The real tragedy of some events lies in peoples’ perceptions of them rather than in the events themselves. When Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera says the loss of life and property due to the Koslanda landslide was not catastrophic as expected, he is giving us another sorry example of reality being doctored to meet political requirements.
He was giving us the final statistics of the Koslanda landslide at a recent press conference. ‘Only’ 45 people were missing, three children lost their parents, and 11 bodies had been recovered by Nov.3. Four children lost their mothers.
As for material loss, 63 line rooms, 6 official quarters, 2 boutiques, 2 milk collecting centres and one kovil have been destroyed. The nature of tragedy is two fold – personal and collective, which led Stalin to remark that, while one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.
Even if we take that figure of 11 as the final death count, without assuming that all 45 people who went missing in Koslanda have died, isn’t it rather cynical to say that this tragedy is ‘not so catastrophic?’ Who is qualified to judge that, and by what yardstick?
It’s vital that we see this as a tragedy, not another statistic as ‘only’ so many (or so few) have died. The tragedy goes beyond the number of deaths. It lies in their poverty, in the circumstances which led them to be in that particular place at that time. They do not have the necessary mobility, social or physical, to move away from danger into safer conditions. You do not have to be very poor or a tea plucker to understand this. All you
need is empathy.
Our governments are good at coming up with neat answers, solutions and scapegoats. In this case, the government has squarely put the blame on private enterprises which own these tea estates. They were warned of the coming disaster, but did nothing to prevent it.
I can criticize our private tea estate owners in so many ways (and the state sector too, but that’s another story). They can certainly pay their workers better, and build better schools and hospitals. The British era-coolie empire is still in place. But I doubt if they could physically move hundreds of workers to safe havens every time a disaster warning occurs.
Many estate roads are still in poor shape. No buses run on these roads. When you add the cost of transport, temporary shelters, food, plus loss of production during the crisis, estates would be running at a loss. Secondly, if their profit margins become so small that it isn’t worthwhile to run this business, owners might sell the estates to parties who lack the expertise to run them properly. That would be a disaster of the highest magnitude considering just how much we depend on tea exports. Minister Amarasinghe in his speech warned that any estate found negligent of taking safety measures would be taken over by the government. This is a classic Sri Lankan solution and I can’t think any greater disaster that might befall the tea industry. Are workers in state-owned estates in a better position? Do they have better housing, roads, schools – in short, a better future? Everyone has subscribed to this coolie system and made money out of it, but the private sector is a convenient scapegoat when it comes to disasters.
The minister had this to say about the orphaned children: “The government is ready to assist them in their education and bear all expenses up to university level. They will not be handed over to any outsider or even to the closest next of kin as we have bitter experiences on orphaned children following 2004 tsunami and how they were treated by close relatives who undertook to look after them.”
This is the same government which spends so little on child welfare. The state has the right to remove a child from its parents or guardians if they are abusive, or unwilling to look after their offspring. But it has no right to assume that the survivors of this natural disaster will fare no better because some of the survivors of a previous case (the tsunami) were not treated or protected as expected by relations or custodians. If the state thinks it has such rights, then it can take over almost anything. It’s a frightening thought.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that he preferred his own bad government to someone else’s good government. That applies to all those orphaned children, and their uncles, aunts or grandparents. Custodianship can be monitored and if someone is found to be abusive or negligent, then the state can intervene. What it should do is hand over the children to relations, have welfare officers monitor progress and help with provisions, schooling and scholarships.
Finally, while there was generous public aid to the Koslanda survivors (though distribution efforts were hampered by heavy-handed state intervention), what is needed now is a public fund to build safer housing for workers in high risk zones. The state will have to do its bit with better roads
and public transport.