Precise instructions to district secretaries to complete houses by end 2006

New housing policy for tsunami victims

By Feizal Samath

A new tsunami housing policy has been finalized by the government and sent to district secretaries in tsunami-affected regions with a clear message: assume full responsibility for work and ensure all affected persons return to or get new homes by end 2006.

The policy document is a departure from the previous pre-buffer zone strategy and this time promises “a house for a house, regardless of ownership.” It provides every tsunami affected family including squatters (a substantial number) a house or land and compensation and encourages those who have land or a house (damaged in the earlier declared buffer zone) to build on the same premises or rebuild the same house.

In a bid to free land provided earlier to donors for housing but unused so far, the government has cancelled dozens of MoUs signed with donors on the provision of land and are reallocating these under the new policy. “There were some we obtained by mutual consent (from the donor) and others where we used the law. Its something that had to be done as we need land and cannot watch while things were not happening on this land,” noted Saliya Wickramasuriya, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA).

Earlier this year the government accused NGOs, who had access to a vast amount of tsunami funds, of long delays in housing projects and not delivering on promises.

Before that it was the NGOs who complained that buffer zone restrictions had caused delays in their work. Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of the UK-based Save the Children, in an interview with The Sunday Times during a visit to Colombo last month said she was happy the government had come up with a new policy in housing, land and compensation which sounds sensible compared to problems with the earlier one.

RADA prepared the new policy after countless number of meetings with all stakeholders – district secretaries, communities, donors, NGOs - and as much as possible took into consideration their needs. “It’s a substantial policy and addresses all needs including that of proper coastal reservations,” Mr Wickramasuriya said.

He said 15,000 to 20,000 houses are expected to be built by the end of the year meeting all the requirements of the tsunami-affected persons. The tsunami fully or partially damaged 100,000 houses of which 65,000 owner-driven houses are at different levels of construction; 12,000 houses have been completed and another 8,000 are under construction.

The new policy has defined two zones (not buffer zones which were abandoned in December 2005) and offered four housing options. Zone 1 refers to any state reservation within tsunami affected areas (Coast Conservation Department, UDA, RDA, Irrigation Dept, Railways, etc) while Zone 2 is any area outside Zone 1. The policy also defines legal persons as those who legally own their land as against encroachers (squatters) staying on state land.

The latter category doesn’t apply to those who legally owned land and resided on property that subsequently became state land under the Coast Conservation reservation policy. “These ancestral homes will continue to be owned by these families and the housing policy will be applied accordingly,” the RADA COO said.

Option one in Zone 1 provides for government land and donor-built houses under the donor-assisted housing reconstruction programme.

The second option and other two that follow will be applicable only if the first option cannot be undertaken by the recipient. Option two provides for state land and a cash grant of Rs 250,000 to construct a house and donor assistance not less that Rs 250,000 to complete the house.

Option three provides a cash grant of Rs 250,000 to purchase land, cash grant of Rs 250,000 and donor assistance not less than Rs 250,000 to complete a house.

The last option in Zone 1 offers a housing reconstruction grant of Rs 250,000 for a fully damaged house and Rs 100,000 for a partly damaged one and donor assistance not less than Rs 250,000 for building.

Zone 2 has similar options but it’s for fully or partly damaged houses and mostly applies to encroachers.

One of the significant features of the plan – prepared after comprehensive consultations with district secretaries and affected communities – is to encourage encroachers (fisher folk) on the Colombo coastal belt (Mattakkuliya/Moratuwa) and Ampara who lost their beachside houses to relocate elsewhere under the cash-to-purchase land and cash-to-build policy which would help retain this land as a buffer zone and reservations.

“Many of them had settled in these areas from other villages and under this scheme we are encouraging them to go back with enough money to buy land and legally own it in addition to building a house,” the RADA COO said, when asked whether they would object to being uprooted. “They would become legitimate house owners from eternally being squatters.” Land is expensive in Colombo while in Ampara there is a shortage.

The technical specifications for a house has been set based on an equitable basis unlike last year where donors built houses that ranged from Rs 400,000 to over Rs 1 million, causing a lot of friction amongst recipients. “We want to provide equitable housing so that everyone gets almost the same benefit except in exceptional cases (where families are larger, etc). Each house would cost around a minimum Rs 500,000 with the government and donors sharing the cost,” Mr Wickramasuriya said.

Each house has been re-defined and will have a minimum 500 sq feet floor areas, at least one lockable internal room, internal or external kitchen, internal or external toilet, internal partitioning, electricity and rainwater harvesting systems where relevant.

A sample MoU has been attached to the housing policy document to be signed between the District Secretary and the donor which together provides for a minimum of Rs 500,000 support to a tsunami affected family to build a house.
It specifically states that the grant of Rs 250,000 each from both sides would be given in installments; a first installment of Rs 50,000 by the government matched equally by the donor and thereafter followed accordingly. Donors will have no authority over the ownership of the land.

The projects, the MoU says, must be completed on or before December 31, 2006.

The RADA COO said that there were many problems in the previous buffer zone-linked housing policy. “Even at that time if was felt the buffer zone was not a long term solution,” he said adding that under that the requirement for houses was very high.

The relaxation of the buffer zone rules for leisure (tourist hotels) brought resentment to others who were barred from rebuilding in the buffer zone.

The dilemma was that the coast is a poverty belt but also provides a large resource of revenue – tourism.

The housing and land requirement was huge: those outside buffer zones whose houses were damaged were legally entitled to cash to rebuild but rather than do that they were asking for new houses on new land in the hope of retaining the old one too, he said adding that now they are being encouraged with an increased cash grant to rebuild their homes. Squatters who were also demanding their former places, although they didn’t own in, are now being encouraged to relocate elsewhere and thus freeing this land to be retained as reservations.

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