Democracy does not come cheap and Sri Lankan victims of the Dec. 26 Asian tsunami are discovering that their already long wait for permanent housing could now be delayed for more than a year after November's presidential polls are completed.
In fact, authorities are now talking in terms of the bulk of some 250,000 people no living in refugee camps having to wait for not less than a year and a half, if not more, before they have a tin sheet over their heads that they can call their own.
Already, the emphasis has shifted from the effort to quickly build permanent homes to improving conditions in 'transitional' camps set up for the refugees.
'' We now have to transform ourselves into the role of social workers and work day and night, and during weekends and holidays,'' Tilak Ranaviraja, commissioner general of essential services and the man overseeing reconstruction, told a meeting, organised recently by the United Nations, on providing transitional accommodation.
Ranaviraja admitted that the completion of permanent housing was going through an ''uncertain'' period.
The country is facing its fourth election in five years and the reconstruction effort has taken a backseat due to campaigning for the election.
What is more, the results of the polls can have far-reaching and direct effects on the rehabilitation effort, since one of the main election issues is that of sharing international aid between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which controls the north and east of the island, and the government.
Indeed, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, one of the two main candidates for president, has entered into an electoral pact with the People's Liberation Front and pledged to scrap an aid-sharing mechanism incumbent president Chandrika Kumaratunga sealed with the Tamil Tigers.
Opposition leader and presidential hopeful, Ranil Wickremasinghe, last week said that he would abolish the buffer zone if elected and do away with the government reconstruction agency, Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN) as well.
Where Kumaratunga had hoped that the tsunami emergency would facilitate reconciliation between Sri Lanka's warring ethnic groups, the Post- Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) agreement between the Tamil Tigers and the government was successfully challenged in court by pro-Sinhalese parties.
All too visibly, Sinhalese-dominated districts in the south of the island are rapidly effecting reconstruction, while work in the north and east, which suffered far worse devastation, is languishing .
The reconstruction effort appears to be the slowest in the two eastern districts of Ampara and Batticaloa. In Ampara, where the worst damages were reported, TAFREN is still searching for donor commitments for 7,314 houses from the 12,481 destroyed within the zone.
In contrast, the southern district of Hambantota, where the need is for 1,057 units, agreements have been signed with donors for the construction of 4,044 units and TAFREN said that by end September, construction had commenced on 4,760 units, more than 3,000 units above the needs assessments.
There is also little rationale or conformity to regulations so that immediately north of Galle town two-storey villas complete with tiled roofs and balconies are coming up and that within the buffer zone between the coastal highway and the sea, while most fishermen are housed far inland in two-room tin shacks which are unbearably hot.
Housing sites in the east are located in flood-prone areas and there is now the very real danger of secondary displacement of refugees once the rainy season sets in.
TAFREN has blamed the lopsided reconstruction effort on donor willingness to work in the south and logistical and practical difficulties in the east. The government agency can only guide donors but no construction can take place unless the government signs a memorandum of understanding with the funding agencies.
Privately though, TAFREN officials blame the lack of political will to push reconstruction effort in the east.
There is also a lack of suitable alternate land for relocation in the east, especially near densely-populated coastal villages like Sainathimaruthu, Maradamunai and Karathivu in Ampara where more than 8,000 people died.
The two districts have also been at the centre of an internecine war between the Tamil Tigers and a splinter group resulting in more than 200 deaths. Tension between ethnically-divided villages has also dampened donor willingness to commit in the two districts, according to TAFREN officials.
The overall reconstruction effort itself has come under heavy criticism by Auditor General D. D. Mayadunne, who in a report submitted to parliament last month said only 13.5 percent of the aid money had been utilised even six months after the tsunami.
Referring to the housing, the report said that only 12.3 percent of the pledge funds had been utilised. The report also highlighted several instances of waste and possible corruption.
Donors and others have not been able to clear 686 containers of tsunami relief due to government taxes. Only 37 percent of some 40 million US dollars, collected locally for relief and reconstruction, had been spent by August and Mayadunne said in his report that records of funds collected had been poorly maintained.
Soon after submitting the report, Mayadunne said he would press for a parliamentary debate on it, but chances of that happening are unlikely till after the elections are over. The tsunami caused more than 32,000 deaths and 4,000 persons are still unaccounted for in the Indian Ocean island of 19.5 million. The Asian Development Bank has estimated the total damages to be over one billion dollars and almost half of that, 400 million dollars, in the housing sector.
Almost one million Sri Lankans were estimated to have been affected by the tsunami immediately after the tragedy, the worst in the country's modern history.
Despite pledges of over three billion dollars for the overall national reconstruction effort, the permanent housing component has been bogged down, leading to TAFREN warning that the country was facing a shortage of more than 5,000 houses in the eastern districts that were worst affected by the disaster.
So far, only 334 houses out of a total of 49,273 have been handed over to victims to compensate for those destroyed within the 100 metre buffer zone within which new construction is banned. In the east, the figure was a meagre 48 out of a total need of more than 17,000.
TAFREN said that a further 45,000 houses have to be rebuilt outside the zone. They are being reconstructed under government and donor grants disbursed in tranches.
A survey by the international aid agency Oxfam, in a report timed to mark the sixth month of the disaster, found that the waves had left the poor hardest hit. ''Poor communities were more vulnerable: their fragile houses were washed away, while the brick houses of richer people were more likely to withstand the force; poor villages in remote areas took longer to receive help,'' the report said.
In one Sri Lankan village, villagers who had lost their houses also suffered a 94 percent drop in personal income from 64 cents to four cents per day. The same survey said the government was targeting aid more at registered business, adversely affecting the poorer segments of the victims.
''This means that, for example, the owners of coir (coconut fibre) mills are being compensated for damages, but the poor coir workers who struggle to make a living will not benefit,'' Oxfam said.
The government has admitted the threat of poverty levels exacerbating due to the tsunami. Its Millennium Development Goals Country Report, 2005 said one in every three persons living in every tsunami-affected district, outside the Western Province, was living below the national poverty level of 14 dollars per month.
''The tsunami disaster has increased the vulnerability of a large proportion of the very people whose income was to be uplifted under the government's poverty reduction programme,'' the report said.
Relief workers participating in the U.N. meeting said that several areas in the transitional camps, including sanitation and waste disposal, needed fast improvement, especially with the monsoon setting in from this month.
They also cited the need to protect vulnerable groups, particularly against trafficking, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases as well as demanding a better communication network and flow of data between Colombo and the disaster areas.
''We are dealing with the lives of people and their basic needs. We cannot leave their conditions and concerns to chance,'' Miguel Bermeo, the U.N. Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka said. (END/2005)