Jaffna’s Re-Awakening | Daily News


Jaffna’s Re-Awakening

If there is one city in Sri Lanka that suffered the most as a result of the protracted conflict, it is Jaffna. The burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 symbolized Jaffna’s bleeding more than anything else. Battered by conflict on the one hand and political expediency on the other, the people of Jaffna (and other parts of the North) yearned for peace and freedom for many decades.

The war victory in 2009 was followed soon thereafter by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second Presidential Elections victory. His decision to develop war-battered Jaffna at a rapid pace was a correct one, but there was one major flaw. He did not take into account the people’s desire for freedom and a degree of autonomy. In other words, the sole focus was on development, not on winning the hearts and minds of the Northern community.

It was therefore not surprising that the TNA, which campaigned on a platform of securing greater autonomy for the region, won the Northern Provincial Council and Mahinda Rajapaksa lost heavily at the Presidential Polls in the North despite a heavy development drive. Development per se was not what the people wanted and the two polls results in the North reflected a deep-rooted desire for something more than roads and buildings.

This was indeed reflected in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), whose recommendations were given the cold shoulder by the previous Government. It was left to the present Government, elected in 2015, to prioritize the feelings and well-being of the Northern community while going ahead with development. Hence measures such as returning lands to civilian owners and appointing a civilian, Tamil-speaking Governor to the NPC. Even in terms of development, there was a perception that Jaffna, being one of the biggest cities in the country, was still not receiving due attention.

The Government has now put that concern to rest by announcing a Megapolis plan for the Jaffna Peninsula. Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka says the Jaffna City Development Project is being undertaken as part of an important ‘National Physical Plan’ (NPP) formulated by a group of 3,000 professionals representing all sectors. Minister Ranawaka was addressing a meeting after inaugurating construction work on the Jaffna New Town hall project on the sidelines of the Enterprise Sri Lanka exhibition in Jaffna, in the presence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Jaffna is also a key location in one of the four main economic and demographic corridors identified by the NPP. The Jaffna city was being developed as a strategic city already under a World Bank project since 2018.

The provision of a new Town Hall facility is important, given the significance of local bodies in the context of devolution of power. Stronger local bodies will lead to the greater empowerment of grassroots politicians and communities, an essential feature of devolution of power. It will give a sense of belonging to the Northern community and make them feel part of the whole of Sri Lanka, thus negating any separatist sentiments.

This scenario offers hope for a changing political landscape where devolution is seen as enabling a local dynamism that is the impetus for economic development and integration with the national mainstream. It is noteworthy that Minister Ranawaka, a frontliner of the Jathika Hela Urumaya which had long been suspicious of devolution, is now leading the Jaffna development programme. Even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a recent interview given to a Tamil journalist, admitted the need for greater devolution of power. Devolution is thus likely to be a hot topic at the next Presidential Election.

The events of Easter Sunday have added another dimension - in terms of communal and religious harmony. It showed us that extremism can take over where intolerance reigns. The best answer is forging a truly national identity where everyone feels equal regardless of race and religion.

Minister Ranawaka has made another point on this occasion – that the focus should be on developing the country and not on past conflicts. While he does have a point here, we might not be able to face the future with confidence if we do not come to terms with the past. It is only by finding why and where we have gone wrong in the past that we can chart a right course for the future. Such an approach will help us avoid another ethnic conflict, another Easter tragedy whilst pursuing development goals.

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