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Losing it all

“I lost everything,” Pathmananthan Arulnanthi remembers.

 

During the war, the 37-year-old used to run a bookstore which sold magazines and newspapers in Vavuniya in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. On the side, Arulnanthi was part of group running a seettu – a chit fund in which participants contributed an agreed upon sum, and the pooled amount was awarded to one member of the group at a time. With the fund’s initial success, Arulnanthi invested all his money, only to lose everything when the arrangement collapsed. “I was left empty-handed,” he said.

 

It was a bad time to be broke. His family was far from home – having to flee Valalai where Arulnanthi was born, they had settled in Vavuniya as the war raged around them. His father would die there, in exile, without ever returning to their land.

 

Arulnanthi, who had been just 14 when they left, had attempted to return once, but their property had been claimed by the military, and it was inaccessible due to the fighting. “We tried to come, but that area was being shelled,” remembers Arulnanthi.

 

A place to call his own

The conflict ended in 2009, and his land was released by the military in 2015. The house had been completely demolished, and today only traces of floor remain to mark the room where he studied as a boy. The hand-dug well had long since been filled in. But now Arulnanthi at least has a place to call his own. “This is our native place, and I was very happy to be able to return,” he says.

 

With his days in the book business over, Arulnanthi decided to turn his hand to bicycle repairs. He had some experience, having spent 3 years in Vavuniya working as a bicycle mechanic. Unable to get help from local authorities, he decided to build a small shop himself.

 

With construction of small room complete, he was chosen to receive some Rs.100,000 worth of critical equipment from the UNDP under the Resettlement in Newly Released Areas (RNRA) project. Under RNRA, $3mn in funding from the Government of Norway has gone toward supporting vulnerable families who have returned to their homes. The project adopted a sectoral approach to provide livelihood assistance on Fisheries, Agriculture, Livestock and Business Development.

 

For Arulnanthi, this meant the provision of an air-compressor and machines for vulcanizing and stitching rubber. Training from the Industrial Development Board updated his skills and helped him plan ahead.

 

Today, he earns between Rs.1000 – Rs. 1,500 a day. A complete overhaul of bicycle takes him around 3 days to complete, but he has additional business from cars and auto-rickshaws that come to get air pumped into their wheels.

 

Expanding his bike business

He has ambitions to expand his services to include bike maintenance. He would also like to start stocking spare parts like tubes and tires, making him a one stop shop for his customers. A bureaucratic tangle has meant that the land still does not have electricity connection, but Arulnanthi has asked for credit support to lock down the Rs.50,000 ($320) he needs. “When I receive that the machinery using electricity can be properly utilized.”

 

Four months in, the new business is slowly gaining a loyal clientele. Arulnanthi takes his earnings back home to his wife Sashikala and his son Abish. “I want my child to have a good future,” says Arulnanthi.

 

Money can’t buy happiness

Arulnanthi says he has found a kind of peace in this new work. His little shop overlooks a busy lane, and new customers discover him every day. “I can also work at night, if I need to,” he says, explaining that the flexible hours are a bonus. The income is enough to let his family thrive. “I know I am not fully experienced at this job yet,” he says, “but it gives me happiness.” The work is simple, and keeps his hands occupied. “There is no tension,” says Arulnanthi, smiling.

 

 

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