Sri Lanka’s 'Squeaking Mouse' of Disaster Management - Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

The profound disgust felt by citizens of this country towards elected representatives on both sides of the political divide is without a doubt. This week’s adjournment debate in Parliament on the deaths and misery caused by recent catastrophic floods in the country reinforces that disgust.

Reducing Sri Lankans to beggars
What surfaced predominantly were cheap political shots aimed at each other with some national suit clad worthies evidently glorying in the discomfiture of their fellows. Conspicuously lacking was the identification of the disaster as a grievous tragedy over and above party political lines. No emphasis was laid on the prioritizing of a professional disaster prevention policy along with a mechanism to prevent as much as possible, the awful fury of natural calamities instead of wailing to the heavens and distributing relief after disaster strikes. Reducing once self sufficient members of thriving village communities to the level of beggars waiting for handouts is not something to boast about. That much is clear.

Meanwhile empty promises to appoint yet another parliamentary committee (proposed by the so-called Joint Opposition apparently) or to hold an international conference to bring together donors for flood relief by the Government only arouses more infuriation. Is this all that can be suggested? While the immense sacrifice by parliamentarians giving up their lunch interval to carry on with the adjournment debate, (perhaps a good precedent for the future) must be accorded its due acknowledgement, was this the abjectly squeaking mouse that the roaring mountain gave birth to, as Aesop’s Fables famously satirizes.

That same surreal unreality attaches to the bristling justifications offered by the Minister of Disaster Management. This personage, as pointed out last week, was so imbued with a sense of his own responsibilities that he took close upon a week to return to the country after the disaster hit. The excuses now offered would be funny if they did not grimly reflect the lack of accountability which prevails.

Ignoring core concerns of disaster management
Thus the public was summarily informed that the Ministry and the Centre for Disaster Management worked exemplarily. However, the ‘only problem’ was that centres for evacuation and disaster management had not been set up to enable people affected by oncoming natural disasters to be moved into.

Pray is this not the very core concern of a functional and effective disaster management policy? Without such centres, where are the people supposed to go even if the Government blares into their ears from noon till night that disaster may strike? Can you blame occupants if they refuse to leave, particularly in view of the fact that the law and order situation is so chaotic that their meager belongings may well be looted before they return? It is only now that this need is being addressed, apparently again through foreign funding. Why is this not prioritized in utilizing the country’s own monies without always resorting to the begging bowl? Where are tax payers’ monies being diverted to?

In effect, without addressing these key concerns that have been ignored for decades due to the blundering of successive and the present Government/s, all that the responsible Minister and his colleagues (who also formed part of the Rajapaksa government, let us not forget) can bleat is that Sri Lankans are unique in that they refuse to leave their homes when disaster looms. Therefore (we assume), the victims are held to be responsible for what befell them. Is there no limit to this indecency if not idiocy?

Glaring corruption and mismanagement
The fundamental issue is not the reluctance of people to leave their homes. Or the lack of law as stated previously. Rather, it is the corrupt and mismanaged way in which development and basic urban planning takes place. Much of this was accelerated during the Rajapaksa Presidency when these same worthies were in government. Ministers wax eloquent now in regard to unauthorized buildings blocking water ways and so on. But it was the same political establishment of which they were very much a part of, which permitted these constructions to take place for hefty considerations passed under the table.

During the Rajapaksa Presidency, bypassing required environmental approvals in major development projects became common. The former President and his supporters (some holding ministerial positions now) should hang their heads in shame if, of course, they understand the concept of shame in the first place. But the fault does not lie with the Rajapaksas alone.

Seeing the calamitous scenes of the flooded Southern Expressway last week, I hunted through old court papers relating to legal challenges brought to the shifting of the Expressway from the original trace and a later approved combined trace. Though it was ultimately built on a final trace, this was not subjected to a Supplementary Environmental Impact Assessment in terms of the National Environmental Act.

Sri Lanka not immune to global anti-establishment anger
This columnist was part of a legal team which challenged the arbitrary re-drawing of the trace without proper environmental approvals in the Supreme Court in a public interest petition filed against the Road Development Authority and other relevant state agencies. Though the Court delivered judgment holding that a Supplementary Environmental Impact Assessment should have been conducted and upholding the right to compensation of the petitioners whose lands in Bandaragama and Akmeemana had been arbitrarily acquired for the Expressway, it stopped short of halting the project (SC Appl 58, 59 & 60/2003, SCM 20/01/2004).

That caution may have been justified at the time due to the enormous costs incurred if a more drastic reprimand had been issued. But thirteen years later, we see the terrifying consequences of unplanned and unregulated development. As politicians of the local kind mouth hypocrisies, many Sri Lankans identify with the anti-establishment fervor sweeping the world, most recently in the general elections in the United Kingdom. This casts caution to the winds with the contemptuous rejection of the ‘old political mindset’ even if the ‘new’ veers dangerously on an unstable unknown. This is an irresistible tide that Sri Lanka will not be immune from.

Even as some are content to make professional and personal hay while the sun shines, it is increasingly evident that even those uncertain and occasional bursts of sunshine under the unity alliance may be short. Indeed, Sri Lanka may soon be gripped in a pall of an icy chill, worse than what we have ever experienced before if its political leadership fails to understand and respond properly to the public mood which (with very good reason) is turning hostile in some parts and downright ugly in others.
 The Sunday Times -

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