Rising out of the ashes - we need accountability not words
Words seem superfluous in the wake of the magnitude of the disasters that engulfed this country just a week prior to this day. All the platitudes that have been expressed as well as the pious hopes of a new and just society that can be born like the proverbial Phoenix arising out of the ashes have their limitations. Nothing can ever hope to match the cataclysmic loss of human life and the terrible agonies of those left behind. It is presumptuous even to try.

In retrospect, Sunday's tsunami waves and the destruction in its wake underscores the impermanence of life and the follies of power, politics, prejudice, greed and ambition which make up the sum of our existence, that can be so very easily disposed of in one fell swoop by forces of nature that not all the ambitious strivings of humankind through the ages have managed to equal by one zillionth. So much therefore for our pitiable and angry rantings on religion, race, caste and creed. This is the manner in which the elements of nature take their revenge. What is tragic however is that its counter force is indiscriminate, catching up in its midst good and decent people who ought not to have died in such a meaningless way.

We have now seen our political leaders emerging on one stage to urge national amity with a fraction more sincerity on their faces than what is normally evidenced. In general, many Sri Lankans have been jolted out of their normal somnolent state to respond to a grief-stricken South and North/East. This is not however to forget the young and not-so-young city based yuppies who are flippantly pained by the cancelling of the New Year celebrations rather than by the dead, the dying and the suffering. These individuals, (to borrow an apt presidential quote this week in relation to those who engage in fear mongering), ought to be hanged. So should those unspeakable human beings engaged in looting and mutilating dead bodies in the South. For these aberrations, there should be no mercy.

But from a practical perspective, it is necessary to look at mechanisms of accountability in regard to the disasters which occurred. In any other country, the heads of crucial monitoring bodies such as the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau as well as responsible officials of that institution would have resigned or would have been sacked from their posts for their colossal failure to provide the Sri Lankan nation with some inkling at least of the dangers that were headed our way. This week, a reader to one of the daily newspapers wrote of the gall of some of these individuals who are now taking on the mantle of "aftermath experts" and expounding on their theories to a shocked and traumatised nation. This is classically, adding insult to unprecedented injury.

Insofar as Sunday's tsunami waves were concerned, there would have been ample time for a warning to have been received in order that evacuation of the beaches could have taken place, if the Bureau had kept steady contact with any of the US based institutes monitoring seismic activity around the world. The fact that no one thought this necessary as the Indian Ocean had never been the target of tsunami waves before is but a feeble excuse, (reflecting on the ignorance of those very persons who make such assertions), as even a child who knows the vagaries of nature will comprehend, let alone trained scientists. Unless and until we have accountability in this regard, the installing of early warning systems will accomplish little.

Even at this present moment in time, debates are ongoing as to whether a seismology station at Pallekelle recorded the earthquake in Indonesia at 6.58 am Sri Lankan time and as to whether the failure to disseminate this information was due to lapses on the part of the officials of the Mines Bureau. This station had been set up on the initiative of the University of California more than ten years back but had reportedly not been functioning at its full capacity for the past several years. Though President Chandrika Kumaratunga has stated that this station was not equipped to sense tsunamis, the matter is yet in doubt and has not been clarified directly by the Mines Bureau through the issuing of a responsible and factually accurate statement for whatever reason.

In any event, even if we take it as a given that this country did not have sufficiently sophisticated equipment to detect the quake, one is monumentally puzzled as to how even the most basic telephone contact was not maintained by Mines Bureau officials with their counterparts in the US and Japan who could have informed them, hours in advance, of the tsunami waves hitting Sri Lanka.

In fact, verified accounts abound of individuals who had picked up the news of the earthquake by chance and had warned friends and relatives near the coastline in Sri Lanka and India to move out of harms' way. If ordinary individuals could have issued these warnings, where was the monitoring of the Mines Bureau even in the most elementary sense? But in a country where the almost consistent failure on the part of the Meteorology Department to correctly predict normal weather conditions is a matter for general hilarity, perhaps one is asking for too much to expect any commonsensical awareness of seismic activity that would have an impact on the region.

This is all, of course, in the past. The issue is again accountability, which must not be lost sight of, if we are to avert another cataclysm akin to last Sunday. The Bureau as well as the Coast Conservation Department has called for strict regulations governing coastal house building, hotel building and mining in areas adjacent to the coast. We all know the manner in which, up to now, the coastal zone had been ravaged by many individuals favored enough to obtain political support for their activities while others trying to work by the law but minus any political backing had been deprived of their livelihood. This has to change. We need strong systems of accountability put in place and adequate co-operation in this regard between the various agencies involved. If Sunday's disaster will not change our casually sybaritic way of thinking in relation to this country and its plentiful natural bounty, nothing ever will.

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