imelda Sukumar said young graduates fixated on public sector employment had to seek alternatives. "They demand government jobs. They should be open-minded about the private and non-governmental sectors that generate significant employment," she said.
Be it public or private sector, graduate or not, there is a need to consider the whole picture, insists Saroja Sivachandran of the Jaffna-based Centre for Women's Development.
"The Jaffna youth did not have opportunities to develop skills and pursued higher education despite serious difficulties. The state has a responsibility to devise special programmes post-war, to ensure they have opportunities for growth and suitable employment," she said. Adding a new, inclusive recruitment policy should require a percentage of jobs go to local youth.
According to the Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs, Duminda Dissanayake, the government was mindful of the unique situation in the north.
"Through different divisions, skills development, vocational training and youth development we try to cater to this need," he said.