COLOMBO , 8 May 2007 (IRIN) - For the past nine months, 27-year-old Vana Ravichandran has had only one dream
- to return to his home in Muttur town, Trincomalee district, in eastern Sri Lanka.
He fled Muttur last August when fighting broke out between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and travelled 120 km through shell fire and other dangers to reach the transit camp at Kurukalmadam, in Batticaloa district to the south. Now, he just wants to go home.
"We get food and have a small house here in the camp, but no money. I have not earned any for the last six months, I have nothing," the father of two told IRIN. Despite the volatile security situation in Trincomalee, Ravichandran, a fisherman, feels he can take better care of his family there.
Ravichandran's economic plight is typical of most internally displaced persons (IDPs) and even many residents in the conflict areas who have not been displaced.
Though concrete data has been slow in coming, the effects of the conflict and of the massive displacements in the north and east of Sri Lanka since late November 2005, are having a telling impact on the victims as well as on local economies, according to Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, a Colombo-based think-tank, who recently compiled a study of the region for a World Bank poverty assessment report.
Around 140,000 IDPs remain in Batticaloa district while more than 150,000 are scattered in other districts in the north and east, according to UN statistics.
The regions worst hit by the fighting, the north and east, recorded annual growth rates of 12.6 per cent and 10.1 per cent in 2002 and 2003, respectively, before the recent fighting set in, according to the World Bank. However, the Bank, in its 2007 Poverty Assessment Report, warns that the situation may have deteriorated: "The worsening security situation in 2006 would have added to the challenges in the region," the Bank said in its report.
"Severely negative" impact
"Naturally, the resurgent conflict is having a severely negative impact on the local economy of the northeast," said Sarvananthan. "The economic growth rates of the eastern and northern provinces were the highest among all the provinces in Sri Lanka (before 2006)," he added. "We still do not have the data to confirm whether it has gone back to the pre-2002 level or not. But anecdotal evidence suggests it may have."
Most of the civilians who have fled the fighting are day labourers - mainly farmers or fishermen - who long to return home as soon as possible.
"The displaced people wanted us to intervene and ask permission for them to return to their homes. They were pawning their last belongings, even their jewelry, just to make ends meet," said Rukshan Fernando, coordinator of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme of the Law and Society Trust, which recently visited camps in Batticaloa district.
Fishing and agriculture make up less than 20 per cent of the national economy but Sarvananthan believes their significance in the northern and eastern regional economies would make any downturn deeply felt. "The impact of the drop in farming and fishing in the northeast has a severe impact on the livelihoods of people because a huge number of families depend on these sub-sectors for livelihood," he told IRIN.
According to World Bank statistics, fishing grew by 32 per cent and 19 per cent between 2002 and 2004 in the north and east, respectively, and paddy harvests doubled to 130,000 metric tonnes in the north and increased by 140,000 tonnes to 740,000 metric tonnes in the east during the same period.
Setback for post-tsunami reconstruction
The upsurge in violence not only caused new damage but eroded progress in the post-tsunami reconstruction process. "One of the challenges the tsunami recovery faced in 2006 was the deteriorating security in the north and east of the country," according to a 17 April 2007 report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
"This has restricted access to project sites and programmes, hampering transportation of materials for housing construction, and restricted movement," said the report. In some cases, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have set aside funds for rebuilding projects until violence eases, according to the progress report.
Economic, emotional stress
In human terms, the recurring displacement of many residents of the north and east has made them particularly vulnerable, according to Azra Abdul Cader and Prashan Thalayasingam, two researchers at the Centre for Poverty Analysis. "People who have been displaced in the east have been displaced over and over again which affects their access to resources. Just when they're rebuilding their homes and their lives, they are forced to move again," the researchers told IRIN.
The Centre for Poverty Analysis researchers also warned that increasing poverty levels were likely to lead to more problems among the affected communities. "IDPs facing economic strains and the stress of displacement are particularly vulnerable to alcohol and other abuses which can lead to domestic violence and other problems," they said.
Closure of main highway
The closure of the A9 highway since August 2006, which made the northern Jaffna peninsula once again dependent on ship transport supplemented by occasional flights, has caused significant damage to the economy, said Sarvananthan, an economist at the Point Pedro Institute of Development. "Even more than the large displacements, it is the road closure that is having the greatest negative impact on the local economy with the drop in service sector activities," he said.