The tragedy that occurred on last Thursday in Maligawatta, Colombo where three women were killed in a stampede during a private programme for money distribution to poor seems to have by now been forgotten. And with the arrest of the person who had distributed money the case seems to have been closed, in the eyes of the masses.
However, it is not so. The pictures of the holes in the slippers that had been left at the place of the stampede which are now circulating in social media speak volumes on the poverty that had been partly responsible for the tragic incident. Yet, the media has closed the case by accusing the person who organised the money distribution.
This person, according to the residents of Maligawatta area is a wealthy businessman originally from the same area and has been helping the poor especially in the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan by distributing money and essential items for the past several years. However, never had there been any untoward incident. Yet, this year, despite the fact that he had to be extremely serious in view of the prevailing Covid-19 threat, things went wrong the reason or reasons have to be revealed during the ongoing police investigation.
The CCTV footages showed the chaotic scramble within the premises where the businessman had been engaged in distributing Rs. 1500 per family in the area and the worn out rubber slippers that had been strewn at the gate of the premises where the stampede happened clearly point to haplessness of the majority of recipients.
This was not the only incident where abject poverty among a segment of the people in the country had led to tragedies. We heard of a mother leaving her one-year-old infant with her fourteen-year-old sister-in-law before fleeing the area some years ago. We also heard few years ago the story of a disabled man who had left his two sons aged four and five years on the Mahanama Bridge in Matara before attempting to commit suicide by jumping into the Nilwala River, a waterway infamous for suicides by such desperate people. Apart from similar incidents unreported by the media, two children had been thrown into the Kaluganga by their mother and were rescued by three army personnel on duty nearby, sometime ago.
Investigations later had revealed that the parents involved in these incidents had been pushed towards such crimes by abject poverty and not due to any inborn cruelty. The irony is that these tragedies take place in spite of some politicians boasting about developing the country during their tenures while some others receiving “best in the world” acclaims from international organisations for their role in taking the country’s economy in the “correct” path.
Maligawatta is an area like other extremely crowded localities in Colombo with the majority of people being roadside vendors, hawkers, small traders, home based workers, porters, labourers, artisans and trishaw drivers, all of which fall into the category of informal economy. One traveling along Siri Saddharma Mawatha via Maligawatta after 10 pm could see around 500 trishaws stopped on both sides of the road for about half a kilometre.
A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had found that 66 per cent of all employed people in Sri Lanka work in informal work arrangements. The study further said “Workers in the informal economy face serious deficits in decent work: They are engaged in poor quality jobs, with low productivity and incomes, poor working conditions and occupational health and safety standards, and limited access to knowledge, technology, finance, and markets. Since they are normally outside the legislative regulatory framework and are not covered in official statistical enumeration, they are unrecognised, unregistered, unprotected, and socially excluded. Their problems are compounded by their lack of organisation and lack of voice at work.”
In other words, they are ignored by the State and the society. Their income is not assured by any law. Theirs is a hand to mouth existence. And in the light of the two-month long current curfew they were the worst hit category, as they lost all avenues of earning. In such a background, people scrambling even for a meagre amount of alms are not surprising. The incident demands the explicit concern of the authorities towards this sector of the economy, without which the word development is meaningless.