Did Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now Dr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, overreact in asking the Cabinet to declare a State of Emergency and to call out the troops to meet the challenge of an impending drought? Or has the rest of the Government disregarded the ground realities of what has been termed the worst spell of dry [...]

Editorial

Disaster Prevention

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Did Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now Dr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, overreact in asking the Cabinet to declare a State of Emergency and to call out the troops to meet the challenge of an impending drought? Or has the rest of the Government disregarded the ground realities of what has been termed the worst spell of dry weather in four decades?
Even the President was alarmed. So much so that he asked for foreign aid to meet the challenge. Asking for foreign assistance seems now a bad habit cultivated by successive governments to tide over internal difficulties. Whichever, the PM‚Äôs decision and the Administration‚Äôs indecision, it is yet another example of the coalition Government in power and place taking different paths ‚Äď to nowhere.

In this instance it was not a clash of political ideologies but just a restraining order of sorts on the PM by a Minister in charge of Disaster Management clearly backed by the President. Which is always not a bad thing. Checks and balances within a Government are part of good governance, provided the final decision is the best for the country. And yet, it also gives the wrong signals that nothing moves in the country because what A proposes B disposes.

The drought itself is terribly harsh in the districts of Trincomalee, Gampaha, Matara, Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy and Polonnaruwa ‚Äď 16 out of the 25 in the country. According to official statistics of the Disaster Management Centre, the number badly affected is close to a million people.
Sporadic rains have not helped as they have already been too little too late for the rice-fields and vegetable plots. Water levels have dwindled directly affecting man and beast alike. This has a knock-on effect on sanitation, which in turn triggers disease. Hydroelectricity generation has dropped and industrial waste has polluted some of the remaining water resources.

Average temperatures in Colombo have risen from 27.0C in 2011 to 28.6C in 2016 for January. By next month, the situation is bound to get aggravated. Last year, sports meets were cancelled due to a heat wave. Is the crisis due entirely to climate change? Not necessarily so.

Our provincial correspondents say that farmers have abandoned cultivating paddy fields for the next season. A rice shortage is already to be seen and accusations of a ‚Äėrice millers‚Äô mafia‚Äô at work are the talk of the town.With one or two showers, some sections of the Government feel the drought is over. One swallow does not a summer make, they say and the JVP backed peasant-famer organisations are already making political capital by marching the streets demanding compensation for lost crops.

Even if a State of Emergency was premature, a state of alert and urgency is the need of the hour. We are told the Government is still collecting data and waiting for the heavens to open up while the affected people are in living hell. That is not disaster management; it is a natural disaster.

Committing to the ‚Äėideals‚Äô of democracy
President Maithripala Sirisena‚Äôs declaration this Friday at an induction of Information Officers appointed to ‚ÄėPublic Authorities‚Äô under the Right to Information (RTI) Act that his Government was committed to RTI as it held ‚Äėideals such as freedom and democracy for the people, openness and transparency in high regard‚Äô is encouraging to hear.

However, words must match deeds. While it is encouraging that Sri Lanka’s first RTI Commission has this week, in a Public Statement, asserted that it would act as an independent and strong guardian of the public interest, there is only so much that the Commission itself can do in the absence of proper support and resources. Financial and functional independence are inseparably linked. The Commission and the Commissioners must be adequately resourced and have the capacity to make their own recruitments. This is important as the Commission is the RTI Act’s central oversight, policy-making, enforcement and appellate authority,

There is also an immediate conflict of interest to which the Government appears to be oblivious. The Office of the President is also subjected to the RTI Act. It is therefore highly improper for officials in that Office to determine ad hoc financial allocations to the Commission (which appears to be the case now) when those very same officials may be answerable under the RTI Act and disputes therein may be decided upon by the RTI Commission. This ‚Äėarrangement‚Äô must be dispensed with forthwith. The Commission‚Äôs independent Fund must be secured by a separate supplementary estimate in the House which the Act requires.
We also hope that the very Information Officers inducted by the President this Friday will be competently trained on the RTI Act rather than only generally. The President‚Äôs call for State officials to work together with Government politicians might also convey the wrong meaning when the intention of the new law is to ‚Äúrevolutionise‚ÄĚ the culture of secrecy and promote open government.
The RTI Commission must be allowed to function properly lest its members quit in disgust. Its effort in bringing out rules and regulations in an unprecedentedly short time was largely why our RTI regime was elevated globally from 9th to 3rd place. Naturally the Government has been quick to trumpet on Sri Lanka’s momentous distinction.

All that may be well and good. But the Government must also walk the talk in regard to the President‚Äôs commitment to ‚Äėfreedom and democracy, openness and transparency.‚Äô If the Commission itself and the Commissioners themselves are not adequately — and independently — supported, we may as well say goodbye to that ambitious promise right now.

 

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