Opinion: Is Jaffna a quaint tourist destination, or an economic powerhouse waiting for some diesel in the tank?

By Jekhan Aruliah

Deloittes, one of the top global accounting firms, has for many years produced a “London Office Crane Survey”.

The Deloittes website states: “The level of construction is widely used as a measure of economic activity – counting the number of cranes / construction sites across Central London is a relatively easy and accurate way to benchmark London’s economic health.”

Cranes = Building = Investment = Confidence and Vigour.

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Walking around Jaffna Town, where I have spent much of the last year, I see many cranes. Cranes flying overhead, cranes standing in ponds waiting for a fishy snack, and yes there is even one crane lifting heavy objects on a construction site.

The view from the roof of the condominium where I rent an apartment offers a marvellous panorama of Jaffna Town and beyond. From here you can see all the way to the Jaffna Library the Cargills Mall and the Jetwings Hotel.

You can sight the temple at Nallur and there is a clear view to the coast and the waters beyond. From the condominium’s roof you can see for miles and miles.

But in all the panorama, there is only that one construction crane. Like a flagless flagpole it marks a building site half a kilometer as the crane flies from my apartment. Seen from my flat the building looks enormous and impressive. And to be frank, since it first appeared a few months ago, it spoils the view from my balcony.

jaffna-1Far more disappointing than the impaired view is my disappointment on closer inspection that is not to be a new office building or factory bringing high quality jobs. It is a water tower.

Which is not to disrespect water towers. Doubtless the cisterns in the Chundikuli suburb will fill a little faster with the added water pressure. Certainly a blessing if after the first flush everything does not go the way it is supposed to.

It is not the new and vital water tower that is disappointing, but the scarcity of other developments aimed at building economic opportunity by bringing jobs for the populace.

High value jobs in software development, engineering design, accountancy and business processing. All are professions the Tamils of the North excel in around the World, except here in the North where their ancestors came from.

In the November 2017 Budget the government made a promise: “426. Honorable Speaker, to facilitate private businesses to expand their operations to the Northern Province we will construct a Vertical Building for mixed development which will include office space, recreational facilities, and entertainment facilities. I propose to allocate Rs. 1,000 million for this purpose.”

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From this we know the billion rupee block will be in the Northern Province and it will go in an upward direction. We look forward to hearing where the Vertical Building will be located horizontally (i.e. where on the map). And to discover the quality of the jobs and infrastructure it will generate. At least it is a positive sign that the government is not ignoring the Northern economy.

There are those in the Diaspora who complain that the government isn’t doing enough for the North. Perhaps this is true. But the Diaspora should also look to itself and ask whether it is doing enough.

In his excellent book, “Jaffna, Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision”, the former Jaffna GA Mr.Neville Jayaweera comments that the combined GDP of the Tamil Diaspora (presumably calculated by multiplying the number of individuals in a country by the GDP per person in that country) matches that of Sri Lanka.

The Diaspora has the skills and the economic capability to get things done. Not only in the North, but in the whole of Sri Lanka. Money already flows into the Western Province, much of it to buy multimillion rupee condominiums.

jaffna-4But apart from a very few honourable exceptions, investment done by the Diaspora in the North in the years since the end of the civil war remains disappointing.

We Sri Lankans of a certain age love a classical quote. “Veni, Vidi, Vici”, “I came, I saw, I conquered” supposedly uttered by Julius Caesar, a guy who knew how to get things done.

In the years since the end of the civil war visitors to the North are more likely to say “Veni, Vidi, Vale”, “I came, I saw, I left” (with apologies to Latin scholars who have more than my meagre O’Level in that language).

All these years after the end of the war Jaffna and the North is still a quaint tourist destination. Still waiting for some diesel in the tank.

It is not only the Sri Lanka government’s responsibility. The private sector and private citizenry also have a part to play. It’s time to start pumping.

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was 2 years of age. Brought up in South London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences.

Jekhan then spent over 2 decades in the IT industry, half of which was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )