The ferry tragedy in Kinniya on November 23 and the current fertilizer crisis are two cases in point that are sufficient to explain how authorities in Sri Lanka view issues affecting the ordinary people and how they save their skin putting the blame on the people themselves, when things end up in disasters.
The ferry service in Kinniya has been run by a private operator subsequent to the laying of foundation stone for a bridge across Kurinchankerny lagoon. According to Rural Roads and other Infrastructure State Minister Nimal Lanza prior to the commence of construction of the bridge people in the area had used boats to cross the lagoon. And the previous government had laid foundation stone for a bridge and according to State Minister, the current government had laid foundation stone again in April this year to commence the construction work of the bridge.
With that the people had been given a three and a half km long temporary road to use until the bridge is constructed. The Minister says that Road Development Authority (RDA) had turned down requests made by the Kinniya Pradeshiya Sabha and Kinniya Urban Council to operate a ferry service and a barge respectively as they were not safe. However, the Chairman of the Kinniya Urban Council had given permission for the ferry service on his own and the operator had transported the passengers even without life jackets which ultimately claimed seven lives.
Six people including four school children had died and 20 others injured instantaneously when the ferry carrying as many as 35 people capsized in the lagoon. And the Authorities first arrested the owner and the two operators of the ferry and later arrested the Chairman of the UC. Now the politicians are talking politics over the incident while there are unanswered questions related to the incident.
With the initial refusal of permission by the RDA for ferry service and barge service, it seems that the RDA is the authority that has to grant permission for such services. Yet, when the UC Chairman overruled the RDA’s decision by granting permission for the ferry service, the RDA which earlier decided that it was unsafe, turned a blind eye to it, while its officials and employees were around, constructing the bridge. The government politicians who are now attempting to take political mileage from the tragedy too were unmoved. It was as if they let the tragedy to happen to take swipe at the Opposition. If the mishap did not occur, the “illegal” and “unsafe” ferry would have still been carrying hundreds of passengers each day across the lagoon under the very nose of the RDA officials.
This is not the first incident of the sort. A single prior incident should have been an eye opener to the politicians and the relevant officials to see similar dangers around the country. Also there are hundreds, if not thousands of such dangerous “services” across small rivers and streams around the country which are called “Sangili Palama,” Wel Palama” or “Edanda” where thousands of people including children risk their lives, without drawing the attention of politicians who are waxing eloquent on development. They will only find scapegoats when a tragedy occurs.
One does need to travel to all 14,000 Grama Niladhari divisions to find out how people in rural areas cross rivers and streams or what the schools in those villages lack. It must be recalled that President R.Premadasa ordered to construct 752 bamboo gates at every unprotected railway crossings in the country following a train-bus collision at Ahungalla on January 17, 1989. It might not be a proper solution and President Premadasa might not have looked at every problem in that way, but it stresses the need to look at the bigger picture through a single incident.
Take the fertilizer fiasco. When the government faced with the dollar crisis, it all of a sudden in May banned the importation of chemical fertilizer, claiming that agro-chemicals are hazardous to the health. When the farmers started to agitate demanding fertilizer, authorities blamed the Opposition for inciting the farmers. When they realisd the folly of banning fertilizer following many farmers deciding to refrain from farming and the destruction of vegetable for want of agro-chemicals, they decided to allow the private sector to import chemical fertilizer. The end result was farmers losing the fertilizer subsidy, apart from the destruction of crops across the country.
The leaders of the country, if they are true to the masses who voted them to power must realize that the officials and the politicians around them always attempt to save their skin and in most cases take advantage of any disaster. Hence, the leaders must develop a strategies and mechanisms to look at the problems from the standpoint of the people and find solutions with the help of experts. In short, feel the issues like people and solve them with experts.