School fears project for its social ills | Daily News


Point Pedro Fisheries Harbour

School fears project for its social ills

Jetty area used to park boats,  at present
Jetty area used to park boats, at present

Point Pedro, the northernmost town in Sri Lanka, is not a big place. One hour on a bicycle is sufficient to cover almost all parts of it. So any change, big or small, has an impact. The Asian Development Bank (ADB)–funded Point Pedro Fisheries Harbour will thus have a tremendous impact on this small town, forever transforming it for better or worse. But for now, there is one stakeholder it has failed to convince – the Methodist Girls’ School, a mere 15m away from the project.

An imposing building facing the Indian Ocean, thousands of girls for 195 years have trodden the beaches of Point Pedro to get to Methodist Girls School. It kept its doors open during the war and tsunami and has been a high security zone for many years, but now it faces the question of whether it can run next to the biggest fisheries harbour in the region. Students’ parents especially have voiced strong concerns against the project being directly in front of the school, and they have asked that the school principal request that the harbour be moved a few metres from the school.

Close to 1,234 students attend Methodist Girl’s School and when the parents first got to know of the project, over 100 parents had signed a petition against the project being located directly in front of the school.

“A harbour comes with all sorts of social ills from drugs to all sorts of men. Our girls go to this school. It will misguide our children and is an affront to our culture,” said Karthalingam Annamalai (56) whose daughter studies in Grade 10 at the school. Annamalai too is a fisherman by profession and whilst he recognised the benefit the harbour could bring to the region, he has been vociferous in his opposition to it being so close to the school.

Parents have pointed out that the harbour which would take five years to complete would bring the noise of construction and pollution and also be a security threat to the girls having to travel to and from school. Further, once it is built, the noise, security and smell from the fishing activities would continue to make it difficult for the children to study.

“We do not want the government to lose this ADB project. We need development, we are not against it. All we are saying is, do not build it at the cost of the school,” said S. Sivanesan (51), whose daughter studies in Grade 9 at the school and who is also Secretary of the School Development Committee.

A teacher from the school speaking anonymously said they were first informed of the project by the Fisheries Ministry in November 2017.

“They showed us an animation of the project and said it would be one of the biggest in Sri Lanka. And since it is ADB funded, they had to start the project this year or they would lose the low-interest loan,” she said.

“For five years, our children will have to bear with the noise and construction. The A/L classes especially would be affected. Also, how can we run a school so close to the harbour? she asked.

A parent in the meantime pointed out that they should have designed the project having first consulted with all stakeholders and not after. “Now that the officials have designed it, they don’t want to change it.”

ADB Sri Lanka Unit Head of Portfolio Management, Manjula Amerasinghe refuted claims of there being a deadline for the loan and said (via an email query), “This project is currently under processing and is not yet approved by the ADB Board. The government and ADB are working with all stakeholders (including the Methodist School) to address their concerns in the finalisation of the project design.”

The project

Point Pedro consists of 14,057 families in 35 Grama Niladhari divisions out of which 2,900 families are fisher families, organised into 16 cooperative societies and one federation. For over 30 years of war, the fisheries industry in the area stood at a standstill and today revival seems like an uphill task with the rest of the world and country having moved on to bigger boats and better technology.

“In the 1980s, the Northern Province contributed to 40 percent of the catch; after the war it stood at four percent. We have managed to increase it to 17 percent in the last few years, but this is the maximum we can go with the current facilities,” said Prabath Ranaweera, the Project Officer assigned by the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Ministry for the modernisation of the old Point Pedro Fisheries Harbour.

Ranaweera who has been an active proponent of the project explained that the government’s intension was to motivate more fishermen to get into deep sea fishing in the area as fish catches in the coastal belt were expected to dramatically fall in the next 10 years. “This harbour will be able to accommodate 150 27ft boats. The South has 20 fisheries harbours; the North also needs them if they are to develop the fishing industry. At present, they can’t dock a large multi-day boat even if they get one.”

According to the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) Report performed in July 2018 for the project, the new harbour is set to be an all-weather fisheries harbour consisting of two breakwater structures (880m and 425m), a 18.4 ha harbour basin, two jetties (120m and 115m), 6.4 ha area of reclaimed land (the inshore intertidal reef complex will be reclaimed), two quay walls for parking of boats and slip way able to handle vessels up to 75m. Apart from the harbour construction, the area will also have a net mending hall, community hall and canteen, bachelor quarters, harbour manager quarters, surveillance building, auction hall, parking areas, public toilets, wastewater treatment facility, security facilities, weigh bridge and control room, fuel facility, off-loading building, transformer and generator facilities.

A massive undertaking, Ranaweera explained that they had done a feasibility studies prior to the designing of the project and identified that the main social impacts were likely to be caused to two important set of stakeholders: 13 fisher families on one side and three schools on the other side; Methodist Girls’ High School located 15m away, Hartley Boy’s College located 100m away and the Point Pedro Sithivinayagar Vidyalayam located 275m. Thus the worst affected would be the Girls’ School. “We try to avoid issues, but when that is not possible, the only possible solution is to try and minimise it,” he said.

Ranaweera insisted that the project was sensitive to all the issues raised by the school which according to him were noise, smell, traffic and the obstruction of the sea view, “So we proposed that no building be built in the immediate vicinity of the school, to leave a ‘green eco belt’ in front of the school and allow them to use it to teach students about fisheries, to locate the auction hall which will create the noise and smell, 200m away from the school and finally, to require that all vehicles be parked within the harbour to avoid traffic congestion outside.”

In a bid to convince the community of the project, the Ministry also arranged a tour of the Beruwela, Galle and Dikkowita fisheries harbours for 34 members including members of the Point Pedro Urban Council, parents from the schools, staff of the Hartley Boys’ College, and members of the fisheries cooperative society. “They think this is a traditional harbour which is dirty and smelly. In Dikkowita too there are girls’ schools near the harbour and they don’t have any issues. We wanted them to see what a modern harbour looked like. But the Methodist Girls’ School principal refused to come on the trip.”

The schools close to the Dikkowita harbour however are located 110m–200m away unlike the Methodist Girls School and given that difference, a parent at the school said they saw no point in the comparison or the tour of the harbour and its vicinity.

The government has also offered the school the land in front of the school to take up and manage to assure them that the space would be left empty. “We are prepared to sign a MoU between the Fisheries Cooperation and the school and we will give them this land. A harbour also brings with it Customs and other security which will cut back on the illegal smuggling in the area, making it safe for the girls. In addition, the breakwater will protect it from tsunamis. I don’t understand why they are against it.”

Government officials who designed the project perceive the objections from the Methodist Girls School as being unfair, especially having, in their view, ‘gone out of their way to accommodate their demands’. But the school feels that the issue could be easily resolved if the officials had simply listened to them prior to finalising its design.

When asked if Ranaweera and his team considered the suggestions put forward by the parents and school to redesign some sections related to them or even to downsize it a bit, he said, “If we changed it, it won’t be as economical. We build these things to last another 20 years and growth in the fisheries industry also has to be taken into account.”

Another official working on the project who wished to remain anonymous insisted, “We are doing all these adjustments for the school. And since they don’t believe us and have asked for a guarantee over the land immediately in front of the school, we asked them to take it over. We are prepared to keep 3,000sq metres of valuable land free for them.”

He explained that they had met the school authorities five times, including with the Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and Provincial education authorities. The project, he said, has also offered to build a parapet wall for the school in order to satisfy them. “We have now agreed to give them a net wall, in order to not block their view of the sea.”

Overall, however, the officials have taken the view that it was now time the school compromised as the project would be going ahead anyway.

Grievance committee

But the issues could have been resolved if stakeholder consultations were conducted in a transparent and open manner. The IEE in its report had proposed to set up a Grievance Committee at the Vadamarachchi North Divisional Secretariat to be able to better listen to the community. The school, it is learnt, has not been invited to any of its meetings, since it was set up in October 2018. A local government official revealed that in the meeting in November, nine fisher families who were to lose their lands to the project raised their concerns and were duly compensated for the land.

In the meantime, pressure from the Provincial Education Ministry has been building against the principal and teachers who support the parents opposing the project.

In early December, Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a resident of Point Pedro, had written a letter to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission asking that they intervene against the harbour being built directly before the school and also to stop the premature transfer of the Methodist Girls’ School principal. He alleged that given the Principal’s support towards the parents’ objections, the Northern Provincial Council Chief Secretary Pathinathan and the Provincial Education Ministry Secretary were planning to prematurely transfer the principal out of the school.

S. Sathiyaseelan, speaking to the Daily News, however assured that they were no such moves to transfer the principal. At a meeting held between all stakeholders including the ADB, Fisheries Ministry, the school and the fishing community on December 15, Sathiyaseelan said a committee had been appointed to come up with suggestions for the Fisheries Ministry on how to move forward. “We are fine with the school taking over the land in front of them and utilising it. This is not a big problem – this harbour is something that the community really needs. We have to implement this anyway,” he said.

How vibrant is the Northern fishing community?

For Annamalai, his fight for the school is about not being able to see a future for himself in the fishing industry. Despite government schemes promising to help fishermen in the area upgrade their boats, he said the banks asked for heavy collateral before granting any loans.

“Only outsiders with money will benefit from the new harbour. They will bring their boats and coolers and take the fish and leave. We would only have to sell diesel and ice to them,” he remarked.

Poaching of fish by Indian trawlers and fishermen from other areas has further depleted their stocks, he added. “In a few years, fish stocks will be depleted. It is then that we would need the schools for our children.”

Kanthavanam Suriyakumaran, a member of the Fishermen’s Cooperative Society in the area, has two of his daughters attending Methodists Girls School, but he was of the view that the school needed to compromise for his profession to progress. “The school does not understand what this fisheries harbour can do for us here. We need multi-day boats to be profitable, but today even if I were to buy a larger boat, I have no place to dock it.”

He was also of the opinion that the school which had many parents involved in the government services or white collar jobs were blind to the needs of the fishing community.

Vadamarachchi East Fishermen’s Cooperative Secretary S. Natkunam too echoed Suriyakumaran’s views and insisted that they would not be able to survive without a modern fisheries harbour in the future. “We know that the school should not be impacted either. Our children go there, but having seen the other harbours, it should not be an issue.”

A compromise?

The World Bank has found that public participation in an Environmental Impact Assessment tended to improve project design, environmental soundness and social acceptability, but more often than not, the manner in which it is done can spell more trouble or a smooth transition for a project. On December 15, when all stakeholders were brought to the table, tensions were running high, despite all parties agreeing that a fisheries harbour at Point Pedro was a positive development; lack of transparency, miscommunication, intimidation and closed door meetings had made the group split into two camps.

According to a parent who attended the meeting, a committee comprising all stakeholders came together to discuss two possible options. One option was to take ownership of the land in front of the school as proposed by the authorities, and the second was to ask the authorities to expand the land area into the north (towards the sea), instead of coming towards the school. The second option had been rejected by the authorities for some time as it would require redesign, but the technical officers who attended the meeting on December 15, informed them that this could be done, said the parent.

The School Development Committee thereafter met again on December 17 and they are expected to advocate the second option.

“We could have solved this matter long time ago, only if government officials actually listened to us,” he said.

It however remains to be seen whether the government and the ADB would eventually take steps to save the school at the tip of this island nation. 

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