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Few can afford to buy at Jaffna’s restocked markets

A retail trader at the Jaffna town market. Many shops are now restocked with food imported by ship from Colombo, but with signiifcant drops in livelihoods and economic activity since the closure of the A9 road in Augusat 2006, many Jaffna residents don't
(Brennon Jones/IRIN)

Jaffna’s town market is once again stocked, with many of its small retail shops bursting with canned and packaged goods and large bags of dried fish, lentils, dhal and rice. However, increasing numbers of Jaffna residents and the 40,000 internally displaced people in the district cannot afford them.

When the A9 highway - the vital transport route linking the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the country - was closed on 11 August 2006, the 150-plus trucks that daily delivered goods into and out of the district ceased operation. Jaffna became totally dependent on sea transport and limited air freighting for all its imported goods.

S. B. Divaratne, commissioner general of Essential Services which has been running the sea transport operation, takes some pride in their shipping achievements over the past 11 months. “Adequate stocks are available in all basic food items, including medicine in Jaffna,” he said. The commissioner general said 112,197 metric tonnes of essential food items had been transported by sea to Jaffna since September 2006 in more than 50 separate ship loads.

While food stocks are up, the number of buyers is decidedly down. N. Pathmanathan, a shopkeeper in the Jaffna market told IRIN: “While I had shortages of food and other commodities soon after the closure of the A9, I have no problems getting goods now, it’s just the costs are so much higher.” In his 24 years as a shopkeeper, he said he had never seen the situation so bad. “I am only doing one quarter of the business that I did prior to 11 August 2006,” he lamented.

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A short distance from the market at Rolex Restaurant, A. Sinnathurai, the head waiter, told a similar story. “We had to close this entire back room [half the restaurant’s total space] because of a lack of customers,” he said. “Business has dropped 50 to 60 per cent.”

According to the June Jaffna Food Security Bulletin (JFSB), a joint publication of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “food items are available. Market prices, however, are substantially more expensive than Colombo market prices.”

For example, June prices for bread and flour were 150 percent higher in Jaffna than in Colombo. Those for white rice and red rice 160 and 220 percent higher, respectively; for milk powder 110 per cent and kerosene 205 percent higher.

Fishing hit

High prices are only part of the problem. Since the A9 closure and with continuing security concerns on the peninsula, many of Jaffna’s 600,000 residents and internally displaced persons (IDPs) no longer have productive livelihoods or reliable sources of income. The Jaffna District government agent, K. Ganesh, in a January situation report said 17,498 families, 9 percent of the population, are involved in fishing, but severe restrictions imposed by the Sri Lankan military have limited their ability to fish.

“Fish production has slightly increased since the beginning of the year but is still only 10 percent of pre-conflict levels with the consequent impact affecting household livelihoods,” according to the JFSB.

Agriculture hit

In the agricultural sector, according to the government agent’s report, 96,525 families, 51 percent of the population, are farmers or farm labourers. Their ability to produce was hit hard by the lack of fertilizers and other farm inputs. In addition, some farmland was taken out of production because it was in areas designated high security zones, and some was mined.

“Available land for paddy cultivation is 13,000 hectares for the last `Maha’ season, only 6,627 was cultivated,” the JFSB said. And because of lack of agricultural inputs, “the average yield has dropped to 1.5 metric tonnes per hectare… compared to the usual yields of three to four metric tonnes per hectare.”

The situation in the livestock industry is not much better. According to FAO, the number of livestock, including poultry and cows, is only 34 percent of pre-conflict levels, though efforts are under way to replenish stock. Many livestock were killed in the conflict, and many farmers sold their stock when short of cash to buy essentials.


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Internally displaced people (IDPs) at the Nanthurai welfare centre in Jaffna say they go to the market just to window shop as they have no money to buy anything

Big price increases for fish, poultry, eggs

These drops in fish and farm production have led to significant price increases. Fish, which was 150 rupees per kilo before 11 August 2006, is now 600. Chicken, which was 180 rupees a kilo, is now 700. Even an egg which was 7 rupees goes for 23 rupees - over three times the price. For many Jaffna residents, these former staples have now become luxury items.

V.T. Selvaratnam, director of education for Jaffna District, told IRIN: “Given the food shortages and the high prices, even I and my family can only eat chicken once a month. How can poor families possibly cope?”

An answer to that question was provided at Nanthurai welfare camp in Jaffna town. An IDP, Jasantha Arul Nasensan, who was displaced from Allaipiddy in August 2006, told IRIN: “Now we go to the market and see the pretty things,” she said laughing with a group of a dozen or so other IDPs. “We do window shopping, because we don’t have money to buy anything there.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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