'My conscience is clean' | Daily News


 

'My conscience is clean'

Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Affairs Minister, D. M. Swaminathan who is currently at the centre of the controversy surrounding the 65,000 housing project insists that the hype is more to do with the politics of the North rather than a lack of transparency in its tender procedure.

Excerpts:

Q. What is the current status of the housing project in Jaffna?

A. It was taken up in the cabinet meeting this week and a special committee comprising of the President, the Prime Minister and myself was appointed to review issues of land in the project. There has been no stoppage in the project. Only a land issue.

Q. It was reported that a special committee headed by the President and the Prime Minister were reviewing the project? And that they were to reconsider who they would award the project to?

A. No. The President said that there was no problem with the construction, only an issue with land.

Q.Are you saying that the project has already been awarded to the company Arcelor Mittal?

A. Yes. That has already been confirmed.

Q. What are these land issues you speak of?

A. We are to have a meeting on Monday, April 18 to discuss it. It mostly revolves around making sure that they don’t build on forest land.

We are giving houses to people in Jaffna who never had anyone providing them houses.

MP Sumanthiran now asks for the progress report after two months. He did not ask for the tender procedure when he first ran down the project. If he had first asked me about it, I would have told him. He need not have asked for it in Parliament.

They don’t want this project to continue as they will lose their identity and this project will uplift the socio economic conditions of the people, give them computers and better opportunities.

Q. If this is such a great project as you say, why has it been surrounded by such controversy?

A. There are a set of people who also wanted the contract but they have not been awarded the tender. They are causing problems.

The only company which gave a full financial package was the Mittal group. They are also backed by an HSBC loan. The other companies did not meet the tender requirements.

This is the time we need to build these houses, these were the promises we gave during election time and if we don’t, as a government we won’t be fulfilling our election promises. There is no fault in the procedure here, all procedures have been followed.

Q. Given the slump in the world steel market and overall decline in the steel industry, there are allegations that Arcelor Mittal is using this housing project to dump all their steel into?

A. Even Tata is closing their plants in the UK. Mittal is one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world, it is a US$ 93 billion company, this project is negligible for them. They have over 63 companies, there is no question of them dumping their steel here. This is a small market for them, only 65,000 houses. We have not chosen a mushroom company, this is one of the largest companies in the world. The world famous architect, Ballman has designed these pre-fabricated houses.

People thronging the Divisional Secretariat office in Vavuniya with their applications for housing facilities under the programme. Pictures by K. Vasantharupan

Q. Speaking of design, how feasible and realistic are steel fabricated houses in the heat of Jaffna?

A. These designs are scientifically done. The temperature inside the houses is 3-5 degrees less than outside. We studied this for six months and the University of Moratuwa has also approved our design. All legal procedures have been followed.

There were three committees appointed to study this project; the evaluation, technical and cabinet committee and then it was finally approved by the Treasury Secretary.

From September 2015 to date every single step has been taken according to proper procedure.

Up to now I have kept quiet because I prefer to get things done rather than talk about it.

My conscience is clean, I have followed all tender procedure.

Q. How many houses in total do you need to build for the displaced?

A. We have to build a total of 130,000 houses in Jaffna, Trincomalee and Mannar. The 65,000 houses were a measure of immediate relief.

The second best bidder for the tender quoted a price of Rs. 1.35 million per house whilst Arcelor Mittal quoted 1.4 million. The latter however included solar power, water pumps, computers, television and other electronic devices. That is why we awarded it to Arcelor Mittal.

Q. Many say that the people do not need computers in houses but livelihoods?

A. By giving them a computer, I am trying to uplift their standards. We have to give them economic uplift as well and a computer is an educational tool.

Q. You spoke of about 130,000 houses which need to be built, how have you proposed to build the rest? Will you look to local contractors for that?

A. There are two problems in the North when it comes to housing, lack of sand and labour. People cannot build their own houses there. They also have no livelihood to do that and most get into heavy debt in trying to build houses. The owner driven model does not work, their socioeconomic standards have to be uplifted first. That is why we are going for pre-fabricated houses.

Q. But most of the housing schemes in the North and East including the Indian Housing Scheme worked on an owner-driven model. Are you saying that they have been failures?

A. I thank the Indian government for having built them but if you see the houses themselves, half have not been plastered properly, they have used inferior wood for windows and there are many defects in these houses. This is not against the Indian government, they have given us a lot of support but the houses have not been a complete success.

With our pre-fabricated houses, we first built two model houses and since then we have got around 30,000 applications asking for these houses. I have published all their names with ID numbers on our website, the people like it. The TNA are against this because they are scared of losing their vote base. We want to work with the TNA on this issue but they don’t want these people to be helped. But as the central government we have an obligation to the people. This is not political, the government is on the side of the people.

Q. While you deal with the issue of housing in the North, many in the area complain of land issues. The process of returning lands to the civilians has been slow has it not?

A. It is not a slow process. We have in the past year given back 3,300 acres to the people. The President and the Prime Minister are discussing further with the Defence Ministry as to how much more can be released. We have not been slow in this.

Q. Has this model been tested for conditions found in Jaffna especially salinity?

A. Yes, Yes, all that has been scientifically tested.

Q. Can you give examples of such houses in other countries? In similar environmental conditions as this? Or is this the first of its kind? If so what guarantee period and what is the life time of the houses? We have bad experiences related to such incidents in tsunami.

A. These houses are there around the world, I cannot tell you offhand now. Yes same conditions such as ours.

The company will set up their local offices in the North and East and they will provide these houses a minimum of 30 years' guarantee. If something happens to the house within this period, they will get a new house. And then there is 60-70 year guarantee for any repairs and maintenance.

You cannot compare this to the incidents of the tsunami houses, this is very different. 


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