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Tsunami, Sri Lanka - Business

The hard road to business recovery in Sri Lanka
A livelihood rebuilt by a passion for education: A Sri Lankan couple get back to business in a week
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A Livelihood Rebuilt by a Passion for Education: A Sri Lankan Couple Get Back to Business in a Week
Traveling south along the Sri Lankan coast on the Galle Road towards Hikkaduwa, a small restaurant between the 93 and 94 mile posts offers a welcome stop and a tasty, fiery table in Thelwatte.

The restaurant located at Daluwattemulla, in Telwatte, the place tragically marked in last year’s December tsunami by the wrecked holiday train that was astonishingly lifted off its tracks by the giant surge of water. Global TV viewers probably wouldn’t recall the name but few would have forgotten this measure of the tsunami’s power and the terrified testimony of the few survivors.

Mrs. L.W. Chandrakanthi welcomes patrons with an attractive smile. The restaurant, named after her eldest son Pathum has no sign board outside yet. It is clean with plastic tables neatly laid with water jugs and drinking glasses. A small fridge cools bottled drinks and a sign offers fresh yoghurt.

Visible across the Galle Road, the sea is azure, not a trace of its tragic December 26 fury now visible. Chandrakathi’s small family business, which she runs with her husband Mr. Upulsriananda, had been up and running for five years when the wave came. It was funding their three children’s education and a new family house that was almost complete. Both new house and restaurant were reduced to rubble.

Driven by the Need to Keep the Children in School
The couple was devastated but driven by their most important need: money to keep the education of their three teenage children going without interruption. Education is free in Sri Lanka but not the extra tuition classes that have become a parallel schooling system, compensating for quality and sometimes absent teachers. The children’s school was not destroyed but all their textbooks and school uniforms were lost with all their household belongings. The children missed school for a couple of weeks but Chandrakanthi and Upulsriananda were keen to see that they resumed schooling as quickly as possible.

“Money for uniforms, books, shoes had to be found, as well as for the extra coaching classes” says Chandrakanthi. Four metal poles were found, a tarpaulin sheet made a roof, chairs were salvaged and with the help of friends who rallied round and early cash grants, tables were bought and Restaurant Pathum was back in business within a week.

World Bank Support
The World Bank supported the Government of Sri Lanka with $34 Million for four rounds of cash grants of $50 [LKR 5,000] per tsunami affected family. The money reached over 200,000 families and was intended to both help tide people over the initial recovery period and to kickstart local economies. By injecting money back into the communities, the aim was to give people a chance at rebuilding their livelihoods before the bricks and mortar rebuilding even began. Chandrakanthi and Upulasriananda as beneficiaries received the full four rounds of cash grants. Both of them were driven by a very specific need to safeguard their children’s education but they were also a model of putting their cash grants to work and making a small but critical contribution to restarting their local economy.

The restaurant and house located within the 100 meter buffer zone was a designated no build area and the family couldn’t get any financial assistance to rebuild on their twenty perches of land. However, they successfully held off the Coast Conservation Authorities arguing that this was their only means of livelihood, to set their restaurant up.

When lunch arrives it is quite a spread. The wholesome red unpolished “kekulu” rice of southern Sri Lanka with a pepper-rich fish curry, curried lentils, “mallum” or finely shredded greens with coconut, spicy “amberella” fruit curry and deep fried fish with fiery red chili all topped off with “papadums.” While looking after his customers’ appetites Upulsriananda shows where his new and incomplete house had been. He recalls the despondency and how the Thelwatte area had no drinking water for more than two months. But his sadness is brushed aside by memories of how friends and customers rallied around, bringing food and drinking water. “They came from near and far, their support lessening the grief in Thelwatte,” he says.

“The cash grants came in very handy too,” says Chandrakanthi. “I first bought chatties [traditional clay cooking pots] and two tables and chairs. There were no bakeries close by so I took the bus to scout around bakeries in the interior towns to buy bread and buns for the restaurant.”

A Family Affair
Upulsriananda travels early morning to get fresh fish from the next big fishing village Hikkaduwa. “We don’t like to use frozen fish and we try to give even a better service, but business is not as good as it was before” says Chandrakanthi introducing us to her one kitchen help who comes in daily. “This is a family business and I am learning about writing checks and banking from my eldest son who is in the commerce stream,” adds Chandrakanthi.

They care for and look after Upulsriananda’s mother, 82 year old Wimalawathi. All live in two transitional shelters built by a Swedish NGO, behind their restaurant. The family pet dog “Bongsu” too has a wooden temporary kennel. Behind them beyond the buffer zone neat pink new cottages built by a Buddhist priest are visible. “When the priest wanted to give us a house, we were told that we would get help for the Government,’ says Upulsriananda. “We have filled up all the forms, but we are yet to hear anything,” he adds.

The Hard Road to Recovery
Chandrakanthi is also the secretary of the village “Samurdhi committee. “ Samurdhi” [Prosperity] is the Sri Lanka Government’s poverty alleviation program which has as one of its core objectives organizing youth, women and other disadvantaged sections of the population into small groups and encouraging them to participate in decision-making activities and developmental processes at the grassroots level. “We took a US$500 [LKR50,000] loan from Samurdhi and restocked our restaurant cum shop just prior to the tsunami. Chandrakanthi is off to attend the village Samurdhi meeting and Upulsriananda takes over.

“We were the first ones to come back to the village. Other families didn’t come back for another two months,” adds Upulsriananda. Next to the café is the foundations of his sister’s house. He lost the sister in the tsunami and his brother-in-law and children have not returned. “We’ll take another three or four years to recover our losses but at least we are on track.” Two more trucks stop in for the tasty food., Upulsriananda smiles as he welcomes his clients -- business is good and it is good to be in business.

By Chulie de Silva, World Bank Office in Sri Lanka

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