NE housing row: Compromise solution for 6,000 prefab units

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) has granted approval for the construction of 6,000 prefabricated steel houses with help from local services like in the North and East by ArcelorMittal despite opposition by civil society groups and the Tamil National Alliance.

The proposal will now go back to the Cabinet for ratification, authoritative sources told the Sunday Times. The project has been in the pipeline since 2015 amid widespread protests. The TNA said it was “totally opposed to prefabricated steel houses” and called for civilians in the North and East to be provided with brick houses in keeping with their culture and way of life.

But the project is backed by Rehabilitation and Resettlement Minister D.M. Swaminathan. The TNA revealed that he 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. This 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 the Government to borrow US$1 billion to implement it — 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 and unjustifiably high cost.

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 alternative proposal for 102,000 masonry houses at a cost of less than Rs 1 million a house, using local labour and funded by a consortium of local banks.

The Sectoral Oversight Committee on Rehabilitation decided in November last year to reject the prefab steel houses and to endorse the civil society proposal. But Minister Swaminathan has stridently backed the ArcelorMittal tender. The logistics partner for the project is Kumarca Engineering and Management (Pvt) Ltd. It is owned by Ravi Wettasinha, a businessman whose close friend and former brother-in-law Shane Dullewa is Minister Swaminathan’s private secretary.

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