Nine years ago on a day like today in Sri Lanka more than 40,000 people died while over 800,000 people became homeless due to the Tsunami: a gush of water that suddenly came from the ocean and washed away many lives and buried homes, people and memories inside the cold blue sea.
After the Tsunami, ‘recovery’ was a term no one believed (Yet everyone tried and worked towards).
For a country such as Sri Lanka, which was already suffering from a brutal war (When the Tsunami occurred), the Tsunami was a disaster beyond disasters.
It was a tragedy beyond comprehension. A ruthless act of nature that no one understood, but everyone had to pay for. To mark the ninth anniversary of this black day in Sri Lankan history, Daily Mirror visited Batticaloa, which was one of the worst hit Tsunami areas.
The costal area belt which was filled with debris nine years ago today looks like any other beach with lonely boats scattered here and there and fishermen walking about while looking at the sea to judge the weather. Regardless of the improvements of the infrastructure developments and the sad memories of the Tsunami, Batticaloa still remains to be a district where the majority of its citizen’s livelihoods depend on the sea.
Living on the Edge
Many houses built on the coast in the Eastern Province remain in the buffer-zone (the distance between the sea and the houses).
The buffer-zone which was introduced after the Tsunami as a safety precaution method has been changing ever since the day it was introduced.
Initially the distance between the ocean and the houses were 300m in Batticaloa.
However, later it is reported that the authorities made the buffer-zone into 80m-100m in Batticaloa due to pressure of the residents.
Though according to the law it is illegal for people to live in the buffer-zone, many people in Batticaloa today remains to live in the costal areas without any objections from the authorities.
When we visited the coast, a man wearing only a sarong with sand spread all over his bare upper body ridding on a motorbike on the beach stopped the engine and halted in front of us.
We learned that he is a fish seller who has been engaged in this profession for years (Even before the Tsunami occurred).
He is a resident named I.L. Ahamad who was living with his six children while being the sole breadwinner of the family. When we questioned from him about the Tsunami with a sad look on his face he said, “I lost everything during the Tsunami. My house was on the coast near to the ocean. On the day of the Tsunami I had come to the beach to buy fish, when suddenly the sea started to come towards the land. I ran away from the sea in fear but got caught to the waves. However, I managed to escape and run towards my house when I realised that I can’t reach home as the water had flooded my house. There was nothing there except water that had drowned my wife who was 12 months pregnant. I don’t know whether the child would have been a girl or a boy.”
Nevertheless when questioned whether the government or NGOs helped them to recover from this tragedy Ahamad said that an NGO built a house for them on the coast with 200m distance from the sea.
“Apart from that we a got a mosquito net and a food container. Business is hard these days. I travel trying to sell fish everyday on a motorbike that I have borrowed from a friend,” Ahamad said with a sigh.
The areas which were severely affected in the Batticaloa district from the Tsunami were Koralaipattu North, Koralaipattu, Koralaipattu South, Eravurpattu, Manmunai North, Kattankudy, Manmunai Pattu, Manmunnai South and Eruvil Pattu.
Rebuilding houses for the people in these areas was a huge challenge: according to the statistics provided by the District Secretariat of Batticaloa altogether 23,953 houses were damaged where 18,059 were fully damaged while 5894 were partly damaged.
Puddles in Broken Houses
When Daily Mirror visited one of the tsunami flats: Madha Flats mainly occupied by fishermen, to our surprise we noticed how water was leaking from the roof and how the ground was flooded (due to rain) while remaining as tiny puddles.
Crossing one of these small puddles we entered a house of a fisherman living in Madha flats.
The first thing we noticed about this house was how a few sleeping materials were carelessly resting on the floor of the sitting room (which clearly indicated the limited space issue of the house). The owner of the house K. Karunakaran Arun Prakash told us that after the Tsunami destroyed their house on the beach, the authorities had asked them to move into this house built by an NGO.
“When we first moved into this house the windows did not have glasses and neither did the house have any electricity or water. We had to pay and get all of those facilities. And the toilet pipe was also broken. However, the house consisted of two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and the bathroom,” Prakash said.
Then pointing at the sleeping material resting on the floor he said that since there is limited space in the house he has to sleep in the living room.
“The house we had on the coast had much space than this house. The only fear we had then was from the sea. But in these houses it is not safe. Even the neighbours are not good and we are afraid to leave our children alone at home. And whenever it rains, water will leak from the roof and come from the cracks on the walls. So it is difficult to live here during the rainy season. However, this means that whoever the contractor was behind building these houses has cheated,” Prakash said with an annoyed look on his face.
Just then his two little girls entered the room and hid behind their father playfully while secretly peeping in and looking at us from a corner. Prakash touched the little girls with affection and stroked the head of one of the girls.
“We prefer to live on the beach. And now it is difficult for me to travel to the coast everyday from here to go fishing, because of the distance that is there from here to the sea. Nevertheless I can’t go to the sea these days because of the bad weather. So I’m working as a daily laborer to support my family when I am not able to travel to the sea,” Prakash said.
At this point Daily Mirror questioned whether they receive the warnings issued by the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) during storms and other weather changes and learned that these fishermen who are often battling with the waves hardly ever receive the weather warnings issued by the DMC.
Can’t Blame the Weather Man Alone
Meanwhile, when the Daily Mirror contacted the DMC and asked for the reason behind the failure to inform the fishermen regarding bad weather conditions, DMC Assistant Director Pradeep Kodippili answered the phone and said that it was the responsibility of the fishermen to find a method to receive the warnings before they set sail instead of complaining that they don’t receive them at all.
“We inform all media institutions representing all three languages. And we send out SMS text messages as well in all three languages. Apart from this, during a crisis situation we inform the Fisheries Ministry who in return inform the fishermen and the ports,” Kodippili said. Nevertheless when questioned why most fishermen remain to live in the buffer-zone while knowing the risks their taking, Kodippili said that fishermen were reluctant to leave the areas they were familiar with. However, when questioned whether living in a buffer-zone with a 100m boundary between the land and the sea was not dangerous for the lives of the residents, Kodippili said that he couldn’t by any means say that it was safe.
At this note we questioned why people were allowed to live with such risks and whether the authorities were not aware of this situation, Kodippili refused to answer while stating that his responsibility was only to inform the media, Fisheries Ministry and the Ports about emergency situations, and that only a person in higher authority could answer that question.
Corruption amongst Authorities
Nevertheless when Daily Mirror raised this same question from the Batticaloa District Secretariat R. Neduncheliyan he admitted that living in such areas were not at all safe but that considering the fact that Tsunamis doesn’t occur often (once in about 100 years according to his view) people didn’t mind living in the same areas as before.
“Since it was a Cabinet decision to reduce the buffer-zone from 300 m to 100m (in the 2006 gazette) I am unable to comment on this matter. However, there are about three Cabinet ministers in the Batticaloa District and they are all interested in reducing the buffer-zone more. Though the politicians are aware of the risks involved in this situation they do what the residents wants, because politicians are hungry for the public votes. So it is a politician’s decision and we can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Speaking further he explained that in Kattankudy the bufferzone is 80m while there are about 14,000 families living in that area while in all the other areas in Batticaloa the buffer-zone was 100m and there are about 26,000 families living in those areas. When we visited Madha Flats it became obvious to us that the rebuilding of Tsunami houses have not happened as smoothly as the authorities claimed. Both houses that were built by the government and NGOs had many shortcomings.
And nine years after the Tsunami, people are still living in those broken houses, as most of them were not built up to the proper standards. Another common complain regarding Tsunami houses were that some people have tricked or bribed the authorities and registered two or three houses (or money to build houses) for the same family. Since there was no transparency in these transactions, incidents where none Tsunami affected people have obtained Tsunami houses were common in the area. Nevertheless, when we questioned the District Secretariat R. Neduncheliyan about these complaints he admitted that there might be some defects in a few houses but that the majority of the houses were not like that.
“There are some defects in the houses, I accept. Most houses were owner driven: the government paid in installments to house owners who built the houses with that money. So we can’t take full responsibility for the poor quality of the houses. Our technical officers were overall monitoring. But we only had 10 technical officers for the entire district. So it is difficult to monitor each and every house. And at that time, quality materials were not available in the district.
“For example the bricks and the timber which were available during that time were of poor quality. So we arranged to bring building materials from the Sri Lanka Building Corporation. So because of this 80% of the houses were ok. Only the 20% houses that were built by private donors were not up to proper standards. Government usually gave about Rs.325, 000 per house while NGOs gave about Rs.500, 000 per house. So since the money amount was bigger, NGOs built proper houses,” Neduncheliyan confessed. Commenting about the alleged corruption that occurred during the rebuilding of Tsunami houses he admitted that there were instances when a few Grama Niladari and Samurdhi officers who were not affected by the Tsunami also got houses.
“Some corruption may have occurred, but it is not big. May be 10% of the houses were not built up to the proper standards and the Grama Niladaris may have cheated while distributing houses. The Divisional Secretariat gets the recommendations from the Grama Niladari officers. So perhaps they could have misled the Divisional Secretariat. So when the Grama Niladari make the mistake from the bottom, the Divisional Secretary and the District Secretary also get misled. Because of this the entire administrative system should take the responsibility for all the shortcomings that took place during the reconstruction and distribution of Tsunami houses,” Neduncheliyan concluded.
NGOs and INGOs Too At Fault
Though generally it is believed that the houses built by NGOs and INGOs are better than the government built houses, during investigations Daily Mirror learned that even the NGOs and INGOs have taken part in the corruption.
A Civil Society Activist in the Eastern Province who had worked very closely with many NGOs and INGOs that were rebuilding Tsunami houses under terms of anonymity told Daily Mirror that during beneficiary selections where deeds were asked (to decide who and who were affected) the corruption started. “Most deeds were written to the names of the parents. In the same compound two or three families used to live. So Grama Niladari officers were bribed to register the name of a victim as a beneficiary. So people who were not even living in those areas but had contacts with affected groups, bribed the Grama Niladari officers and got their names registered for ownership of houses. The District Secretary who was in charge of the area was asking for bribes from the INGOs,” he said.
Speaking about the housing projects he said that though houses were constructed some people did not like to go to the relocated areas because they were not familiar with those locations. “They didn’t like people from five villagers coming together and living in one place. Perhaps there was a caste issue there too. So after the houses were constructed, most people rented those houses and went and lived in their old locations, which were closer to the sea. However, the quality of these houses were also not up to good standards since the NGOs and INGOs which were operating in those areas didn’t bother to travel to Colombo to obtain the housing guidelines. Most NGOs realized that they were unable to complete the rebuilding of houses with the allocated budget. So, they gave the money to the household owners in installments. And NGOs did not have technical assistance to provide advice to the house owners and therefore the masons who were building the houses got the money and didn’t put the mixtures properly while some NGOs gave the job to contractors who were not registered under the Building Constructors Organization in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Speaking about the corruption that took place amongst the authorities, he explained that some technical officers were bribed to register partly damaged houses as fully damaged houses by the house owners to obtain money. “Government officers such as Grama Niladari who were not originally affected by the Tsunami allocated houses for themselves using different names in the family,” he said.
When questioned why most fishermen fail to receive the warning messages sent by the DMC this person who has worked closely with a lot of fishermen in the East said, “usually the DMC informs the Fisheries Ministry, then the Fisheries Department informs the Fisheries Inspectors who inform the people by phone. So, because of this, the message travels to some while it fails to reach others. But you cannot depend on the SMS alert system because some fishermen have not activated this alert system to their phones while most of the time you do not get that message in Tamil. And because the SMS language is completely different some fishermen fails to understand it. Though media institutions representing all three languages are informed, sometimes that message fails to reach the public.”
The corruption that took place after the Tsunami in the government sector and in the NGOs and INGOs are immense. Due to weak points (or shortcomings) in the administrative system, today, many people who have manipulated and misused the ‘Tsunami devastation’ as a gold mine, have gotten away with it (and are living as kings) when some of the Tsunami victims are fighting hard with the rough waves of the ocean still to earn bread, while dreaming of roses.
It was clear that the most damage to areas and people were in the east and north and is it not surprising their lot has worsened . What happened to the 2.4 billion $ of tsunami foreign aid earmarked for N&E which had gone unaccounted according to transparency International even though from the map it is clear which areas had the most number of casualties and damage! They are destitute even today. Further what became of the Muslim and Tamil fishermen in Akkaraipattu and Arugam Bay areas who were chased away by the army and the beaches sold or farmed out to select capitalists and the army to build tourist hotels? Was it any surprise that only 1% of the voters in these area cared to vote at the last Presidential election?
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