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The Heavens Poured and Atlas Shrugged

May 22 2016 - Sri Lankan parliamentarians appear to have been moved to unseemly mirth regarding the floodwaters which devastated the country this week, causing more than sixty three officially reported deaths and thousands more missing, with even greater numbers rendered homeless and destitute.

Warranting a serious response
As sorrowful scenes were recorded across the island, the gravity of the deluge had yet to be taken seriously on the floor of the House. Indeed, as much as Atlas shrugged in the disturbing portrayal by Ayn Rand of capitalist and greedy businessmen projected as the real heroes of society, here too we may aptly say that parliamentarians laughed on the banks of the Diyawanna Oya even as the muddy waters came right up to the door of the Parliament.

These rude bursts of laughter were in response to Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s wisecrack on Friday that if the self styled Joint Opposition members had not engaged in coconut smashing rituals, this calamity would not have occurred. But the issue here surely warrants a far more serious response than such hilarity?

The sheer ineptitude of the Government in bringing relief and redress to the affected people is one facet of the problem. This was the recurring theme throughout the country as the displaced wailed before television cameras that they had not been helped by government agencies. No doubt, there were determined and selfless government servants who devoted themselves to the arduous task of flood relief but the stern commitment shown by the Government itself as an entity was certainly lacking.

Result of disastrous development
At an even more distressing level, there appears to be no acknowledgement of government policies and practices which have directly contributed to this flood devastation. Public officials are fond of advising people not to occupy lands that are susceptible to landslides and floods. Yet they conveniently forget the fact that much of this damage is done by politicians themselves. We are familiar with the ruthless acquisition of land by politicians for commercial purposes such as building hotels and the like. These are lands which should have been preserved for water retention purposes, both in major cities and elsewhere.

All these ‘projects’ were without environmental approval as obliging public officers rubber stamped acquisitions of land even (unbelievingly) in the mangrove marshes of Negombo. So as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers profess sympathy with affected victims, it must be clearly understood that disastrous ‘Rajapaksa’ development was a major contributory factor to the present crisis.

Neither is the Government in power free from responsibility. Despite all the sanctimonious outrage regarding the Port City project when its politicians were campaigning for the popular vote last year, they have tamely acquiesced to continuing with the project minus some minor changes. This makes nonsense of the Prime Minister’s claim during electioneering that this project would devastate the coastal line from Colombo to Beruwala and that he would forthwith cancel the project if his party assumed power. We are not assured by the Government’s claim that environmental conditions have now been complied with. Quite apart from this, this Government appears unable to clean even a culvert properly. This is a breakdown of the provincial and local government machinery in a most essential sense.

Past warnings of such calamities
The dangers attendant on proper environmental safeguards not being followed prior to ambitious development projects being undertaken are now alarmingly evident. This week’s treacherous flooding of parts of the Southern Expressway, once praised as Sri Lanka’s flagship expressway project is a good illustration. More than a decade ago, this columnist was part of the legal team which challenged the shifting of the trace of the Southern Expressway from one route to a completely new direction. This shift was despite the fact that the relevant environmental assessment had not been properly carried out in respect of this new direction of the expressway named as the ‘final trace.’ This was in contradiction to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA)’s injunction that any changed route should avoid traversing through wetlands of the area.

The legal challenge was based on a number of factors including the risk of environmental damage if the changed route was adopted. At the time, though the Supreme Court before which the matter finally went on appeal, responded by awarding compensation to the petitioners whose lands had been acquired without following proper procedures, (SCM 20.01.2004), the judges balked at ordering a complete change in the routing of the expressway, probably due to the massive expense that this would involve.

However both in the Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court, the crucial importance of conducting a proper environmental assessment was stressed. As found by a committee of judges appointed to undertake an empirical study of the affected area, the changes adversely affected property rights of poor villagers. Decision makers were put under a duty to consider all relevant environmental consequences and afford affected persons an opportunity to voice their opinion. As the Court of Appeal affirmed, ‘this fosters dialogue between decision-makers and involved parties, which is an essential pre-requisite of any development project for such project to have sustainability over a long period.”

Discrimination between the poor and the affluent
But in the years following this decision, even that bare judicial and environmental review of development projects went by the board. The impact of the Mundy decision on Sri Lanka’s political leadership, in so far as preventing ill planned development projects, has been negligible. This has ramifications for proposed expressways as well, including the Kandy-Colombo Expressway. A continuing failure to satisfy environmental safeguards presents a nightmare scenario of environmental devastation far worse than what was experienced in May.

This accentuates the profound discrimination that we saw a few days ago between the poor left stranded on the top of their houses, clutching pitifully meager belongings and the affluent. While the more privileged enjoy expressways should the less privileged be left to suffer such fates due to corporate and political greed ?

These are questions that should reflectively occupy our minds, quite apart from reaching out to the affected through relief provisions. And parliamentarians may perhaps refrain from hilarity when addressing this calamity which afflicted the country in these generally serene Vesak weeks. Surely this is the minimum that Sri Lankans should forcefully demand.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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