Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Wayamba Development and Cultural Affairs, United National Party (UNP) MP Palitha Thewarapperuma received support and appreciation from the public for his support during relief efforts after the floods and landslides in several parts of the country.
He was with the people, wading through waters and stepping on mud, carrying people towards safety and ensuring they received assistance. Clad in Shirt and a sarong, photographs of Thewarapperuma helping the people went viral on social media platforms.
Thewarapperuma spoke to the Nation regarding his ongoing efforts concerning helping victims of the recent disaster, the long terms measures to be taken to address such, the causes of this situation, and the state of institutions such as the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) in times of such calamities.
Q : What were your experiences in the immediate aftermath of the disaster?
A : We, in the Kalutara District, knew that when the first rains came during the latter part of May that certain areas which generally would get flooded even for a slight drizzle would get inundated when the big rains came. So we prepared to go to meet the people and distribute food. By the time I woke up on the first day of heavy rain, there had been missed calls on my mobile phone from 3.30 a.m. onwards. A good kilometer from where I was it was flooded, the telephone lines were not working, trees had fallen, there were landslides, and much destruction. On top of this, there was no coordination.
Subsequently, when we managed to get to certain badly hit locations, there were cases where approximately 10 families were buried under landslides and debris. We carried the bodies of the dead and also those barely among the living, cradled in our arms, and managed to take them to a hospital for the doctors to do what they could. At the said hospital, there was no electricity and therefore lights, due to several generators being broken.
There were however several generators which could be used but there were no generator operators available on site. I managed to bring in some persons from outside who could operate generators, installed them at the hospital, broke the locks which kept the said generators sealed, and got the generators up and running.
Muslim boys helped with the provision of and operation of boats for use in the rescue efforts. Workers at a garment factory too helped in this regard, in particular with regard to arranging for getting rice packets together. Others aided in providing packets of rice, in certain cases over 2,000 numbers at short notice.
Elsewhere, we gave the Navy what they required including fuel, and certain tools. The Navy too deployed boats. With this tragic devastation being shown on television and reported through the newspapers and also via social media websites and networks, the people of the country came and gave material, providing much needed food including dry rations, water, medicines and clothes including those like female undergarments.
The Air Force conducted aerial rescues and dropping of essential goods to those trapped or marooned on land below. Divisional Secretariats too worked in this regard. Pradeshiya Sabhas worked on clearing the roads. The food parcels were distributed through polling stations and schools.
Q : What should be done at this juncture at the ground and the grassroots level?
A : These are however all temporary measures. Everyday, normal, day to day lives in and of these communities have been destroyed. The short term steps will not alleviate the great wail and howl of the people, let alone silence and stop it.
The Government must intervene. It must cut all unnecessary expenditure. It must be a source of strength. It must act without heed for the party or hue. We must not think of ourselves as Sinhalese, Muslims or Tamils, but instead as Sri Lankans.
Q : Who are the responsible authorities?
A : The origin of this destruction is the fact that development has not been done and taken place properly. The origin of this destruction is the fact that the environment has been destroyed. The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) is responsible. The corrupt are at large and are roaming free. Industries and factories polluting the environment too operate with impunity.
Illegal reclamation of land is another factor for the origin of this destruction. Regarding the latter, some have taken monies to allow such and are now maintaining their silence whilst distributing rice and water to the affected and the victims. It is not they who were destroyed by their actions.
The affected and the victims are now resorting to chasing after dry rations.
The Government must put in place a programme of action to help these people, each and every one of these persons, to stand back up on their own two feet.
Q : What is the solution that can break this vicious cycle?
A : What the nation needs in the future is a policy that is applicable and necessary and required for the times to come. Through the DMC, other disaster management related organizations and institutions should be established.
The DMC should be equipped with boats, generators, chainsaws, and more people especially youth who are able to rescue people in times of need and those with humane qualities.
Following the tsunami, no construction was to take place within 100 metres of the Ocean shore. People have now forgotten this. It is returning back to the former situation prevalent prior to the tsunami. The houses built following disasters by pradeshiya sabhas have once again been adversely impacted by the landslides and their walls have cracked due to the pressure. Tents have to be built temporarily for the residents of these said houses. Yet, one has to prostrate oneself and grovel before officers to get anything done in this regard. There is politicization at these levels which has caused the people much distress and inconvenience.
We have to move past the habit and practice of distributing relief via parties and alliances. One must not try to protect one’s leaders during such circumstances. We must understand the pain, suffering and sadness of the people. Adequate compensation must be given to the victims.
This is like the balagiri doshaya where nothing concrete ever takes place and there is no forward momentum or movement.
The Geological Survey and Mines Bureau and the CEA are responsible for their errors which have all led directly to this present state of affairs.
Waterways such as rivers, lakes and streams where water should flow unhindered have become blocked and they have not been cleaned by these said authorities. Marshy and swampy lands have been reclaimed without any concern for the environment. Nature does not punish those who made mistakes but instead punishes those suffering from such disasters.
The DMC is useless. It is better to raise and train dogs instead. Such is the state at the moment. In a place in Batahena, a dog had sensed impending doom, and had kept knocking on the door and howling to wake those sleeping inside to move towards higher ground for their safety.
The humans managed in this instance to escape yet the dog in question wasn’t so fortunate. It died and couldn’t save itself. What we need is such sensitivity as shown by the dog.
There are no trained workers or personnel at the DMC.
Q : What is the Government’s plan in the long run in this regard?
A : The Government has had no time yet to think of anything long term. The affected families have to be identified through the census data statistics. No Government has done such. There is no point in blaming former Presidents and Prime Ministers. We must learn a lesson. We must protect and safeguard the country and the environment.