The disease within the disaster

Sri Lankans in all parts of the island had firsthand experience this week of what is known in environmental circles worldwide as the 'La Nina' effect. About a million people have been directly affected, there have been 27 deaths, 12 people missing and as many as 360,000 rendered homeless. The full impact of the devastating flood waters is going to be felt countrywide in the months ahead with the destruction of thousands of acres of rice fields and vegetable cultivations.

La Niña (cyclic opposite to El Nino) is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. This, according to NASA, slows down cloud growth overhead, causing changes to the rainfall patterns from South America to Indonesia. Our environment correspondent gives readers an easy explanation of 'La Nina' on page 3 of our Plus section.
That the world has been experiencing some hitherto unusual weather patterns in recent years has been much talked about. In 2010 the world witnessed the whole gamut of natural disasters barring probably only a full-blown tsunami. From ash clouds in Europe to floods and droughts elsewhere, unseasonal weather has been the order of the day.

There were man-made disasters as well, particularly environmentally-harmful being the oil spill off the coast of Florida, USA. In this country, unscrupulous elements violating environmental laws ranging from illegal sand mining and transportation to timber felling and the construction of houses in protected forest zones continues unabated while politicians either look away pretending not to see, or are very much involved in the plunder themselves.

The Government's machinery has been to put to test and exposed as the country recorded unprecedented rains, low temperatures and the resultant effects. On the positive side, the large numbers in the military have been put to good use and a Disaster Management Centre set up after the devastating tsunami is monitoring the situation in all districts, hour by hour, keeping the authorities and the media informed on a regular basis. The first thing is for the Government to know the 'ground situation' and keep the people informed.

But take a look at the Government's Meteorology Department website (www.meteo.gov.lk) and there is nothing but an apology that their site is not functioning. Insiders say that this is a result of someone trying to upgrade the existing systems but not being up to the task. Questions of what gerrymandering took place are not out of place.

By now the Government's relief efforts should be somewhat fine-tuned after the substantive recent experiences of the tsunami (2004) and the massive 'humanitarian operation' following the defeat of the LTTE (2009).

While haphazard urban development measures have seen city roads inundated and houses flooded, relief is not reaching the flood victims in the countryside as speedily as it ought to. According to the Automobile Association, the Colombo-Jaffna road journey which would normally take a little over 10 hours on the recently renovated A-9 highway now takes as much as 15 hours. Sixty per cent of the journey is on broken road and pot holes. The President is due to visit Jaffna next week to declare open a new bridge linking the peninsula with Pooneryn - and meant to cut short the journey time. But what use will it be if the highways under construction are going to break up so soon after construction?

The Puttalam-Anuradhapura, Dambulla-Anuradhapura and Anuradhapura-Jaffna roads are newly carpeted and the Road Development Authority (RDA) which had a proud record of making some good roads like the Colombo-Badulla highway and the Colombo-Hambantota highway is fast acquiring the unfortunate reputation its predecessor of years gone-by, the PWD (Public Works Department) earned for itself. The RDA has much to answer for the virtual collapse of these major trunk routes that link the country's main towns. The Polonnaruwa-Batticaloa road was closed down for three days this week.
The resultant delay in getting flood relief, including medicine, across to the thousands of hapless victims is largely due to the collapse of these newly done roads. A senior military officer sent to provide a firsthand report to the highest levels of the Government had to plead with the Air Force chief to bring him down from Jaffna by air because it had taken him so long to get there by car.

This is a textbook case of the wastage and non-accountability of public funds. The people of this country have a right to know how much of their money has been spent on these high-profile so-called development projects that have within a year yielded roads that are almost unmotorable. To put it bluntly, to whose pockets are the monies expended going while the people are suffering their way through.

In other economically developed countries, and those in South Asia as well, such as India and Pakistan, a Right to Information Law provides access to information for the public on which Government Minister approved the project, who the Ministry Secretary or Department head is, who tendered for the contract and who was eventually awarded it at what costs. They are all answerable to the people at the end of the day. Not so yet in Sri Lanka as we go from one such calamity to another in muttering resignation.

The grease on the polls

If the Government can only partly be blamed for the flood and flood relief situation in the country, then it must take full responsibility for not ensuring that the forthcoming Local Government elections are held under the hybrid first-past-the-post and proportional representation (PR) mechanism agreed to by Parliament.

There has been bipartisan consensus on the issue, which is rare in Parliament but the delay in enacting the required amendments and subsequent demarcation of the wards/boundaries for the purpose is entirely the Government's fault.
With the concentration of power in the hands of the President (Executive), Parliament (Legislature) has taken a back seat in governance and become a mere rubber-stamp for executive decisions.

There is also an element of doubt as to whether the Government was truly interested in implementing the bipartisan consensus reached in Parliament as it believes it enjoys a distinctive political advantage in the existing exclusively PR system. The Government may well be the winner, but it is the Citizen who is the ultimate loser.

With floods ravaging the length and breadth of the country, most local government councils stand dissolved and dysfunctional. In the next few weeks, the Elections Department will call for nominations to fill these council seats. It is imperative that the Government take stock of the 'ground situation' in consultation with the Opposition and see if there is a need to postpone the elections. In any event there is a bigger picture also involved i.e. the effectiveness of governance with so many politicians in the country given the fact that the entry of Provincial Councils has also not only duplicated governance both at the central level but also at grassroots level.

There is a need to do away with one or the other, the PCs or the LCs. The country just cannot afford, either financially or in terms of efficiency to have both.

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