The challenge – 2008
My mind goes back to the year 2008 when I met the Security Forces Commander Major Chandrasiri in the Pallaly Army Camp under very heavy security given that the war was at its height and on a daily basis there were incidents.
When the SF Commander realised I was heading the Economic Affairs Unit in the Government Peace Secretariat, he said the best development that can happen to Jaffna is to set up an Industrial Zone and pointed to the once thriving industrial estate –Atchchuvely, which was in shambles due to the war.
Given that I had decided to serve the Government for three years as I had enrolled for my doctorate studies, I decided to champion this project for the country that many did not believe it cannot be done.
2009 and 2010 – The issue
I realised that the Atchchuvely Industrial Zone came under the purview of the Industrial Development Board and I contacted a Board Director at that time who was the Consulate General of New Zealand. He introduced me to the Minister and given that the Peace Secretariat was part of the President’s Office, I got access to the details of the Atchchuvely Industrial Zone, which was a 67-acre land area, very close to the Palaly Airport.
I went under heavy Army guard and had consultations with the Chairman and members of the Yalpanam Chamber, who reconfirmed the need for the Industrial Zone and they provided the demand plan that existed in Jaffna for industrial zone development.
After having completed my doctoral course work and the war coming to a close in mid 2009, I got picked by the United Nations infrastructure agency UNOPS, which became an ideal platform to push the agenda for setting up the industrial zone.
However, the challenges was that that UNOPS had never built an industrial zone any part of the world and the potential donor, the Government of India, had to remit the funding to the UN agency, which was also a first. The Country Head at that time, Rainer Frauenfeld, believed in the project and together we got the UN and the Government of India linked to the project, which was a big victory.
Then we had to get the Government of Sri Lanka to agree for the partnership and the Minister for Traditional Industries Douglas Devananda and Secretary Sivaghanasorthy together with the Senior Advisor to the Minister Jagarajasingham understood the importance of the project and labelled it as Atchchuvely Industrial Zone, making Jaffna a production city.
Then the project required the strong support at the hierarchical level and when I initially shared the idea with the Minister for Economic Development, he saw the future and pushed the project through many hurdles which in fact at one time it will fall apart given the political ramifications on the tripartite partnership that was required. When it was finally launched in August 2014 under the able leadership of the IDB and the Ministry of Traditional Industries it was announced that now the project belonged to the people of Jaffna.
Jaffna – the next production city?
I guess driving for a production city will require some key changes to the culture of Jaffna given that the simplicity of the people of Jaffna is so unique and stands out very strongly. 84.9% of those livening in Jaffna own a bicycle as against the national average of 39.8%. This reflects the pace of life in the peninsula and perimeter of life of a typical household when it comes to visiting friends, purchasing day-to-day grocery products and the circle of life. In my eyes this is the beauty of the people of Jaffna and must be preserved to maintain its identity.
If one visits the most exclusive ice cream hideout in Jaffna, the Rio Ice Cream Parlour – which in fact the IDB Chairman and I visited on the day of the opening of the Atchchuvely Industrial Zone last month – it depicts the simple joys of life that a kid experiences on a Saturday evening. All ice creams are made with liquid milk and the combined with natural fruit that has the potential to give a run to retail brands like Elephant House or Cargills in the years to come.
If one visits the Jaffna Library, all remove their shoes before entering the premises, which signifies the respect the people have for education and the world of knowledge. Most Jaffna families believe that next to God is education and kids go for tuition not in the afternoon like the practice in the rest of the country but one begins at dawn around 5 a.m. in the morning.
If one examines the statistics, Jaffna depicts the lowest on those who have not attended school at just 0.9% as against the national average of 4.6%. Even on the segment of those who attend school up to Grade 5 and on the segment Grade 6-10, we see that Jaffna scores way above the national average. To be specific, on the latter segment the national average is 16.1% but the Jaffna number shoots to 52.9% on those attending school. This clearly signifies the strong and disciplined approach of thinking that one gets exposed to and is inculcated from an early age.
But the scores on the O/Ls and A/Ls are below the national average and this will naturally increase given the recent investment by the private sector with programs like CIMA and degrees. After all, the best brains on accountancy have originated from Jaffna in the yesteryear. This will sure become the trend in the near future is the thinking of the experts.
Jaffna – History
If I may track back on the history of Jaffna briefly, Jaffna was originally called Yalpanam. The suburbs of Jaffna is Nallur and was termed the Jaffna Kingdom for over four centuries. Way back in 1981, it was the most populous city next to Colombo but as per the latest data of the Department of Census and Statistics as of March 2012 the number recorded is 583,017, which in fact can be termed petite and beautiful from a very artistic perspective.
Historically, Jaffna was under Portuguese occupation in 1619 whilst in 1796 it turned to a blend of Dutch rule that brings in the colonial architecture to the city. In 1948 with Sri Lanka earning the right for independence, the people of Jaffna ruled the peninsula. In 1986 the LTTE occupied the area and once again from 1989-1995 whilst the IPKF had a rub off on the people in 1987. But the people of Jaffna had their own unique culture and the peninsula began to blossom since 17 May 2009. We are now seeing the real beauty being unearthed that is poised to be the Bali of Sri Lanka is my pick up.
Jaffna – Detail
The detailed architecture of Jaffna is very interesting. The senior citizens constitute 11.5% of the population which is below the national average of 12.3%. It is also fair to say the population of Jaffna is young in nature and it gives a vibe of the new investments and opportunities that the peninsula can absorb with strong drive.
The reason for the strong drive can be justified by the fact that the poorest 40% account for 18.3% of the population which is way above the national average of 13.3%. Even if one looks at the richest 20% of the population of Jaffna, it is at a low ebb of 44.1% as against the national average of 54.1%. I believe this will change drastically given the key changes we see in the Northern Province as per the Ministry of Finance
Report of 2014 Atchchuvely – Picking the winners
With the shaping of the Atchchuvely Industrial Estate, maybe the next step is activating the eight companies that have been approved for starting business and selecting from the rest of 51 applications the winning businesses who will get access to the industrial estate under the able leadership of the IDB.
Thereafter the positioning of the estate as the first green industrial estate can be the birth of the industrial revolution into the peninsula. Maybe the next will be the setting up of a BOI zone in the years to come equipped with state-of-the-art warehousing and container trafficking via the A9. This will add to the theme Jaffna – the next production city.
However, given that the recent study by World Bank mentions that almost 35.5% of SMEs commenting that the key issue of doing business in the peninsula is access to finance, this needs to be addressed. The good news is that last Saturday the Ministry of Traditional Industry taking the lead with the Minister and Secretary chairing a meeting together with all banks and the key investors who are in the business in Jaffna will bear fruit in the near future. I guess it is this type of leadership that makes a difference in the changing landscape of Sri Lanka.
[Dr. Rohantha Athukorala is the Country Head for Turner Investments (USA) and serves many organisations in the private and public sector as a Board Director. He is an alumnus of Harvard University (Boston).]