‘The measure of a man is what he does with power’ – Plato
Calamity has a strange way of striking back, casting a shadow of despair like the frightful appearance of the bogey man in a child’s nightmare. Some opine that fate afflicts people. The real reason for the disaster crisis of the hills is evidently manmade. For decades the plight of the plantation worker has been spoken in Parliament and other forums. Yielding positive results remains elusive. As time flees, the concerned authorities have only erected a palisade of excuses. The people of the mountains are simply left behind.
To begin with the estate citizenry continue to work in an atmosphere where their contribution to the tea industry is never appreciated or recognized. They have little to enjoy in terms of a social life or recreation. It is sad to note that these hardworking men and women foolishly rally around others for their deliverance. On many instances of natural disaster the entire country has seen how these souls are haphazardly forced into abandoned tea factories and schools, like sheep. It is true that humans can’t control the furious onslaught of nature. Yet with modern technology and early warning systems the loss of life can certainly be minimized. The malfunction of the expensive Doppler Radar warning system is an example of derelict administration.
The people are now accused of building their humble dwellings on disaster prone slopes. Often line houses are built by estate management companies for their staff. Then why didn’t the authorities halt these tiny houses being built years ago? Issuing landslide warnings is only a first response to mitigating a major crisis. After receiving the due warning where do these people seek refuge? Do they have the desired transport to move to safety on the slippery and winding estate roads be it day or night?
Some experts also speculate that the unplanned felling of trees that sustain the stability of the hills is a reason for the rapid increase in landslides. Blasting of rocks for constructions such as highways, has made the hills vulnerable to disasters. In the aftermath of massive landslides villages have been obliterated. The dead could not even receive a decent funeral. Restoration and relocation is a herculean task with social and cultural impacts.
As seen in the recent past obtaining lands to build new houses takes time. There are issues of legal jurisdiction. Communities cannot be moved without creating infrastructure conducive for living. We see a similar hurdle in the relocation of families in the Northern Province, although these lands are not prone to natural disasters. One would assume that the experience of the ravaging Tsunami would have improved the disaster response capability of the authorities, yet there is room for improvement.
The affected people of Merriyabedde and Aranayake continue to endure emotional trauma. They are unable to work and are deprived of an income. Parents are worried about the disruption of their children’s education, the one factor that would liberate the next generation of plantation workers. Whilst it was awesome to see the generosity of the Sri Lankan public in responding with dry rations, there remains a greater void among the battered folk which requires detailed planning and implementation.
As a first step the present government must build Emergency Transit Centres identifying the mountain areas that are prone to landslides. This task can be confidently entrusted to the Army, who always responded with dedication to such emergencies. During the long process of resettling and building new houses one can be certain that there will be more landslides, and therefore the urgent need for these regional transit facilities with provision of kitchens and toilets.
The centres can also be used as community halls during times of normalcy which would enhance these rural lifestyles and justify the building cost. A fleet of vehicles must be ready to evacuate these people, when the landslide threat is imminent. Emergency ration packs that suit the need of the local population must be ready for distribution within 24 hours. Also the people of the hills must be trained in systematic evacuation and life-saving basic first aid skills like CPR as they are the ones at the vicinity of the disaster before any other respondent. As Aristotle said, “Through discipline comes freedom”. Not a single Sri Lankan life must be lost to a landslide in future.