Business Times

Business and money flow into ‘Little Italy’

Amidst horror stories of treacherous mid-sea escapades, residents have turned into successful businesspersons

By Quintus Perera

WENNAPPUWA – Unlike in most of the West where bankers go to the doorstep of borrowers offering loan facilities, in Sri Lanka borrowers have to approach banks and sometimes plead with these institutions for loans. Sri Lankan banks are not risk-takers like other overseas banks.

Nishantha Fernando’s new house (post-Italy) and (right) old house Pix by J. Weerasekera

However in Wennappuwa, known as ‘Little Italy’ - a treasure trove of wealth most of which is circulated informally -, a different, western-style banking culture is emerging where banks are now approaching businessmen, many returnees from Italy to grant loans.

Nishantha Fernando from Dummaladeniya, Wennappuwa emigrated to Italy in 1996 and 13 years later came back to run a hotel cum reception hall along the banks of the Ging-Oya with Rs 5 million investment. Last month alone there were 22 wedding receptions at his Reception Hall, Mr Fernando told Business Times.

Nishantha Fernando

Christo Dabarera

He is now planning to convert this hotel into a 5-star tourist hotel with an investment of Rs 30 million and now he says some banks have already approached him to offer loan facilities. This, he says, is the new financial culture emerging in Wennappuwa where money is flowing. Mr Fernando said that 80% of the people who come back to Sri Lanka from Italy are involved in some business or other where their savings have been properly invested.

It is interesting to note as to why Wennappuwa has become the ‘Little Italy’. It’s population is around 100,000 with around 25,000 families and out of most of the families one or two members and sometimes whole families are in Italy . They earn around Euros 800 to 1200 per month and as they are on 8- hour work schedules, almost all of them are involved in some sort of part-time work.
Most of these earnings are sent to Sri Lanka. The mode of sending money is informal which is faster and inexpensive compared to through banks. Above all the sender and the receiver are safe because the system prevents information getting public.

The fear of these people is that the moment the government gets to know about these financial transactions, it tries to grab a share out of it. There are instances where millionaires have become paupers overnight when engaged with the Income Tax Department.

A closer look at the actual financial transactions taking place in Wennappuwa would show stunning revelations: In Wennappuwa a perch of land is Rs 2 million, once rising to Rs 2.5 million. while land prices of adjacent areas too are soaring.

Almost 15 palatial luxury apartments are completed monthly, each costing Rs 8 to 10 million. Some of these new rich tycoons even use air-transport to carry wedding couples from home to church. Such is the financial might of Wennappuwa. Travel agencies have cropped up here to facilitate the number of people who shuttle between Sri Lanka and Italy often.

Christo Dabarera, runs ‘Ideal Tile Shop’ at Nainamadama, Wennappuwa and sells floor and walltiles specially imported from Italy. His monthly sales average is Rs 5 million and last month he had recorded sales of Rs 7 million. He says sales of tiles is a rough indication to gauge the number of houses completed each month.

Yet the value of money is very dear to these people when considering the harrowing experiences encountered by these people earlier to enter Italy. Leslie Croos who went to Italy in 1983 with 15 others, first reached Martha Island and went to Syracuse, the closest city in Sicily after a 16-hour sea voyage. He has worked in Catania, Napoli, Milan, Florence and Rome. He has worked there for 20 years and came back to Wennappuwa and now runs his own property sales company ‘IL Gira Sole (Private) Ltd.

He completed his house in 1990 spending more than Rs 8 million and now his investment in his company is about Rs 20 million. He says people from Wennappuwa started going to Italy as far back as 1978 and at that time no visas were required. Visa rules came only in 1980. He said that there were ample jobs in Italy. Now he and his family could go to Italy at any time.

Earlier people went to Yugoslavia and walked more than five miles to cross the border to Italy and these illegal operations were carried out with the connivance of taxi drivers. Losing the proper connections and confrontation with border guards would cost lives as border guards would shoot on sight.

The secret of more and more people of Wennappuwa going to Italy is that those Sri Lankans in Italy can sponsor people from Sri Lanka and they do sponsor at a cost of averaging to Rs 1.5 million. Then comes the case of mortgaging property and other kinds of indebtedness to raise this enormous Rs 1.5 million.

Earlier most of the Wennappuwa people began their journey to Italy from their ‘threshold’ from Moottuwa Ganga in Nainamadama. Sithala Perera of Nainamadama too started his horrifying ordeal in 2002 from this point. They went in boats from Moottuwa Ganga and in mid-sea boarded a trawler. It carried a human cargo of 177 (90 from Wennappuwa) near the Indian border after sailing for 12 hours.
They were to be transferred to another boat that would take them to Italy but the rough seas that had raising 60 feet-high waves scuttled the transfer, and later attracted a Sri Lankan Navy vessel and all 177 were taken into custody. Bringing them to Colombo they were kept in custody for one month and six days and were released without charge.

Alex Nilantha, from Dummaladeniya, Wennappuwa following the same route in 2001 had a smooth sailing to Suez canal and there confronted with rough seas and thought everybody would perish in the sea. After waiting in mid-sea for several days they were led to Cairo by a Ukrainian and they reached Aeolia city in Sicily.

There were 88 persons altogether and all were taken into custody and taken to Aeolia Police Station and were treated very well even offering them cigarettes. A female from Negombo in Italy was brought into interpret the language, kept in a camp for two days and then put them into a train letting them go to the places in Italy as had been pre-arranged.

Wennappuwa folks who were earlier predominantly involved in fishing today have become a major contributor of foreign exchange to the country. Though the high spending, investment and financial stability in Wennappuwa is high, the infrastructure such as roads are in the same old rugged state.

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