Sri Lanka's schools and factories start to hum once again

Monday, many businesses and undamaged schools reopen their doors as international officials start to assess roads, services.

Before his damaged garment factory reopened Monday, plant manager Anura Kelaniyangoda held an imaginary Buddha relic over his head and led 400 workers from a temple to the workplace. Behind him strode 10 robed monks; pipers and drummers paced in front. Prayers were offered for family lost in the tsunami, and for success in business. A quiet celebration lunch of melon and curry followed at noon.

The solemn event was a first for Tri-star garments. Young women more accustomed to stitching collars spent 14 hours a day preparing to open Jan. 10. But the tsunami was also a first, says Mr. Kelaniyangoda: "We needed to give the workplace new life," he says of a complete repainting. "We changed everything, including the colors."

Sri Lanka formally marks a new post-flood phase Monday: Many coastal firms are reopening, as are all undamaged schools. The first systematic assessment of roads, services, and the economy, done by a joint Japanese and World Bank team, also gets under way. Signs show that the battered nation is slowly waking from a tsunami nightmare that hit 700 miles of coast.

Two weeks on, many coastal residents report feeling a need to "start work and earn something," as a TV repairman in Marissa puts it. "It is even more important than rebuilding my home."

Yet despite overflowing aid promises and visits by dignitaries like Colin Powell, and Kofi Annan, there is still almost no rebuilding along the coastline. An industrious cleanup of brick and debris at a school was under way this weekend in tiny coastal Kosgoda; but it was a team of volunteers from Colombo sent by a Japanese corporation. Residents did not participate. Many affected Sri Lankans say they feel like they are waiting - and waiting - for clarity about their future. Many Buddhist monks, whose labor and temple space have provided a support structure say they are increasingly tired, and that temples are becoming dirtier.

Particularly common is talk by local officials of a problem period of six to 12 months - when jobs and homes have not yet been found by the 1.5 million affected, when savings run out, and before serious rebuilding begins. So far, no tents or temporary structures have been forthcoming by the government to house the displaced.

Across from the TriStar factory in Kosgoda is a camp of 20 families who sleep under plastic sheeting by the side of the main road. The ocean is about two city blocks away, and most houses were knocked down. Nearby is a turtle farm for tourists, where a diligent ecologist keeps hatching sea turtles from around the globe, albeit now with no building and no tourists.

"No one from the government has visited us," says a young man who owned a tea shop. "We don't get water on a regular basis. None of us wants to go to a refugee camp. We want to live here. We don't know where money and food are coming from."

The biggest problem in the next year, says Wick Ramaratne, governor of the southern province of Sri Lanka, "will be moving large numbers of people from the coastal areas to the inland areas, because they will not want to move."

One diplomat involved in discussions on rebuilding says Sri Lanka has been a bit slow on certain fundamentals: "There could be a quicker laying out of a thought process on next steps.... There's been no discussion of temporary shelters, and no discussion of how to deal with corruption, once the money starts flowing."

Some of the spirit emerging up and down the coasts as hotel owners wash off their salt-infested tourmobiles, and as small business people finish taking stock, is similar to the old British sensibility of "give us the tools, and we will do the job." Many suggest that it is not wise to wait for the government to arrive.

M.W.M. Pradeep, whose entire electronics shop was wiped out in the flood, says that to get back in business he needs two new oscilloscopes for TV repair. He doesn't want a donation, just a loan. "I don't expect a free handout, I am ready to pay back my tools," he says. "But I can't start without them."

The issue of loans is hardly clear. R. Wasaji, who owns a baby-clothes factory near Matara in the south, has a set of motors laid out in the sun. He has 85 employees, and lost most of his stock. He says the banks usually charge 15 to 25 percent interest for business loans, and so he will reopen Monday with only a dozen sewing machines, but will add gradually.

One reason the garmentmakers are eager to open right away is that, under new WTO standards, they anticipate a coming competitive shakeout with China. Factories in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Thailand are likely to be affected. Sri Lanka has some 850 factories and some owners say as many as half of those, some of them small subcontractors, could close.

"If the quality level remains high, we are OK," says Kelaniyangoda of TriStar.

Currently, Sri Lankan politicians and business leaders are kicking around a proposal, nearly finalized, to free up business loans to those who can demonstrate some prior ownership. One source close to President Kumeratunga states that there is preliminary approval for 5 billion rupees ($500 million) to be released to commercial and state banks and finance houses - for business owners at all levels.

The plan, an unusual "tsunami loan," would require no collateral and no repayment for a year. Loans would be offered at about 6 percent. The money could not be used for home rebuilding, however.

"It would be a pot of essentially free money," says the source, a senior minister in the previous government. "to get things moving."

The assessment team starting Monday is comprised of officials from the World Bank, Japanese banks, and the Asian Development Bank. They will conduct a examination from the north to the south, and offer a plan for how to divide up funding. World Bank officials say that Sri Lanka now has access to at least $75 million in immediate new funds, and $25 million newly available from older projects.

At the local Buddhist temples, many monks hope such funds will be used for shelters. They report that, while many Sri Lankans have left the temples, many still are living there. The monks often work long hours.

"We need to look after people. We can't ask them to leave. It is our duty to help. In fact, the way we see it, if we don't support those people at this time, then what point is there in being a monk?" says Bodhisumana Thero, a senior Buddhist official near Galle.

But at the Beautiful Temple about 10 miles north, an elder monk points out that the temple can't take care of some 500 people indefinitely. "This is a temple. We have other things to do, and we need to have some relief."

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