COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Mithripala Sirisena has said that the fate of ArcelorMittal’s project to build 65,000 pre-fabricated houses for the war-displaced in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, should be decided by the beneficiaries and not by the Central Minister of Rehabilitation D.M. Swaminathan, or the Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V.Wigneswaran.
After Swaminathan and Wigneswaran had a spat at a function in Koppay in Jaffna district last Saturday, Sirisena had said that the question of the houses’ suitability should be settled by the people who are going live in them and not those who are not going to.
Wigneswaran had urged the government to “reconsider” the project as the prefab houses built by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal’s company, ArcelorMittal, are made of steel and PVC which are unsuited to the local climate. The design is also alien to the habits of rural Tamils. For example, there are no chimneys in the kitchens when the rural community uses wood or coal as fuel. Being prefabricated no changes can be made to the house. And LKR 2.1 million a house, it is too expensive.
Countering this, Swaminathan said that the houses are modern, coming with furniture, electric fans and facilities to use cooking gas. And the units will be delivered in record time.
But community housing expert Raga Alphonsus told Express that one cannot go by the assumption that one design will suit all.
“Houses will have to cater to the particular needs of the community in question. A farmer’s house will have to be different from a fisherman’s. We need to keep in mind the requirements of the occupants when we design houses,” he said.
ArcelorMittal has built two houses to show the beneficiaries. According to Wigneswaran, the Northern Provincial Council officials who inspected the houses came back with an “unfavorable” report.
However, Alphonsus said that his information was that the people are excited about getting such a house although the houses have obvious flaws.
“ I suppose people will lap up anything that is given free. But they might regret later, as they did in the case of the Auroville designed houses which used mud to keep the dwellings cool. The beneficiaries were happy at the outset, but later they said that they were disappointed that they did not get concrete houses,” he recalled.
Alphonsus stressed the importance of taking time over the design and discussing the pros and cons with the beneficiaries.
The government is keen that the ambitious project goes through even though the Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa is against it. Sajith’s father, former Lankan President R,.Premadasa, had built one million houses as per Sri Lankan designs and had earned a name for himself by doing so.
“ The government is pushing for the project to show that it is meeting the housing needs of the war displaced. The other reason is the existence of a financier, ArcelorMittal. The convenience of the occupants has been overlooked,” Alphonsus commented.
Asked whether President Sirisena’s suggestion that the beneficiaries’ views should be taken account could result in the cancellation of ArcelorMitta’s project, the chairman of the Northern Provincial Council, CVK.Sivagnanam said: “ The President will go by the view of the people, irrespective of the view.”