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IDPs Sink Into Debt While Trying To Build A Home

By Megara Tegal - Pictures by Imaad Majeed
Indumani and child inside a makeshift hut
Having been on the move and living in tin-roof shelters or tents for a greater part of their lives, the IDPs of Kilinochchi say their dream is to settle down in a beautiful house. It has been four years since the guns fell silent in the North, and some of the IDPs who laid claim to their ancestral land are attempting to build that dream house of theirs; a task that costs more than they can afford.
Several organizations have stepped up to provide funding in order to make their dream houses a reality; however, the housing scheme projects have taken a destructive turn. Many of the families now face risks of losing their ancestral property, along with their unfinished houses, to banks for unpaid loans. Tension is mounting in the village of Malayalpuram as neighbourly ties are tested.
Inadequate funds
The Indian Housing Project, funded by the Indian government, is one such scheme that has taken a turn for the worse. Four implementing agencies have been selected by the Indian government to carry out the project – and they include UN Habitat, the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, Sri Lanka Red Cross, and the National Housing Development Authority of the Government of Sri Lanka – under whom the project is to be completed by 2015.
Kalaivani inside her incomplete house and Nagamma
However, many of these houses may never get passed the foundation stage as those who have been selected for the project may lose their land well before 2015. Indumani, a 30 year old mother, who previously lived in a tent at Menik Farm, stated that the funds are hardly sufficient to build a modest house. “It’s impossible today to build a house of 500 square feet with only five and a half lakhs. Even within the specifications laid down by these organisations,” Indumani revealed, adding that the price of cement and other building materials have risen, but the new prices have not been accounted for in the funds. “If it’s possible to buy cement at the price they have indicated, I wish they would show me where I can get it.”
Indumani’s house has rough cement walls and a roof; she still needs to fit in doors and windows. She said as the funding provided has been inadequate, she has been forced to take loans from the bank. Overall, she says six to seven lakhs has been spent on the house to date, though there is a lot more that needs to be completed before her family can move into the house.
For the past few years, Indumani and her family lived in a make-shift home, with tin-roofing sheets for walls and roof. The modest living space is divided by a plastic sheet to separate the bedroom and kitchen.
Loans and debts
The funding has been provided piecemeal. Once the first stage of the house is complete the implementing agencies release the next part of the funds for the second stage of building the house. However, since the funds provided are insufficient to purchase basic building materials, those under the project have had to take loans from the bank to complete building the first stage and proceed into the next stage of constructing their house.
The growing loans and debt that the people are descending into is reaching a sum that these former IDPs cannot repay. Indumani related an incident in which the bank manager’s henchmen had beaten her father, threatening and demanding that they repay the loan they had drawn without further delay.
Kalaivani (39) is Indumani’s neighbour, and she experiences similar issues. “In order for us to get the third part of the funds, we were told we needed to fix doors and grills in the house so thieves cannot break in. The wood specified is cheap wood called chappu, which is very flimsy and any thief can easily break it down. Their specifications are also only for grills. There is no mention of windows.”

Kalaivani’s house currently has no place for window hinges to be fixed as the grills take up the width of the wall. She has, however, inserted doors made of neem, exceeding her budget. Indumani stuck closely to the specifications and fitted chappu wood doors, but she is still two to three lakhs over the allocated budget.
Sinking deeper into debt, the former IDPs do not have the expertise or knowledge in overcoming the problem and have not received assistance from implementation agencies in showing them ways to keep afloat. Rani (45) is a widow with no income. Unable to repay the loans she withdrew for the construction of her house, she now plans to take a loan from one back to repay her initial loan at a different bank.
The Sunday Leader spoke to eight families under the Indian Housing Project. The head of the households are mostly involved in odd jobs and are unable to earn enough to repay the loans they have drawn. Indumani explained that if they withdrew a loan of Rs 25,000, the bank would require them to pay an interest of Rs 7000 over a period of 11 months.
Many of the families said they put their own labour into building the houses, but they are still unable to build within the specifications.
Tension on the rise
A little further down the village, one house remains in skeletal form with only the foundation built. The women mention with detestation that the family who built the house used the funds to feed themselves. One woman pointed that in a situation in which you cannot afford food, you cannot blame the family for spending the funds to sustain them. Others complained that the organisations will get stricter with them as a consequence.
In addition to the well meant but ill-planned funding, the selection process has caused further turmoil and animosity among neighbours in the village. Within the villages, families ranked the ‘most vulnerable’, according to criteria set by the implementing agencies, were provided with funds. Those who were excluded believe they too deserved monetary assistance for building a home as they have no chance of building a house without funding.
Nagamma, another woman in the village, feels her family was affected by the war far worse than some of the families who received funding. Her elder son was killed during the war, and she currently lives with her husband and younger son. Her younger son is a teacher and they all survive on his monthly pay.
UN Habitat’s response
UN Habitat admitted that there are shortcomings in the selection method but asserted that is the best, nonetheless. I. A. Hameed, National Project Manager of UN Habitat stated, “UN Habitat does not build houses. We only facilitate the construction of the houses. These are ‘owner driven’ or ‘people driven processes’ which means that the people are given a grant and people build their own houses. We provide building advice; how to build their houses better.”
He added that they understand that people will want to build their houses to their own designs and needs. He described how some of the people wanted a larger shrine room or a larger kitchen if they are involved in a home cooking-business, so they would have ample space to prepare large quantities of food.
“Ultimately, it’s their house and they will have specific needs. We do not to force them to build their house in a certain way. We, however, provide technical assistants and architects to advise them on how to build what they need within their means,” he elaborated.
According to Hameed, the donors and the government work out clear guidelines as to who should receive funding. These guidelines include seven aspects. “One is that they have to be a war affected family. Second is that they have to be displaced people. Next, they should have a clear title to land or permit and they have to produce the legal tenure. They must also be willing to build a house; we cannot force it upon them. Next, they shouldn’t have another house here or anywhere else. They must also be families that are not getting any assistance from other INGOs or NGOs to build a house; there are several other housing funds donors. And lastly, the project is house per house”, he described.
Explaining the last aspect he stated that even if the families are large, extended families and previously lived in a house that was spacious enough for the whole family, the families would have little choice but to live in the limited 500 square foot house, as the funding provides one 500 square foot house for a house lost; regardless of the size of the family.
“The government has a list of all the resettled people. They also have details on who has a house that was not damaged and who exactly has a house from other agencies. We validate the list by going to these places. If the list consists of 500 families, maybe 250 would be eligible for funds. We give enough publicity to create awareness about the screening process and what the criterion is so that people do not misunderstand or feel they have been left out intentionally.”
He went on to describe the criteria, mentioning that they look for the most vulnerable families. For example, between a young couple and a family with three children, the latter will be scored higher as more in need of a house. Similarly, if the head of the household is disabled, the family is more likely to receive funding rather than a family of able-bodied members.
“If there is more funding that can be distributed at the end of the first round of selection, the score will be brought down from 10 to nine and more families will receive funding.”
Hameed added that this is merely the first stage of the project. Once these houses are built, they will proceed into the second stage where the next set of vulnerable residents will receive funding. They hope to continue through the different stages until all those in the village own a house. He went on to state that UN Habitat is to implement community projects that have proved to be successful in other parts of Sri Lanka to improve the welfare of the people, such as a savings programme to help people increase their savings and income.
While the project appears be to well-intended, the psychological and sociological aspects of — for example the selection process — have been overlooked. This raises questions as to how aid is distributed to those who have suffered greatly over the past two decades, and continue to suffer even after the end of the war.