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Fishermen raise concerns on post-tsunami housing

Sri Lanka seeks to modernize

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Among the legions of traumatized Sri Lankan fishermen whose lives were ravaged by the tsunami are many who are not sure they can go back to the simple lives they and their families once led by the sea.

And if government planners have their way, many will not.

"Our idea is to move the fishermen into housing" away from the coast "that is different, vastly different, from what they were used to," said Tara De Mel, the Colombo-based head of the Center for National Operations, the government agency coordinating relief in Sri Lanka. "The type of housing that will be designed -- apartments or small cabanas -- will definitely be more modern than what they're used to, and that's what our team of architects and engineers are putting together."

This approach is driven by what De Mel said is a decision "not to replace shanties with shanties" and to turn the disaster into an opportunity for development and modernization.

But it is not clear that cement and steel apartments built one mile inland are the most appropriate housing for Sri Lankan fishermen who have traditionally lived in leafy settlements by coconut groves on the seafront.

"Their community life is structured completely differently, and it'd be an alien way of life for them," said Azra Jafferjee, an economist at the Center for Poverty Analysis in Colombo. "You can't transplant someone who's lived -- even if in a shanty -- in a place they're used to just coming out of their door and chatting with their neighbors, into an apartment block, where they're completely removed from that kind of personal contact."

Though Jafferjee said the government's goal to move people away from the sea is understandable, she suggested that the government and aid agencies consult closely with local communities.

Along Sri Lanka's battered coastline, where more than 30,000 people have perished and another 350,000 remain displaced, there is little consensus over where and how to rebuild. Many are embittered and shocked by how the sea they worshiped as a god turned on them. They have fled their homes, vowing never to return.

"I don't want to see again the sea, . . . never in my life," said Narin Prasat, a fisherman who narrowly managed to rescue his 10-year-old son from the swirling water. He said he still hears the harrowing wail of the tsunami when he tries to sleep. "We've had enough of this sea. . . . I want to move away from the beach now. The government should find us new work in the city."

Others are eager to resume the seafaring life their ancestors bequeathed them.

"How long can we stay in relief camps?" said A. G. Nawan, a fisherman who lives in a makeshift camp within a Buddhist monastery in Hikkaduwa, 10 miles west of Galle. "Yes, there is fear in our minds. But this is what we have done for generations, this is all we know. We have to get our boats repaired by the coming monsoon season."

One thing Nawan and Prasat agree on is that it does not make sense to move into houses a mile from the shore. That would not be practical for fishing, and it would not be the best place for a new city life either, they said. Both also seem skeptical about the thought of living in modern apartments.

Authorities in Sri Lanka have tried many times to move fishing communities by building them houses inland.

"Every time they've returned," said P. Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a policy institute in Colombo. "Often they just rent out the home they were given and go back to the beach."

This time, part of the Sri Lankan government's zeal in rebuilding fishing communities in a new mold is driven by its desire to utilize the approximately $1.5 billion in reconstruction funds it has been promised by international donors, Saravanamuttu said.

Local corporations, which have distributed large amounts of relief to survivors and are well represented on the Center for National Operations, are also pushing for this option, said Niranjan de Soysa, a private-sector project manager assisting De Mel.

"Why beat around the bush? The profit motive is behind the corporate sector's involvement," de Soysa said. "That's their modus operandi. . . . They know there'll be plenty of opportunity for them to make money here, especially in construction."

The relocation of fishing communities is one of several issues Sri Lanka is confronting as it struggles to rebuild. Concerns are also rising over whether the government will follow through on its promises and whether aid will flow to the right people.

"We have a long tradition of money getting 'lost' here," said Kassapa Diyadedanage, director of Ahimsa, a nongovernmental organization in Colombo that focuses on peace and reconstruction. Corruption "could swallow half of everything we've got."

The government has said it will take extra measures to ensure that this does not happen, and Saravanamuttu said he sees some evidence of this.

"Of the top 10 officials in the Center for National Operations, only two are bureaucrats" and the rest are from the private sector or academia, he said. "That's a severe indictment of the bureaucracy."

But Diyadedanage said his primary concern was that a lot of aid is being channeled into a special relief fund personally controlled by Sri Lanka's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga. Such accounts are not audited or accountable to parliament. With presidential elections to be held in November, Diyadedanage said he was worried that politicians will not be able to resist using these funds for political purposes.

Many people in the affected areas voice similar concerns. Being daily wage earners, they say they want the government to make rapid decisions that would allow them to restart their lives.

"This haste is the burden of poverty," said Sivagami, who goes by one name. "People prefer a little relief today to promises of great things tomorrow. They just want a little help and money to get on their feet. [Then] they'll make their own arrangements."

That is partly why some of the large and complicated schemes being conceived in government meetings, such as the relocation of fishing villages, might never happen. Some fishermen in Pudukuppam say they have started rebuilding on their previous sites.

"I'm already 70," said P. Muthiah, whose residence is 300 yards from the shoreline. "They say a tsunami comes only every 100 years, so I'm fine."

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