By Namini Wijedasa
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If the Government intends to slash its original proposal of 65,000 prefabricated houses down to 6,000 houses for the war-displaced, it must call a fresh tender as many more contractors will qualify for the smaller project and offer better prices, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran said this week.

Despite sustained opposition to the project, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) last week granted approval for the construction of 6,000 prefabricated houses in the North and East by international steel giant ArcelorMittal. The proposal will go to Cabinet for ratification.

But the original tender, floated by the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Ministry, had been for 65,000 houses and not 6,000, pointed out Mr. Sumanthiran. The TNA has unanimously rejected prefabricated steel dwellings and called for the cheaper, culturally-suitable brick-and-mortar houses.

“With regard to the original 65,000 houses proposal, a Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee called for it to be cancelled and for fresh bids to be called,” Mr Sumanthiran said.”Resettlement Minister D. M. Swaminathan himself presented a Cabinet paper for fewer prefabricated houses and suggested fresh bids.”

“In any case, you cannot rely on the previous tender price for 65,000 and do 6,000 houses because there could be so many others in the local construction industry with the capacity to tender their bids for the smaller number,” he pointed out. “If this story of 6,000 houses being agreed upon by the CCEM is true, we will challenge the process.

“And why is the Government not considering the alternate proposal put forward by civil society with the support of five local banks?” he asked. “That project can result in 102,000 houses for the same money the Government is willing to spend as payment to a foreign bank in a foreign currency!”

The housing need in the North and East is dire and acute, he said. “The Government is using the desperate need of the people to force prefabricated houses down their throat, for the benefit of a few individuals who stand to benefit from this,” he said.

Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran endorsed Mr Sumanthiran’s criticism of the project. “Prefab steel houses are not suitable for the climate of the North and East, environment or ambience. Our engineers have given me detailed reports saying so,” he said.

“The continued insistence on foisting these houses on our Province smacks of the hidden needs and agendas on the part of the powers that be,” Mr. Wigneswaran said. “What happened to the Minister’s undertaking to get bank loans and put up the houses the traditional way? It appears the Government wants to force our people to accept what they give. They ignore the social implications.”

“There would be division among our people, which the Government seems to want to promote,” he said. “The 6,000 prefab house owners would become the haves and the others the have-nots. There is a possibility that reaction from the have-nots might ostracise those who opt to take these houses. I would appeal to the Minister to reconsider.”

The project, which has been in the pipeline since 2015, has been stalled by widespread protests. The TNA said it was “totally opposed to prefabricated steel houses” and called for traditional brick houses in keeping with the culture and way of life of the North-East people. All sixteen MPs of the party endorsed this position.

But the project is openly backed by Rehabilitation and Resettlement Minister Swaminathan. The TNA claimed that the minister had made personal telephone calls to several of its MPs, inviting them to make requests for prefabricated houses in their respective electorates. In the face of resistance, President Maithripala Sirisena passed off the project to Special Projects Minister Sarath Amunugama for a recommendation. Last week, he came to the CCEM with the proposal to grant a contract for 6,000 houses to ArcelorMittal. It was approved.

The initial proposal–which would have forced to Government to borrow US$1 billion to implement–was to build 65,000 prefab steel houses for war-affected families in the North and East. But the prefab steel dwellings have been objected to on multiple grounds including climatic unsuitability, flimsy construction, lack of durability, unjustifiably high cost and so on.

A Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee (CANC) rejected the project and recommended that fresh tenders be called. A group of civil society agencies and persons even put forward an alternate proposal for 102,000 masonry houses at a cost of just under Rs 1 million per house, using local labour and funded by a consortium of local banks.

Mr Sumanthiran said the project smacked of “grand-scale fraud, which is clearly apparent from the cost of Rs 2.1 million per house, which later dropped to Rs 1.6 million”.