By Mahesh Senanayake –
The island wide catastrophic situation that we are experiencing nowadays teaches us some timely lessons or reminds us of lessons that we have already learnt and have forgotten. These lessons range from the enshrined norms of humanity to reviewing of our policies, rules and regulations that govern construction of houses, large scale commercial buildings and town planning.
The first lesson that it teaches us is the “kindness and unity” that are overwhelmingly seen among majority of the Sri Lankans amidst some politically driven complaints or suspicion of division among the people. Irrespective of cast, religion, race or language, we have got together as one nation to share the grief of our affected fellow countrymen thus defying the observations of a few minds with vested interest who are waiting to see a divided country. A packet of rice prepared by a Sinhalese fills the hungry tummy of a Muslim or a Tamil and vice versa. The dry rations, clothes, medicine or any other relief materials donated do not carry the stamp of chauvinism. The three forces or the police did not ask for religion or the cast in helping the affected people. Hence we as one nation have once again taught those who are waiting to see the topics of federalism, division or separation to emerge to foster their political ideologies a lesson that had already been taught to them in previous occasions such as Tsunami in 2004 or at the end of the 30 year old war. The lesson is that we are still a united country and we do not believe partition among the people.
A proper system to manage the relief items given by the people would have been improved in our disaster management process for which we gave a serious thought in 2004 aftermath the Tsunami.
There were several occasions that the announcements were made to the effect that cooked food items were not further required and in some occasions that enough food items were not delivered to the interior of the affected areas. This is mainly due to many authorities, organizations, societies and groups of people working in isolation to help the victims. The lesson here is that there should be proper coordination among the relevant authorities and the general public.
Another barrier in the rescue operations has been the public who visit the sites of landslips and floods to witness nature’s rampage which has hindered the progress of the operations. Let us determine not to indulge in such sightseeing soon after a catastrophe. This demands us to rethink whether it is safe and fair to move in large groups to affected areas thus hampering the rescue operations.
Today national newspapers revealed that there had been few incidents where underworld gangs and drug addicts had taken charge of the relief items and hoodwinked the unsuspecting public who eagerly wanted to help the affected. The punishment meted out to such thieves should be couple of times higher than in a normal case of robbery both as per the law of the land and law of the nature.
The government has decided to grant tax concessions for relief items as per an announcement made by the Finance Minister Ravi karunanayake. However the authorities should be extra vigilant as we have some unscrupulous merchants who are good at making use of the opportunity by forging documents to show that items imported are for relief aid and sell the these goods in the ordinary market. We need the vigilance of the customs, ministry of finance and ministry of trade and commerce to intervene.
The lesson we follow next is the how effectively to help rebuilding of those scattered lives. It would not be hard to understand the mental agony one would go through after having his house completely destroyed leaving no trace or what so ever. Most of the damaged or destroyed houses had been built on bank loans or spending one’s savings earned by engaging in a vocation or inherited from the previous generations. Now how are they going to rebuild their lives?
The government has taken a decision to allocate Rs 2.5 million per destroyed house for rebuilding ( the correct term would be “to build” as most of the houses have completely vanished in the landslide affected areas). In building the house the biggest burden will be to find suitable lands to build “new” dwellings as most of the affected areas have been identified as “ not suitable” for constructions. On the other hand, how would an ordinary man (who may have to again obtain a loan to build a “new” house) bear the cost of repayment of a bank loan taken to build his house which now does not even have the foundation, besides losing the entire land that belonged to him? Will requesting the banks to look at ways and means to waive off interests ,or default interests partly or fully be too much in a battered economy ? These people will expect some sort of relief in that sense. In the same coin, if there are SMEs which have got affected beyond resurrection on its own due to loss of assets will have to be supported through a special scheme as the courage of the affected entrepreneurs should be protected to resurrect the local economies in the affected areas.
Minister of Disaster Management Hon Anura Priyadarshana Yapa has officially announced that new legislation would be introduced making prior approval from national building research organization compulsory before any construction .While appreciating the move , we would like to mention that there are similar approvals required prior to constructions which are not properly paid heed. The requirement to obtain approval and clearance from the Coast Conservation Department before building a hotel close to the shore or from the Central Environmental Authority before setting up a factory or commercial operation are few examples where no proper attention is given and the laws pertaining to those who break the law are quite insufficient. Thus we need to relook at the entire spectrum with a pragmatic approach and the relevant organizations or departments should be adequately equipped with resources and their efficacy should be enhanced to meet the modern demands.
Another dimension to this is that the poor attention is paid by us as a nation to proper town planning. How many further years can we afford to bear the losses incurred to the economy due to floods in the capital Colombo which is the heart of the country’s economy? It is no secret that from mediocre downpour to heavy torrential rains can plunge the city and retard all economic activities from making hoppers to trading in the stock exchange. The successive governments have failed in this regard and at least the incumbent government should now take a serious note of this and commence an initiate or a strategy, even if they face severe criticism from the opposition (the right word must be the” joint opposition”). This country needs modern knowledge and technology for town planning and development activities be it constructing a culvert or an express way. In this regard why not a separate authority be formed and breed a group of “town planners “with modern brains through the public and private universities?
The yeomen service by the three forces and the police sparks the thought that the strengths of the rank and file in a post war do not only lie in using them for cleaning of gardens, digging of canals or just gate keeping. The risk these soldiers and officers face during rescue operations is quite equivalent to the risk they faced during the war , perhaps the current danger is much bigger than what have faced as this time they have to fight the wrath of the nature which is beyond human control. Honorable Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was the first to pay his tribute to these soldiers by stating that the soldiers were celebrating the victory of the humanitarian operation in the same corresponding period by engaging in a similar rescue operation facing all natural obstacles with the true spirit of bravery.
Finally there is one solace. There has not been much political bickering at national level compared to previous catastrophes wherein some political figures made huge monies while some used the opportunity to enhance their image through the self – named foundations. Nevertheless, this time around some grass root level politicians are working hard to win the hearts of the people by using the relief items collected from the public or institutions as they are expecting the local government polls to happen soon. In this context, I am not too sure whether we are taught a lesson or we will teach them a lesson?