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Resettlement highest priority

2015 Jan 29

Minister of Resettlement, Reconstruction and Hindu Culture, D.M. Swaminathan said he was working with all Tamil political parties to resettle the people of Valikamam –North during the 100 day programme.
Commenting on the Sri Lankan refugees in India, he said "There are more than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees in India. Earlier, when these people came to Sri Lanka, they were grilled during security clearance by the previous government. They were kept in custody for more than 24 hours. This procedure has reached the refugees in India and they lost interest to return to their home country. We are trying to make it more flexible, we will check on the security, but we will not grill them."
Following are excerpts of the interview:

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Ceylontoday, 2015-01-27 02:00:00

Resettlement highest priority

Q:
How do you view the resettlement programme in the past? Do you feel it was successful?
A: According to figures I have received, 280,000 families have been resettled so far. These people were resettled in the areas they were entitled to resettle. There are various other issues connected to resettlement issues. Once people are resettled we have to provide them with sanitation, housing, schooling and livelihood. I have not received any information with regard to these issues. I don't want to comment on the previous government and waste my time. I will only look at the future on what I can do. Criticizing another government is not part of my job. I'm in this position to execute my responsibilities.


Q:
You must be aware that people have faced many problems and are still facing problems after resettlement. These people are actually traumatized. Don't you think their problems should be solved as soon as possible?
A: There is a so called resettlement process where people are given eight bags of cement and roof sheets. I know that alone is not sufficient. There should be basic accommodation for these people to live. There were dry rations distributed to the people before, but now I don't think it is continued. I will look into it through the District Secretaries and at least provide them dry rations for eight to 12 months.


Q:
The agenda of your Ministry would include only the resettlement programme in the war affected areas, or would it include the entire country in the 100 day programme?
A: According to the gazette it is not confined only to North and East.


Q:
How are you looking forward to carry out the resettlement programme during the 100 days?
A: I have discussed with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), especially Northern Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran, the head of the UNHCR and the head of the European Union. They are all willing to go ahead with the resettlement programme.
There are so many lands probably we can get back in the Valikamam North to resettle those in the welfare centres. Army is in occupation in Valikamam-North, yet there are lands which are not directly used by them but yet confined to their custody. We are trying to speak to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe as well as the Army Commander's views ares important to examine whether we can get the lands back. If I can get the lands back, people from Valikamam-North will be resettled. These people have got the deeds with them and their ownership is confirmed. If I can resettle them, it will benefit them.


Q:
Would it be a long procedure to resettle the house owners of Valikamam-North?
A: The procedure will not take a long time since the machinery is working quite well. All parties as well as the Defence Secretary are very cooperative. There is no issue at all.
Q:
Yet there should be a time frame for you to resettle these people. What would be the time period?
A: I cannot confirm that. Within the 100 day programme I will consider on what I could actually achieve. Only 12 days have passed after I took office.


Q:
What are the programmes you are hoping to carry out within the 100 days?
A: As I said, there is land in the Valikamam-North, which is occupied by the Army. There are numbers of hotels that have been built in these lands. These lands are in the High Security Zones where the public cannot reach without permission. Behind these lands there are large acres of land that is available for resettlement. Therefore I'm now concentrating on whether that could be releazed from the Army. I must make it very clear I'm not in any way interfering with the National Security of this country. I cannot interfere with the Army occupation in the North. But I will look into resettlement. I will first look into taking back the lands unutilized by the Army, which will give a great value to the people.


Q:
After resettling the people of Valikamam –North, how would you maintain them with adequate facilities? Do you feel the financial allocations are adequate?
A: At that point the UNHCR would enter the scene. Only Rs 230 million was allocated for this ministry during the last budget. I feel that is insufficient. With this allocation I don't think I could meet targets. I also had an opportunity to discuss with Minister of Finance, if there is provision, they can give me a supplementary budget.
Q:
Will it be practical to grant adequate allocations through a supplementary budget?
A: I cannot tell you that. It is left to the Ministry of Finance and the government. If the Cabinet gives the specific allocations, I will be successful.


Q:
Those who have already been resettled are facing various issues especially livelihood issues with the cost of living. What steps would your ministry take to settle their problems?
A: We have to get the foreign agencies to help us. Especially the UNHCR has very clearly said that they will support to resettle those who are yet to be resettled and those who have already been resettled will also get help. We will provide them with adequate sanitary, schooling and vocational facilities. Especially, land should be provided at least for cultivation. We are also looking forward to various ambassadors for aid since I don't think the allocations we have is enough to carry out our task.


Q:
Those who are yet to be resettled in Valikamam –North is now in more than 34 welfare centres and other places. But there is an increase in population and it has been more than 25 years since they were displaced from Valikamam-North. It is understood people are facing space issues in welfare centres. What steps would you take to solve their issues until they are resettled?
A: We are looking forward to get them out of welfare centres as soon as possible and resettle them. According to a map I received, some people have been resettled in the North but the rest of the land is empty and I feel people should be immediately resettled. We will resettle them with the consent and concurrence of the Army.


Q:
Disgruntled Fishermen Associations have continuously spoken about their living standards in the post resettlement period. What are your plans to uplift their living standards?
A: There is no problem in addressing the fishermen issues. I have just assumed duties therefore I'm still studying the issues. There is a corporation which deals with fishing equipment. The said corporation is under the purview of the Ministry of Resettlement. I have not appointed a chairman for that corporation. Once he is appointed, we will carry out plans to uplift their living standards. We don't have major issues, but just have to plan out ideas and to be committed to it.


Q:
How do you view the cooperation with the authorities in the North since you are giving first priority to resettle people in Valikamam-North?
A: Northern Governor is a civilian. We will also obtain the cooperation from the Northern Military Commander. The TNA and other Tamil parties are also very cooperative with us. I will always consider everyone and act according to their wishes. They will probably know very much more than I do. They have to advise me on what steps I must take. Therefore I'm in close touch with them. I met TNA Parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran and Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran.


Q:
We understand that refugees who are currently living in India will be brought back to Sri Lanka. When will they be sent to Sri Lanka?
A: In another two weeks period 40 people will be coming to Sri Lanka from India. We have not checked areas they earlier lived. Once these people come to Sri Lanka, they will be subjected to defence clearance and then they will be asked as to which area they belong to. Even if they don't have deeds we will do arrangements to resettle these people.
Q:
According to information received by the Indian authorities, how many Sri Lankans are there in welfare centres?
A: There are more than 100,000 people. Earlier, when these people came to Sri Lanka, they were grilled during the security clearance by the previous government. They were kept in custody for more than 24 hours. This procedure has reached the refugees in India and they will lose the interest to come back to their country. We are trying to make it more lenient, we will check on the security, but we will not grill them.


Q:
How would you ensure security for the refugees coming from India?
A: There are many cantonments in the Northern Province. There is all type of security forces in order to ensure the security of this country. If normal security is exercised in the country; there will not be any issue.


Q:
If these people from India do not have deeds will you be resettling them in alternative places? Where would you find alternative lands?
A: We need not approach alternative lands, if the lands occupied by the Army is releazed, we can definitely resettle them.
Q:
What plans have you got to resettle the people from Sampur?
A: Sampur is a big question mark. Nearly 1600 acres of land is allocated for the Sampur Coal Power Plant. I will collect information from the officials. We must know whether the Sampur power plant is still functioning or they would terminate it. Accordingly, 1600 acres is a huge piece of land. If they have a portion of land for the power plant and releaze the rest of the land, we will be successful to resettle the people there.


Q:
Would you be having any resettlement and livelihood programmes to uplift the tsunami victims since even now there are many with improper shelters?
A: I have not touched upon that now. There are more important tasks I may have to carry out as a Tamil Minister of the State. I will have to work among the Tamils in the war affected areas. I'm not neglecting the Muslims or Sinhalese. I only took office on 11 January. Therefore, during this specific time period it is difficult to give deadlines and divulge plans.


Q:
Being a Tamil representative, how would you participate in the release of the Tamil Political Prisoners?
A: They are in prisons for more than 10-15 years. I'm not asking them to release them at once. Certainly, if there are charges, they might have to undergo legal proceedings. But we should examine their grievances.


Q:
What plans have you organized for the resettled women headed families and children?
A: We will have to provide lands or cattle for them to look after their families. Women cannot do heavy work and they must be given enough support for their livelihood. We will coordinate with the Ministry of Women Affairs and will act accordingly. Also, we should examine whether if infants and children are given adequate milk and food. We should consider whether the parents have got enough money to buy milk powder. It is a long process; we will definitely look into their education. We have to consider their future.


Q:
Being the Minister of Hindu Culture, what are your plans in the 100 day programme?
A: There are many temples which have not been properly maintained. We have to look into these temples and to build proper temples. However, temples in the North and East are maintained properly to certain extend but temples in the Estates are not maintained properly. I will try my best and build some temples.


Q:
What are the programmes planed for your ministry in the 100 day programme?
A: Resettlement in the Valikamam North will be given first priority. Releazing the political prisoners and help to resettle people in the estates displaced due to landslides with the collaboration of Ministry Estate Infrastructure will follow.

(Email : che.myhero@gmail.com)

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