Last week in our concluding paragraphs, we highlighted the fact that the bottomline in all these large scale calamities is that neither have officials or institutions ever been found responsible or held accountable, whereas more often than not, it is the ordinary people, who end up paying the price. It is common knowledge that no vessel can enter a country’s territorial waters without approval from the mandated institution. Whosoever,out of sheer negligence or for other reasons,permitted this vessel with a container leaking Nitric acid to enter the Colombo Port has let down Sri Lanka and its people.
In the wake of the worst ever man-made disaster, we heard Port Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena saying on TV last week that those affected would be compensated while environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said even Rs.100 billion as compensation would be hardly sufficient to repair the extensive damage caused to the people’s livelihoods, the ecology, the Indian Ocean, our once pristine beaches and the tourism and fishing industries. There is no argument about the urgent need to pay compensation to all those so suddenly left in various degrees of destitution, deprivation and degradation. The Parish Priest of Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Rev. Fr. Sujeewa Athukorale said in his parish alone some 4,300 fisher-families, were badly affected while there were many more in the adjoining parishes.
Similar to what the government said in the case of the China bound MV BBC Naples that it had failed to declare it was carrying a load of Radioactive Uranium; in this instance too the port authorities said the vessel had not declared it was carrying container loads of chemicals with one of the containers leaking Nitric acid. Even when Qatar and India had refused permission to unload the leaking container because they lacked the facilities to handle such an emergency, for what reason then did our port authorities allow this vessel with undeclared cargo to enter the country’s territorial waters leave alone the Colombo Port. Who was the person or persons,who planned to benefit from this operation, which finally backfired?
How did the port authorities and by extension the government get it wrong, not once but twice –the MV BBC Naples and MV Pearl X-Press, both vessels said to be carrying undeclared cargo? Who is accountable for this worst-ever man-made environmental and ecological disaster, is the question we continue to ask the government.Although it is given that no amount of breast-beating would restore Sri Lanka’s environmental and ecological equilibrium, it is the people’s right to know who the miscreants were and the connections they manipulated to get this vessel into the port. Knowing how such incidents had panned out before and the wheels within wheels that continue to turn and churn,would it not be surprising if the government came up with the names of those responsible. Whatever is said or not said there is no running away from the fact that it is the government which is finally accountable and answerable to the people of this country.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Marine Scientist domiciled in Australia, Professor Charitha Pattiarachchi says the plastic and chemical pollutants released into the ocean from X-Press Pearl will last more than three generations and the plastic pellets now in the sea will spread along the coast up to Trincomalee and may even reach India and the Maldives.
In a television interview, he said the pollutants would also spread to lagoons and river estuaries and mix with the sands on beaches and would have an adverse impact on Sri Lanka’s marine environment for hundreds of years. The beaches along the coastal belt are now covered by thousands of dead fish, several dead turtles and dolphins, sea birds and millions of tiny plastic pellets.
How would the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, which took office seven months after the Easter Sunday massacre, now reeling under one calamity after another -- the unrelenting COVID-19 onslaught, the mismanaged vaccination programme, the economic downturn, the severe shortage of fertilizer and the floods and landslides among others -- cope with the X-Press Pearl’s blazing inferno spewing out toxic debris.
Returning to the subject of compensation, it should be distributed fairly and equitably without discrimination among all those affected by this tragedy. As mentioned, compensation itself will not restore the battered environment and the tattered livelihoods of a people, who were once abundantly sustained by the fishing and tourism industries. These are matters of serious concern and should in no way be allowed to be glossed over or to be buried under the sand.