Northern economic re-awakening | Sunday Observer

Northern economic re-awakening

As Northern business people and local citizens visit the Jaffna International Trade Fair (JITF 2018) venue in Jaffna, youth and students flock to the nearby ‘Higher Education and Career Exhibition’ being held simultaneously with the trade fair. The JITF 2018 and the education fair, both end today and, are symbols of the speedy re-awakening of the Northern Province after decades of war.

Not yet ten years ago, the country saw the ending of the most devastating war this island had experienced in centuries. The ending of the war, however, did not bring immediate relief to the worst affected region, the Northern Province. The government of the time was more interested in gaining political advantage from a military victory and, less concerned with the social recovery of the affected community and region.

It was the new government that saw the importance of social and ecological recovery if the military achievement was to be converted into genuine social stability and peace. That prompted a concerted effort by Colombo in the past three years to support and empower the people, businesses and administrative bodies of the North. The Government’s approach was comprehensive: a slow, but steady time table of release of lands and property back to the people of the region, extensive re-building of economic and social infra-structure, social healing work and, facilitation of local politics and local business.

Even as the people of the North began to revive their economy, an early stumbling block has been the difficulty faced by Jaffna’s once-thriving fishing industry. Released from the rigours of war, the fisher people found their traditional fishing grounds along the northern coastline and in the Palk Strait overcrowded with intruding fishing boats from India. Having depleted their own fishing grounds in meeting the enormous appetite of a massive Indian market, fisher people on the other side of the Palk Strait were soon taking advantage of the war’s end to poach on the Sri Lankan side.

These ‘fisher wars’ are still on-going. The Sri Lankan security forces, particularly the Navy, who had striven hard to defend the nation as a whole against the separatist insurgency, are now vigorously patrolling Sri Lanka’s northern waters in defence of the northern fisher folk and their vital fishing grounds. A new law is being enacted in Parliament to further empower all the relevant authorities tasked with protecting our coastal and deep-sea ocean economic zone from unfair and illegal exploitation by foreign fisheries enterprises.

Of course, if there are sub-regional needs of local communities like those of the fisher people on both sides of the Palk Strait, such issues should be carefully negotiated to mutual benefit. Such negotiations will be done within the framework of national laws aimed at protecting domestic industries (like fisheries) and also international legal instruments protecting oceanic resources and ecology.

Today, such international ramifications of local economic and community needs have spurred close collaboration between the northern administration and the national government. The politics of ethnic confrontation has been replaced by the politics of empowerment and local rejuvenation. The Provincial Council now confidentially struts the regional stage where once embittered insurgents fought among themselves and, attempted to enforce a make-shift ‘separate state’.

Regional chambers of commerce are flexing their economic muscles as they contemplate nothing less than a ‘boom’. If estrangement and barriers was the experience during the war, today, joint ventures, value-chain collaborations, inter-regional and international trade, is the name of the game.

The Northern society is eager to recover its once-respected status as a region well-resourced and socially equipped as any other major socio-economic centre on the island. The current national politics of social reconciliation, devolution and transitional justice, are the most suitable antidote to the ethnic exclusivism-vs.-supremacism dynamics that came before.

Today, where previously an ultra-nationalist guerrilla group militarily enforced its diktat, a vibrant, mluti-ethnic Provincial Council manages affairs with local pride and flair. Local businesses were quick to see the advantages of a thriving, post-war, national market and quick to respond to numerous joint venture initiatives from the South.

Once again, the Peninsula has become a destination – for returning exiles, whole layers of intelligentsia earlier displaced to the South or overseas, exploring entrepreneurs, pilgrims from the South and across the Strait, and, tourists both Sri Lankan and international. The Nallur Temple festival is now a gigantic religious and social event, showcasing religious dynamism and prosperity on the one hand and enabling family re-unions and celebration on the other.

Even as they visit trade and education fairs in the explorations of their own, personal futures, the people of the North can now contemplate life back in the mainstream of national life, enabled by local and national leaderships that are focussed on unity and equality.