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Uma Oya Debacle

2017-07-06 00:51:46
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The Government has started the blame game again, this time on the ill-conceived Uma Oya project which has turned into a catastrophe for the people in the Bandarawela area. Earlier it was the issues over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump and the hate speech against minorities, especially against the Muslims, over which the government was blaming the previous regime.   

It is true that the previous government led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa committed blunders regarding these issues. Leaders of that government helped the owners of the SAITM to set up the institution by approving loans and granting scholarships to the students of that institution. They highhandedly allowed dumping of garbage at Meethotamulla, even violating the court orders. Hate speech was encouraged by their blessings or at least by their lethargic attitude towards containing it. But will those issues be resolved now merely by accusing the former regime?  

However, that is what the government is exactly doing now. Following an unprecedented massive protest rally and a hartal against the multimillion dollar Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project last week during which the Bandarawela town came to a standstill, President Maithripala Sirisena accused the former government of implementing the project without proper planning. While claiming that he was with the protesters, the President accused the former government of taking wrong political decisions and defrauding funds amounting to millions through this project.   

People in Bandarawela area were agitating for the past several years over the issue demanding the project be stopped forthwith as more than 3,000 wells, tanks and streams have run dry and over 7,000 houses have been fully and partially destroyed due to cracks and sinking of earth in various places. It is said that the reason for this situation was the leakage of ground water in the area into the tunnel that is being constructed under this project between two reservoirs at Puhulpola and Diaraba, both near Welimada.   

Following the people’s agitations the present government had appointed a ministerial sub-committee to probe the matter in 2015, while accusing the former government of implementing the project without a feasibility study or an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). Therefore the government is now well aware of the seriousness of the issue and also it had enough time during the past two years to decide whether to proceed with the project, resolving the current problems or to terminate it, if the damages are uncontainable.   

But the government did nothing. The ministerial sub-committee appointed in 2015 just toured the area and didn’t submit any constructive proposals either to proceed with the project minimizing harm or to stop it without aggravating the situation. In fact the committee was incapable of doing so as it wasn’t a panel of experts. Therefore, if the government still continues to blame the previous government for the project without providing a viable solution to the problem, it would be tantamount to an attempt to cover up its inability to handle the issue.  

With the current wave of agitations by the affected people led by the “People’s Movement against the destructive Uma Oya Project” the President had appointed another three member Cabinet sub-committee last week, apart from personally announcing that a Norwegian team of experts would visit the country to look into the matter next month and recommend remedial measures. He stated that it would be only after that the government would be able to decide whether to continue with the project or to terminate it.   

At a time when the affected people have strongly aired their views and the media had widely and visually reported the damage done to the poor people in the area, what is the new Cabinet sub-committee going to find out afresh? They are not experts to give a scientific assessment of the situation and advice the government to proceed or not.   

No doubt, the expenditure incurred so far regarding the project might be huge. But if there is no way to contain the damages and protect the ground water in the area due to the continuation of the project, the only solution would be to stop the project, forgetting the expenditure incurred thus far. It won’t be a good decision, but all others would be worse. Whatever it would be, the government has to take the decision without wasting time and blaming others.  


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