In Sri Lanka’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 Tsunami, at least 300 people are feared dead after a huge mudslide or landslide washed away hundreds of tea estate linerooms in Koslanda near Diyatalawa on Wednesday morning.
Eyewitnesses said they heard what sounded like a thunderbolt from a nearby mountain and the catastrophe erupted around 7.30 am. At least 75 children had already left for school and yesterday—as troops and others continued a massive clearing operation- most of those children were crushed by sorrow over whether they have lost their parents and other family members.
If postmortem examinations have value, then the government and estate people’s leaders like Minister Arumugam Thondaman need to reflect on whether they have got their priorities right, whether priority was given to expressways and other mega projects while the linerooms of the poorest of the poor are still not much better than they were decades ago.
At the Uva Provincial Council elections in the Badulla and Moneragala districts, the Rajapaksa government saw the political writing on the mountains when its majority was slashed by more than 20 percent. About 40 days later came the second thunderbolt and this time it was at the cost of hundreds of lives and desperate agony for the survivors including children.
Improper constructions disregarding the vulnerability of the building sites were the main cause of the landslides and mudslides in the hill country during the past few days, the Peradeniya University’s senior geologist Kapila Dahanayake told the Daily Mirror in the aftermath of Wednesday’s horror. “Some projects have been carried out without consulting geologists and seeking their guidance. I believe this is the main cause of the mudslides. Even today many construction projects are being carried out in mountainous areas after levelling them without a proper long-term programme to avoid such disasters. The officials and the people should be made aware of the dangers of such disasters and geologists should be consulted about the geophysical condition and historical data of these areas,” Prof. Dahanayake said.
In one of the many excuses for the lack of responsibility and political or election-oriented projects instead of sustainable, people centred development, the Disaster Manager Centre said it had repeatedly warned residents to move to safer areas after heavy monsoon rains in recent weeks. Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said the people had not heeded these warnings, amid reports that thunder showers will continue with the threat of more landslides or mudslides during the North-East monsoon period from October to December.
Countering the Minister a surviving resident said yesterday that from 2005 the authorities had been warning them that the area was dangerous and they should move away but no alternate residence were provided.
The Koslanda calamity also brings to focus the plight of hundreds of thousands of estate people whose vote is valuable if not vital for the government and the estate workers’ main party the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). Yet after getting their votes with the now infamous false or broken promises, the political leaders appear to be more interested in their personal gain or glory, power and prestige, popularity, perks and privileges while the welfare of these marginalised and often voiceless people comes low in the list of political priorities after the elections. The CWC specially needs to be ashamed of itself. Not only now even during the past few decades the CWC has aligned itself with the ruling party on the basis that it could do more for these poor hardworking people who are the poorest in the country with their poverty level some seven percent more than the national average.
Tea in Sri Lanka is still one of our biggest cash crops, but families working on tea estates are among the nation’s poorest in terms of earnings and nutrition. According to surveys, one in three estate children is classified as underweight and 40 percent of babies are born underweight. The situation may have improved a little after this survey but there is too little sympathy for the tea workers—even from their own leaders.
About one-and-a-half million people or some 5 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population work in the tea sector. A recent national poverty study noted that 11.4 percent of these families lived below the national poverty line of Rs 3,028 a month.
Wednesday’s catastrophe was a thundering wakeup call to the Rajapaksa government and Mr. Thondaman’s CWC.