Disaster wake up calls
Posted on June 3rd, 2017

Island Editorial

The Rip Van Winkles of our times are now waking up from their long slumber. Megapolis Minister Champika Ranawaka went on record on Friday saying prosecutions will begin this week against owners of unauthorized structures along the Wellawatte canal banks, one of which collapsed recently killing four and injuring more than 20. Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa also went on record the same day that anybody building on landslide prone slopes would be prosecuted. Nobody will quarrel with Yapa’s assessment that “if we don’t stop this madness, we are going to end up with a bigger disaster very soon.” All that is well and good. But what is the government going to do about those who permitted such buildings in the first place? Many of them, no doubt for consideration, allowed such construction with scant regard for the rules and regulations governing building. Not only the bribe givers, but also the bribe takers must be punished.

Surely the Colombo Municipal authorities would have been aware that the canal bank reservations have been encroached upon. It may be claimed that many of these buildings have not got the necessary Certificates of Conformity (COC). In that case, how was it possible for them to be occupied? It is common knowledge that not only the Colombo Municipal Council, but also local authorities in large urban centers elsewhere and indeed the lesser local bodies are corrupt and adept at bending rules and regulations that have been devised with good reason for the common weal. Anything can be done if the right palm is oiled, we all know. Despite promises of dealing such rampant corruption, nobody is talking about bringing those responsible for regulatory failures to account. It is time that this aspect of the matter is also examined.

At a news briefing in Colombo on Friday, Ranawaka revealed some telling figures. The UDA had lodged cases against 4,000 illegal buildings presumably in Colombo. Prosecutions will be launched this week against owners of 18 buildings, including high-rise apartments sitting atop canal bank reservations, in Wellawatte and Dehiwela. The owner of the reception hall that collapsed was arrested and is now before court. Quite apart from encroachment into any reservation, the construction also would have been substandard. Otherwise how could it tumble down with scarcely any warning; or were telltale signs ignored? People too often compromise safety for reason of cutting costs. That is true not only of individuals but also of governments too. Ranawaka alleged last week that the much vaunted Southern Expressway was partly responsible for flood havoc in the Galle and Matara districts saying that it effectively acted as a 150 kilometer dam across several rivers in the south-west and the south.

We report in a front page story today that officials are saying that parts of the expressway, which is undoubtedly a huge boon to motorists traveling south, should have been built as an elevated highway to allow rain water to drain from the eastern side to the west. The less costly option of building a bund with insufficient culverts and bridges to deal with exceptional flow was resorted to and we all know what happened. Parts of the expressway were submerged and sections had to be closed. Many exits including the one at Matara went under several feet of water “making the expressway quite useless,” the report said. It is true that the intensity of the rainfall was exceptional. It is also true that ours is not a country able to afford the various protective measures that are necessary to guard against all eventualities. But questions are now being asked about how effective the environmental impact assessment that preceded the building of the southern expressway has been. If something goes wrong, the same questions will be asked about reclaiming the land on which the Colombo Port City will stand. These too are matters that deserve examination. We are a notoriously reactive country. The garbage dump had to collapse before a serious effort of finding a solution to Colombo’s waste disposal began. Whether we are on the way to finding that solution is still not in the public domain. So also the recent floods and landslides that were preceded by previous floods and landslides. Acts of God, no doubt, are unstoppable. But human agency can minimize their impact.

Wisdom always dawns ex post facto. Now that we have been hit by the floods and landslides a lot of wise words are being spoken; added to that there is finger pointing galore. Minister Yapa has been pilloried in the social media for not returning to the country from Mexico where he was talking about disasters. There is no escaping the reality that development schemes like dams, reservoirs, highways, power stations and what have you entail environmental cost. Cost benefit analyses must be carefully worked out before we proceed with grandiose schemes. Columnist Rajan Philips writing in this page says that systems that prevailed during the latter part of the colonial administration and early days of Independence were decidedly superior to what prevails today. This despite the huge expansion, both of officialdom and institutions, which has been this country’s lot in recent decades. Apart from the corruption, we can no longer take pride in the capacity and commitment of our public services. This sadly applies most to the leadership and the bloated political establishment more concerned about its own welfare and benefits than that of the country.

The president has been praised for stopping the import of luxury vehicles for his ministers and officials, obscenely continuing in the teeth of public opinion, at least till the end of this year, after the floods hit. But why were they approved in the first instance? There are enough vehicles in the government pool to serve the needs of both the political and bureaucratic establishments. But profligacy has for too long been the name of the game and the leadership has been sadly incapable of applying the brakes. How could it, when it too is not slow in ladling the gravy to its own plate. Our leaders would do well reading and digesting Philips and Sanjana Hattotuwa who has also commented on the same subject today.

One Response to “Disaster wake up calls”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    PROFLIGACY, ILLEGALITY, CORRUPTION, OUTRIGHT THEFT, and an UTTER DISDAIN for the WELFARE of the ORDINARY CITIZEN has been the HALLMARKS of this UNPATRIOTIC Yamapalanaya in an UNSEEMLY HURRY to DISMANTLE our Motherland!

    OUST this INCORRIGIBLE DUSHTA Yamapalanaya NOW, and REPLACE it with a PATRIOTIC Government COMMITTED to the PRESERVATION of OUR Motherland and OUR People!

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