Meethotamulla tragedy Govt accused of soft–pedalling disaster
By Shaahidah Riza
Nearly six days have elapsed since the tragedy in Meethotamulla. The death toll keeps rising. The people of Kolonnawa are in mourning, as they bury their loved ones and pray for the missing. Despite all the efforts from the government to contain the situation, criticism for its inability to react immediately for a disaster situation has now come to the centre stage. The failure of the Yahapalanaya Government is pending according to political commentators who claim that the Meethotamulla collapse was a disaster waiting to happen. Ceylon Today has also on many occasions highlighted the myriad of problems people had encountered due to the enormity of the garbage dump.
Ceylon Today spoke to Joint Opposition MP, Dinesh Gunawardene who visited Meethotamulla in the immediate aftermath of the garbage collapse. He has been closely following the development in Meethotamulla during the past six days. With reference to his visit to the Meethotamulla disaster site on Saturday and the prevailing circumstances as of now, he noted that the government's progress was very slow.
"But I guess they have had meetings and discussions to work out options to the people. There is slow progress. This government is in power for two years and they have been saying so many things about solid waste projects. So I am not surprised that this has not been implemented. The government itself has created so many institutions which are contradicting each other in dealing with such urgent and aggravated issues.
This is not the first time they have failed. As I said before, emergency steps, short term and long term must be looked into. This is how one deals with situations in other countries. Now it is an open secret that so many hours have lapsed since the disaster when the emergency troops came in. So many things were lacking even in emergency. Still, they are not clear as to what they have to do and not to do. Except with the recommended houses being given, this is a necessity. Pumping out the canal water has just started but it is very slow. Some people say that they don't have pumps, these are not credible excuses," he said, and went on to add that the needs of the people have not been met by the government.
He explained that the government has its own work plan, but in emergency situations one must listen to the people, the aggrieved and those who are living in the area. He added that the State's concern for the affected people was by far, lacking. He further added that the State was not systematic in its meting out its duties much to the detriment of the people in Meethotamulla. Speaking of the many government bodies that failed the people of Kolonnawa, he said.
"There is battle between the ministries and the departments. Megapolis ministry covers the Urban Development Authority (UDA), whereas the Western Province Chief Minister battles on with the Minister of Megapolis and say that it is his authority. Then there is the silent contributor the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), by a one man show violating the Municipality Act, without an elected representative, even in Kolonnawa. If Kolonnawa had an elected representative, he would have moved faster, and brought in help faster. Then there are many other authorities such as the environmental authority. However, we don't know what that authority is doing. There are so many ministries and departments contradicting and overlapping each other. But the results are minimal. Of course, there are political accusations being made, which is normal. The government has been running for the past two years, although it cannot attend to the day-to-day functioning effectively.
According to the Deputy Director of the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), Pradeep Kodippili 980 persons belonging to 228 families, have been affected and another 11 have been injured due to the incident. Furthermore, DMC has been able to settle 129 people in safe locations.
Temporary shelters are being provided for displaced persons at Sri Rahula Vidyalaya and Terrence N. De Silva Maha Vidyalaya.
When inquired about the relief efforts, to recover the bodies of the dead, the Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development, Sagala Ratnayake said they will continue to excavate the site until they find the 10 persons reported to be missing.
Continuing further excavations can only endanger the lives of the military personnel and others involved in the process, Minister Ratnayaka stated during a field visit he made to the site. On the other hand, Gunawardene feels that the bodies of the trapped must be recovered and handed over to their families.
"Still we are virtually only half way with regard to the search and rescue operation. Then we have to provide the necessary relief for the affected. We have to protect those from another crash of the garbage mountain. All these are complicated issues, which political parties' way of approach wouldn't solve. They were not solved in Salawa, Aranayake, or in Haputale. So it would be the same story with Kolonnawa victims."
However, last Monday the Finance Ministry decided to grant a compensation of Rs 100, 000 to families for each life lost in the catastrophic Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse and up to Rs 2.5 million in compensation will be granted for damage to property. In a statement, the ministry further said the President also has advised the authorities to take every measure to assist the victims of the tragedy. With regard to compensation, he added that the government does not have clear policies and the State has not compensated the people who were affected in the Salawa blast. Elaborating further Gunawardene said, "The government does not have a clear policy on any matter. With regard to Salawa blast, people have not yet resumed their normal life. The Army report has not even been tabled in Parliament although Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promised several times that it would be done. Almost one year has elapsed after the Salawa disaster. But we know that the Army has spent an enormous sum of money to erect a clock tower. It seems to be a priority. The same is happening with Aranayake earthslip. People have not been compensated. Kolonnawa experienced floods one year ago, but compensation has not been paid yet up to now."
However, speaking to Ceylon Today following the aftermath of the collapse, the Minister for Disaster Managment, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said the government will provide those whose houses were destroyed, with temporary shelters and added that the Disaster Management Centre is ready to handle the influx of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), as a result of the evacuation.
Many whose houses were destroyed were also devastated by floods last year. When Ceylon Today visited the devastated site yesterday, many residents accused the government of not paying flood compensation and expressed disappointment in the government. When the matter of compensation was raised with Yapa, he said providing people with immediate care including, food, drink and first aid was treated as priority. "We will never say that we will not give compensation. Two weeks prior to the disaster the Municipal Council had advised the people to leave, and had offered a rent of Rs 15, 000 per month for five months.
Some had taken it and had vacated the place, while the others have not done so. Adequate warnings had been given to them to evacuate. But it seems they have not appeared to have done so. Compensation is not an issue. Some of them are unauthorized residents. We will not differentiate in their circumstances. We will compensate all of them," he said.
Conversely, Gunawardene also stressed that the Prime Minister who was touring Japan should have returned to the country, because his orders and instructions were given to various ministers to act immediately. "It is such a tragedy when the whole country was virtually mourning, Prime minister and the President should both be in the country." He further added that the official foreign visits undertaken by the President and Prime Minister will not bear any fruits as the country is in a financial crisis. He said,
"I don't think these visits are going to bring any benefits in the short term. Incidentally, the President visited Russia. Ten years ago there was a Russian project that was interested in building a stadium and 100 houses in the Meethotamulla land. I don't know whether the incumbent government has even read that. I am not sure whether they even know about it. The officials will not say this. The project was discussed in 2008, 2009 and 2010. There have been 14 projects that have been approved by the BOI on solid waste disposal, but none has taken off. BOI must open their eyes and see what has happened to their files."
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