Jaffna youth grapple with unemployment | Sunday Observer

Jaffna youth grapple with unemployment

Since the end of Sri Lanka’s three decade long armed conflict, youth in the once war-torn Jaffna have grappled with unemployment, an issue which comes with serious social ramificationas. While after 2009 many Jaffna youth sought fortunes abroad, especially, in the Middle East, the cost and tough working conditions along with a more settled Northern Province have encouraged them to seek employment locally, only to be faced with an acute shortage of jobs in both the State and private sector.

As a result, by the end of 2015, according to Government statistics, over 14,000 youth in the Jaffna district alone in the Northern Province were unemployed and since then not much appears to have changed. Despite the Government’s recent efforts to provide employment to qualified graduates within the district, many more youth continue to be unemployed, left to do whatever menial jobs that come their way.

“In Northern society an unemployed man is seen as a dead man,” says Amarthanathan Mukunthan, an unemployed graduate. “He becomes irrelevant,” he says, adding that he now avoids social events where he is often questioned and looked down upon by relatives and friends.

Mukunthan (37) is a graduate of the University of Jaffna. Graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, five years on he remains unemployed. Dispelling the myth that graduates are only willing to take up State sector jobs, Mukunthan says he is even willing to work in the private sector provided it is a permanent position. “But the only private sector employment available in the North is as sales representatives in leasing and insurance companies,” he says. He even tried his hand at that, being left with no choice. Currently, there are over 3,500 unemployed graduates like Mukunthan in the Jaffna district.

Despite the stereotypical and misguided view that the youth in Jaffna, loaded with foreign remittances from relations abroad have become unproductive and lazy, the majority of the unemployed take up menial jobs,not only to keep themselves occupied but also to make ends meet due to dire economic conditions.

Mukunthan now grows bananas in a small plot of land, while secretly working at building sites, mixing cement, etc.

Ilavarasa Thevarasa, yet another unemployed graduate often travels to Mannar to work as a painter, a job he would not take up in Jaffna. “It would be too embarrassing,” he says. But tasked with providing for his family including a younger brother who is unemployed, Thevarasa says he has no other choice.

Others such as Krishan Periyamoorthy, (29) has had only temporary employment at various development related projects in the North. A graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts (Planning) he has been without permanent employment for four years since graduating. He now worries about his two younger sisters and the responsibilities that come with them. “I must provide a dowry for each of them but without a job I don’t know how I will give them away in marriage,” he says.

While being unemployed has an obvious negative economic impact, according to Mukunthan, what is more difficult to face is the constant social scrutiny. “People don’t respect you if you have no job,” he says adding that often families call off already arranged marriages due to the same issue, an experience faced by him, personally.

The constant questioning by relatives also irks him. “They ask my parents what is your son doing now and say it is a waste that he studied, others take it upon themselves to offer me menial jobs,” he says adding that he along with his family now do not attend social events as a rule.

Speaking to them the unemployed related many horror stories of social issues faced by them, from those severely depressed due to the pressures of being unemployed committing suicide, to others where spouses were harsh enough to divorce the partner over the same issue.

But unemployment is not an issue faced by graduates alone who are only a small section of the unemployed youth in the Jaffna district.

Ariyadas Aniston (23) from Tellippalai having studied at the Atchuvely Central College went on to complete a course in Building Construction Technology at the Jaffna Technical College. He has been unable to find permanent employment since. Out of a batch of 35, more than half are without work, he says, adding that he was only able to find temporary work at various project sites. Occupied these days, working at a friend’s beetroot cultivation, Aniston says he hopes for better times. “I want to have a purpose to life,” he says explaining that time withering away has taken a toll on him mentally.

According to Political Economist and Jaffna based activist, Ahilan Kadirgamar one of the reasons for the issue of unemployment is that industries have not developed in the North during the post war era. “There is also a lack of professional jobs with not many opportunities for them outside Jaffna,” he says adding that job opportunities must be created within the area.

“State sector employment opportunities alone are not enough to solve the issue, private investors especially in manufacturing industries are imperative to resolve the Province’s unemployment woes”, he says.

As Northern politician and leader of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Suresh Premachandran points out, rampant unemployment has now given rise to serious anti-social behaviour in the youth.

“Kerala Ganja is being smuggled in and it is increasing day by day,” he says. Local goons use unemployed youth for their smuggling activities. Many youth also find it difficult to marry due to being unemployed due to the importance given to financial stability in society, he adds.

And according to youth interviewed consumption of alcohol among youngsters has increased in Jaffna while others have formed motorcycle gangs adding to the anti social elements. “Theft is also very common now,” Mukunthan says.

Premachandran says while the government has in fairness developed infrastructure in the district, it is yet to introduce any employment oriented development. “Several thousand youth are waiting to be employed,” he points out adding that despite some being given professional training related jobs have not been generated.

Although loans for youth interested in self employment are being facilitated by the Government, the need for guarantors that meet certain conditions, has been an obstacle for the youth to obtain these loans, Premachandran explained.

According to him the Government needs to move towards establishing several factories in the North while reopening others that were shut down during the war, such as the Paranthan Chemical Factory which can generate an estimated 1,000 employment opportunities. He also claims many in the Diaspora are willing to invest in the North but are afraid to do so. “There must be more efforts to foster better relations with Diaspora members willing to help the North,” he says.

Premachandran also points out that a large number of State sector opportunities in the North have been given to those outside the Province. It is not a matter of race, he explained adding that however these are jobs that can be granted to those within the Jaffna district itself. “Youth in the district continue to be unemployed while the jobs available are given to outsiders,” he said adding that the Government needs to cut down on such activities to provide employment to the long suffering Northern youth.

“Better policies must be introduced to advance job related development,” Kadirgamar says. More permanent employment must be created. He says it would take time for the youth of Jaffna to fit in to routine employment after years of not being able to hold a permanent job due to the war. “But with various development, we must work towards absorbing them to the country’s workforce,” he stresses.

Having recently attended interviews for a State sector job, along with many others, Mukunthan is hopeful. However as he points out with only a small number of the unemployed being hired, it is inevitable that others will be once again left looking for work till a permanent solution is arrived at for the district’s unemployment problems.

Pix: Thilak Perera 

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