A Village Action Group in Muthur brings communities closer together


Members of the Village Action Group

Arriving at a partially constructed community hall in the interior of Muthur in Eastern Sri Lanka, I help myself to a straw mat from a pile in the corner of the room and read my notes as I wait. Minutes later, people start trickling into the room, yelling out words of greeting to each other. There are about fifteen men and eight women, between the ages of 20 and 60. The room begins to fill with friendly conversation and laughter.

Highlights

  • The Village Action Group has helped improve relations between the two adjoining villages that are of two ethnicity, whose relations have been fragmented during years of conflict
  • Women and children of the two villagers were also brought together through joint activities

This is the Village Action Group.

The Village Action Group is made-up of men and women from two adjoining villages, Azath Nagar and Paththithidal, from the Muthur division in the Trincomalee district in Eastern Sri Lanka. The two villages are respectively homogenously Muslim and Tamil in ethnic composition. Both have experienced repeated displacements and war-related violence. They are now struggling to recover their livelihoods and lives following the end of the war in Sri Lanka.

A year ago, this Group did not exist. In fact, people from the two villages hardly met or interacted. More seriously, they were bitterly divided over the sharing of water from a common irrigation channel, and UNDP’s support to renovate this channel was itself perceived as benefiting one village over the other. Disputes over water resources frequently led to clashes. The rehabilitation work was often halted when one village would block the channel in order to deliberately flood the paddy lands of their neighbours.

“We were scared to look at them”, says Ms. M. Parameshwari, from Paththithidal’s Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS), speaking of her Muslim neighbours.

The Village Action Group was set-up by UNDP as part of a larger attempt to resolve the water dispute between the two villages and improve relationships across the geographic and ethnic divide. The renovation of the irrigation channel was redesigned and construction work was shared-out to the farmer organizations of both villages under the oversight of the Village Action Group.

The women of the two villages were formally linked-up, where the better-established Paththithidal WRDS helped develop the skills of their relatively inexperienced counterpart organization in Azath Nagar. The children from the two villages came together through joint pre-school concerts planned and organized by parents and teachers from both communities, while the youth were brought together through evening English language classes. The Village Action Group took an exposure visit to a UNDP-supported integrated model farm in Morawewa, where they saw first-hand the economic and social benefits of inter-community cooperation. Now, the Group meets fortnightly to discuss issues of common concern and plan joint activities.

The improved relations between the two villages are palpable in the easy conversation and laughter. The villagers are keen to share their experiences of cooperation. For Ms. Parameshwari, support from Azath Nagar’s WRDS is now only a telephone call away, and she recounts how the two organizations even help each other out during financial difficulties. Mr. P. D. Sadhekeen, treasurer of Azath Nagar’s Farmer Organization says, “Now we attend each other’s weddings and help each other at funerals”. “Now our Muslim boys want to marry their Tamil girls, and that is the newest challenge” he adds.

The Village Action Group and related activities are implemented by UNDP’s Transition Recovery Programme (TRP). It is one of the several pilot projects supported by UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR). The projects are designed by the Field Office teams themselves with technical advice of the TRP Project Management Unit (PMU) and UNDP Country Office as part of the staff’s own training on social cohesion programming. They build on UNDP TRP’s previous recovery activities in Azath Nagar and Paththithidal, through the Japan-supported Livelihood Development Project and the AusAid-supported Communities for Peace Project, which have laid the foundations of trust and credibility amongst these communities.

The members of the Village Action Group are happy that they are living in more peaceful and stable times. They are relieved that the renovation of the irrigation channel is now ongoing without interruption or sabotage. They are glad to see improvements in transport and health services. They speak of the challenges still to be overcome. The recent floods have badly affected the farmers. They still struggle to find markets for their produce. They are concerned about the lack of adequate school and recreational facilities for their children.

Yet in all these expressions of hope and apprehension, I hear a collective and unified voice that didn’t exist before. I hear shared fears. I see collective strength.

This is the Village Action Group.

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(Story captured by Dilrukshi Fonseka, Assistant Country Director Peace and Recovery, UNDP Sri Lanka)

The story also appeared on the RBAP Update: Issue 28 and can be found at -http://intra.undp.org/rbap/Update/Issue28/IF_SLK.html