Housing and lands for IDPs soon - Rehabilitation, Resettlement Minister D.M.Swaminathan | Sunday Observer

Housing and lands for IDPs soon - Rehabilitation, Resettlement Minister D.M.Swaminathan

Minister of Rehabilitation, Resettlement, Hindu Religious Affairs and Prisons Reforms, D.M.Swaminathan, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, outlined the progress so far made by the National Unity Government on sorting out some of the delicate and arduous national issues that are inevitable outcomes of the three-decade-long war, such as, permanent housing for the conflict-affected people, release of the remaining private lands under military use, the early release of the rest of the political prisoners in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the new law that is being drafted to replace it.

The Minister also spoke about training on life skills imparted to ex-combatants, provision of employment/ housing for them, prison reforms, renovation of ancient Hindu temples and other Hindu religious activities coming under the purview of his Ministry.

Excerpts:

Q: It is more than eight years since the conflict ended and more than two years since the National Unity Government took over, but the question of resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) looms large, with people’s protests taking place constantly, the latest being in Kilinochchi. Your comments please?

A: The IDPs have been given temporary shelters, and the construction of permanent houses to be phased out over three stages.

My Ministry got Cabinet approval for the construction of 65,000 houses under Stage-I and considering the difficulties and delays in procuring sand and other related material for traditional houses, and in an effort to fast track the process, construction of prefabricated houses was decided as the most suitable, and contractors and investors of international renown selected. The idea was to settle down the IDPs who have been in dire straits for long, and help them resume their normal life.

But this program did not make headway since this type of houses were opposed by people’s representatives. I do not know whether or not it was politically motivated. The matter was discussed in Cabinet and, finally, the construction of only 6,000 houses was approved. Now, we are going for fresh tenders, which will be promptly attended to. We will provide the houses soon, but it is important that the tenderer should have 100 percent financial capacity.

The recently built 16,000 houses have already been handed over to the IDPs. Already, about 100,000 houses, which include those built under India’s housing program, have been completed and handed over to the IDPs. We have to build 128,000 houses, including houses for the refugees from India. We have requested the Government for the early release of funds. This year we expect Rs.44 Million, which would enable us to construct 45,000 houses, to be handed over next year. All initial arrangements have been completed. Our major shortcoming is the lack of an engineering unit in the Ministry. So far we have been depending on Government Agents and other departments but they do not have sufficient capacity to assist in this matter. We plan to build 40,000 houses annually, so that by 2020 we would be able to complete 120,000 houses.

My Ministry is working on providing houses to ex-combatants too, to cater to the numerous requests from various quarters, for their rehabilitation and resettlement. Houses will be provided to ex-combatants who were imparted training on life skills by the Ministry.

These combatants are now living with their parents or relatives amid much difficulty. We propose to provide 100 houses to ex-combatants, in the current year, and target to build 12,000 houses if funds are made available to the Ministry.

We have already provided employment to many ex combatants, while 36 more have sought employment, on completing their training program. I have presented a Cabinet paper on providing employment to them.

Q: The people of Keppapilavu in the Mullaitivu district whose lands are under army occupation have been protesting in front of the army camp for over 200 days, now. Will these lands be released to the rightful owners. If so, how soon?

A: My Ministry has already released Rs.153 million for the re-location of the army and the release of the land to the rightful owners, about 180 acres in extent.

Initially, we paid Rs.5 million to the army for the preliminary arrangements for re-location and later I submitted the Cabinet paper for the balance sum of 148 million. The army has promised to release the lands in six months but I think they would need a little more time.

However, I am certain that all private lands will be released to the owners.

The people would continue to occupy the houses constructed by the army in the adjoining Keppapilavu model village, with funds provided by the Ministry, as an alternative arrangement. When the land is released they can use it for agricultural purposes.

We are optimistic that the army occupied private lands will be released to the rightful owners before long and much progress has been made towards that.

Q: How soon would the detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) be released, and what are the salient features of the Act that will replace the PTA, once it is repealed?

A: The Attorney General has assured me that the cases against the

remaining detainees, about 72, will be dealt with expeditiously on a day-to-day trial basis and be released as soon as possible. He has assured to ensure that any postponement does not exceed two weeks. The Act that will replace the PTA will conform to international standards and the UN Charter on Human Rights. As far as I am aware the Act is now being drafted by the Legal Draftsman’s Department.

Q: Human Rights lawyer, K.S. Ratnavele, and others when contacted said, even now they get cases coming under the PTA. Your comments please?

A: In addition to the 72 detainees there may be a few others whose indictments were filed later. But all these cases will be dealt with expeditiously, as mentioned.

Q: What changes do you propose to introduce to the prisons in the context of the world now thinking in terms of restorative justice ?

A: I consider the prisons as a correction centre. Our prisons are in bad shape. I am doing my best to introduce some discipline, taking into account all relevant facts that contributed to their deteriorating state. Since the Welikada Prison is over crowded and has many defects, we planned to move it to Bandaragama but the location was water-logged. Possibly, we might move to a more spacious location in Avissawella, if the Cabinet approves it.

The new prisons will meet international standards; and the ICRC, an international institution will guide us on the construction process.

Q: Sri Lanka has four of the five ‘Easwarams’ – the ancient Shiva shrines - and the very ancient abode of Lord Skanda and this should attract Hindu pilgrims from across the world as religious tourists. Your comments please ?

A: As far as the Hindu temples in the North, East and the central Hill Country are concerned, my Ministry has already spent Rs.280 million for restoration and renovation. More than 2,000 temples have been restored and/ or renovated during the last 2 years. I believe, all historically and religiously prominent temples function without disruptions and conduct religious activities to their maximum capacity.

The Palaly Airport is to be made a Regional Airport with India’s assistance. Once it is done, tourists, including, religious tourists from India and other neighbouring countries would be visiting the country. The Kataragama temple is 2,500 years old and is one of the most ancient shrines in Asia.

The Thiruketheeswaram Shiva temple in Mannar is now being renovated. Munneswaram temple in Chilaw is projected to have a ‘Rajagopuram’ tower, soon. Proposals have been mooted to declare Thiruketheeswaram as a sacred zone. 

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