In line with the principles of Sustainable development, aspects such as the environment, the diverse needs of the people and their personal well-being should be the main focus. It appears that the relevant authorities have not learned a lesson from the hazards of the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development project in Bandarawela which caused social, economic, ecological and geological distress. The same thing is being repeated under the Broadlands Hydro Power Plant Project in Kithulgala. As a result of the continuous blasting of the tunnel under the project costing 82 million USD, the residents now have to pay with their lives.
Pursuing unsustainable development
The sad plight of development projects are that they are driven by a single minded purpose. They do not fully consider the consequences. The relevant authorities have forgotten that the longer we pursue unsustainable development, the more frequent and severe its consequences are likely to become.
The New Broadlands Power Plant in Kithulgala being constructed centering on the Maskeliya and Kehelgamu Oya, two main branches of the Kelani River, expects to support the power needs of the country by adding 35 megawatts of power daily to the national grid. The Chinese contribution to the project is more than than that of the local one, which may be one of reasons why the geological situation and the feedback of the residents were not taken into consideration before the project was launched.
The Broadlands Hydro Power Plant which is the last in the series of Laxapana hydro power plants has been halted for 25 years due to environmental concerns.
Land acquisition and the resettling of villagers displaced due to the project was a problematic situation that was finally given a ‘solution’. As the project officials explained, there have been 48 families who lost their properties due to the project. They have been given compensation before their lands were taken over for the project. But, after the construction of the project brgan, a new number of displaced people were reported and increase daily.
Cracked walls and sinking houses due to frequent tunnel blasts
Blasts reverberating from the Broadlands project cause nearby houses to shake, instilling fear in the residents.
They have not had a good, safe sleep after the blasting of the tunnel started more than a year ago because blasts thunder through the construction site of the tunnel, day and night. As a result, many of the houses’ walls have cracked. A lack of know-how to estimate the extent of the damage sustained by the blasts and the poor blasting pattern have further aggravated these problems. The Project Manager responsible for the blasting said they had informed the residents to go outside the allowed parameters.
The Power Plant’s constructions were initiated by the then Power and Energy Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi under the theme ‘Electricity for all at all times’ but what we witnessed when we visited Kithulgala was closer to ‘fear for all at all times’.
The villagers claim that their lives are in danger and request the Government to take immediate action to rectify the situation and to compensate their losses.
We have lived here for 35 years without any problem: Chandrika
Chandrika Jayasundara, a middle aged woman living with her mother is helpless after her house was heavily damaged due to the tunnel blasts.
“It has been thirty five years since we began living in this area. We have experienced heavy rainfall several times but nothing that negatively affected our lives like this incident. All our problems started with the beginning of this Broad Lands project two years ago. We are always worried when the blasts come, we keep thinking, what will happen now? Will a cupboard collapse? We walk carefully fearing that our weight might deepen the cracks on the walls. We understand work has to be done but it should not damage our homes in the process.
After the first blast, four families who lived in four houses were removed from their damaged houses and they were given money for rent charges of new houses. However, last May 30, I noticed many cracks on the floor of the house. The cracks were getting larger. Subsequently, I informed the project authorities who later visited my house and asked me to vacate the house which was under heavy risk. Since I was not in a position to pay for rents, I didn’t leave. But, one day I felt that the roof and walls were about to collapse and I immediately left the house with my mother. I am still staying in a relative’s place temporarily.”
Seeking legal action against injustice
When asked about the ownership of the house she said that during Former President R. Premadasa’s housing programme, they were given the houses and lands through a legal procedure and that they had the legal documents to prove their ownership to the properties.
“We have the legal documents approved by the Housing Development Authority too. No one can level charges against us saying these lands are illegally obtained or wrongly located,” Ms. Chandrika said.
The residents sought legal favour against the ‘injustice’ meted out to them and necessary legal action against those who are responsible. According to their claims, the Project Manager Dr. Kamal Laksiri has informed the court that no damage to human life or property would be made during the project’s activities.
An officer of the Broad Lands project had also told residents that the cracks on the houses were results of a natural disaster.
We were not given anything. No compensation at all: Mallika
R.P. Mallika who had been living in her house since 1982 was forced to abandon it after it was damaged due to the tunnel blasts.
Since she is currently living in a rented house, she often visits her damaged home to ensure its security.
“We were not given anything. No compensation at all. We left to save our lives. We can no longer live in the rented house because the landlords have increased the rent payments, taking advantage of our helpless situation,” Ms. Mallika stated.
My husband died in a heart attack after witnessing damages of his house: Sumanawathi
Another sad story we heard from the residents in Kithulgala, involving a man aged 76, who was an employer of the Broad Lands project and was killed in a heart attack in a shock after witnessing the damages of his house.
We can feel the vibration through the floor. It’s scary: Kaviraj
A family of an army soldier who visits home once a month is also unable to have a good night’s sleep as they fear for their lives.
The soldier, G.K. Kaviraj, is the father of an eight-month-old baby and a seven-year-old child.
“I received a telephone call to my army camp informing me that the police had asked our family to leave home, which had earlier been identified at landslide risk.
We were relocated to temporary huts in a temple but they later said that we should go back home as it was not on the list of houses under risk. I fear for the lives of my kids’ and wife because I wouldn’t be there during an emergency. We can feel the vibration through the floor. It’s scary,” Kaviraj said.
He requests the authorities to ensure that they have peaceful and happy lives.
Blasting sites should have been surveyed prior to the detonations: Niwasan
D.A. Niwasan has worked as an employer at the tunnel of the Broad Lands project. He was aware of the blasting procedure of the project.
“Blasting sites should have been surveyed prior to the detonations. On May 30, we blasted the rock as usual, but just after the blast we noticed a mass of sand and mud heading towards us and ran away. After realizing that it would affect residents, we informed them to leave as soon as possible,” Mr. Niwasan said.
He also said that if the blasting activities which were believed to be temporarily halted resumed once more, the damaged houses would be buried under the mud and sand.
Upul Pushpakumara is disabled and unable to walk or take care of himself after being struck by Polio.
He had been working in Colombo as an electrician but cannot live in his home now because of the fear of landslides.
Pushpakumara’s mother appeals for a healthy and safe atmosphere to lead their lives.
A resident whose family was among the 48 families removed from another side adjourning to the project’s tunnel, spoke to the Daily Mirror. Mr. Wijeratne claimed that the tunnel is not being constructed according to the previous plan of the project heads, but to a new plan which is why the residents have had to face many difficulties.
It is not just the resident’s houses but their livelihoods that have been affected. Some residents cultivated fruits and flowers and sold vegetables grown in their home gardens. They are now unable to carry on these activities.
Following the residents’ claims and allegations, we visited the Broad Lands project site, but the Chinese officials refused to discuss the current situation with us. They asked us to wait at first, finally sending an official who said they were not ready to speak to the media regarding the issue.
However, in an attempt to contact a Sri Lankan officer in charge of the project, we were asked to visit the Ceylon Electricity Board’s Project Manager of the Broad Lands Project, Dr. Kamal Laksiri’s residence in Kithulagala.
We followed required guidelines on ground vibration: Project Manager
Dr. Kamal Laksiri said they carried out the blasts under the guidance of Geological Survey and Mines Bureau whose officers are deployed in the project to monitor each blast.
He said they followed required guidelines on ground vibration and air vibration before each blasting.
Though there were about 130 requests from people claiming their houses were affected by the blasting, not all the requests were genuine, as some were using the opportunity to obtain money, Dr. Laksiri said.
‘Once it was completed, the affected would be compensated’
He also said assessments were being taken and that once it was completed, the affected would be compensated.
“We have informed them in writing that they will be given Rs. 30, 000 for each month until three months,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Laksiri said that according to the National Building Research Organization (NBRO), most of the houses were not properly constructed, resulting in them being damaged even after a slight rainfall.
He said the damages to the houses were not only caused by the tunnel blasts but also due to natural disasters.
He said that when the proper time came, those affected by the tunnel blasts would be compensated.
What is the proper time? People have already suffered. They have lost their properties. What are the relevant authorities waiting for? Answers should be given before human lives are lost.
Pix by Kushan Pathiraja