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 Post Posted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 1:38 am 

by Parakrama Karunaratne
Former Chairman, NHDA
Retired Deputy Solicitor General; Past President – Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka.

Many articles and reports have been published, comments made, about the failure of the Government to provide housing for those affected by the tsunami. Angela Evans commenting from the Report from Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing cites that 90% of the people living in the areas hit by tsunami were dwelling in sub-standard conditions; people and communities were still living in make shift shelters, health and nutrition needs were being compromised and safety and security, particularly of women and girls, were under threat. The Rapporteur’s Report "highlights a culture of failure to deliver to some of the neediest."

Meanwhile, daily news reports have underscored the failure of the government and the donor agencies as well as the NGOs to address the housing needs of the affected, and as reported, only around 5000 of the promised 30, 000 houses have been completed by the NGOs. The Minister in charge of Housing has reportedly complained that the foreign donors as well as the NGOs failed to deliver on the promises and there is a question as to what happened to the funds received by these organizations. What actually did happen when the most severe catastrophe befell on this Island commanding world-wide sympathy and assistance and 15 months later people are still living in make-shift, inhabitable shelters and suffering untold hardships?

Lack of leadership

Primarily, the present problems could be attributed to the lack or the abdication of leadership and the failure to acknowledge the right organization to lead the reconstruction work. Why the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) which is the premier organization in the country for housing was totally sidelined would, for some, may be a mystery. However, it is well known that the Ministry in charge of NHDA failed to take the initiative and concentrated only in the Eastern Province leaving the balance parts of the country to tend to itself. In the absence of leadership by the Ministry it befell on the Ministry of Urban Development and the UDA to take the primary role, which role should deservedly have been with the NHDA, to take the initiatives to address the issue of housing and reconstruction. The question still remains as to why a regulatory body such as UDA was given the prime task of housing reconstruction and NHDA was kept out of the entire process.

In the absence of NHDA and the Housing Ministry playing the key role, which they were fully capable of and expected, the entire programme on housing lacked the necessary expertise that NHDA could have easily provided and for which it had the experience, other organizations took over. Sidelining of NHDA became very apparent when KFW Bank of Germany offered Euro 25 million for tsunami housing and this was flatly rejected on the basis the programme on housing was over subscribed and further objected to the participation of the NHDA.

Unfortunately for the NHDA, other than the General Manager there was not a single person of authority to raise the vital issues relating to housing and it was astonishing that the GM was not involved in any of the high-powered discussions or meetings till early May 2005.

Failure to tender proper advice

Not only the Ministry of Housing but other governmental agencies failed to advice the government on key issues. One such issue was the buffer zone. The authority in charge of the coast is the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) and it inextricably failed to advice the government with regard to the relevant laws and regulations. When at the very outset it was pronounced that an area of 1000 meters would constitute the buffer zone (BZ) and no building of any structure within this area would be permitted, CCD maintained a deafening silence which extended even when the BZ was reduced to 500 meters and then to 300 meters. The Coast Conservation Act has designated an area of 300 meters as the Coastal Zone (CZ) and the Plan prepared under the law has identified no-build areas extending from 25 meters to 125 meters. Why CCD failed to advice and guide the government on the legality of the various pronouncements of BZ remains still a mystery.

Additionally, it was the bounden duty of the Housing Ministry and the NHDA to have tendered relevant advice to the government with regard to construction and reconstruction of houses in the affected areas. As far as it is known the NHDA failed in this aspect though the officers of the NHDA were making every effort to be useful in many areas. NHDA, with as many as 28 district offices in every district of the country and having been engaged in housing for nearly three decades with the participation and cooperation of the people at the grass root level and possessing technical expertise was reduced to data collection.

NHDA contribution

Immediately after tsunami, the then GM of NHDA gathered its resources and the expertise of the staff of district offices, especially those offices that suffered from tsunami, and prepared guidelines to address the short-term and long-term issues on housing in the affected areas. These guidelines, which provided a vision and a framework to approach the rebuilding, focused on the following issues:

i. Sustainable approach to building and reconstruction;

ii. Depleted and depleting resources for large scale construction work;

iii. Dearth of skilled workers;

iv. Shortage of labour;

v. Community participation;

vi. Framework to motivate the people;

vii. Dependency syndrome which accompanies catastrophes and plan for self reliance;

viii. Training programmes in the building sector (carpentry, masonry, electrician, etc.) with a view to creating alternative employment;

ix. Addressed the vast sums of money coming into the country and the need to retain these funds within the country. In this sphere, it was advocated to desist from prefabricated housing, which needed to be imported thereby returning the funds back to the sources;

x. Type plans for houses.

One key issue addressed in the guidelines was phasing out the construction of the house. The plan was to first build a core house to facilitate the immediate return of the family from the camp in order to make the victims confident and secure in shorter time. This would have helped the participation of the beneficiaries in the next phase of the house; plan the house to meet the family needs, train the youth in construction skills to later take up construction. Additionally it would have helped to ease the peak demand of resources during a period of time, reduce the possibility of harm to the environment by avoiding the extraction of sand and it would have had an effect in the fewer requirements of imports. Buildings would have been gradually constructed to avoid continuing stay in the camps. A house would be partly constructed where the family could move in and the balance work to be continued thereafter.

These guidelines, drawn up immediately after tsunami, were forwarded to the High Level Steering Committee through the then Chairman but whether this was ever taken up or discussed is not known.

In addition to the guidelines referred to above, NHDA on the initiation of the then GM also proceeded to draw up the "Guidelines for Housing Development in Coastal Sri Lanka." The initial draft was revised with the assistance provided by GTZ and the contribution of many experts in the field and was released two months ago.

Additionally, NHDA on its own initiative with the participation of donors began work on 20, 000 houses for the affected. Most of these have now been completed.

It is important to note that NHDA generally construct, with the people’s participation around 60, 000 houses annually. This figure was increased to 80, 000 last year.

Sidelining of NHDA

Even with its impressionable record and preliminary work undertaken on its own motion, NHDA was never entrusted with any important part in rebuilding houses. It was indeed shocking when, as the newly appointed Chairman in April last year, I discovered that not one single officer in the NHDA knew the government programme, other than what was published and even the GM, who is the CEO, was kept in the dark over the happenings. It appeared that only the previous Chairman has attended the meetings of TAFFREN and THRU and the other officers were not participants at these meetings. This was immediately remedied by appointing the GM as the main representative with an expert team to assist.

Even though NHDA was not directly engaged in the tsunami housing programme, in addition to the work done and already stated, the technical staff of the NHDA rendered invaluable service in damage assessment and reconstruction. This is continued even today. These technical officers know the ground situation as well as the people in the affected areas; they are capable of obtaining the participation of the people to successfully implement any housing programme. The question remains as to why NHDA was sidelined. Is it due to lack of initiative by the Ministry and the NHDA? Or was there a hidden agenda by the interested parties for reasons best known to them?

A point of view that needs to be advocated in relation to the several pronouncements that the expected houses have not been constructed and some donors have disappeared, is that all these housing programmes including the pledges of funds should have been with the direct participation and consultation of the NHDA. I cannot recall a single instance (at least from April to November 2005) that NHDA was consulted by any governmental authority or even by the Ministry. The foreign funding for several housing programmes including the capacity building programme were initiated and negotiated by NHDA. And only these have been successful. The participatory approach that NHDA has adopted over the years has served all communities devoid of any bias or prejudice. Through this NHDA successfully completed many housing development programmes even in the uncontrolled areas.

While TAFFREN and now RADA may have a supervisory role in the reconstruction work in the tsunami affected areas, the direct participation and major voice in housing programme should have been with the NHDA. This includes even negotiations with foreign donors and overseeing that pledges are not restricted to words only.

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