Disaster Minister AP Yapa toasted in Mexico while his ministry officials get roasted at home for lacking the simple bare necessities of relief aid The death toll said it all: 208 dead, 90 missing and six hundred and thirty thousand displaced after one day’s rain last Thursday which had the nation horror-struck at how such [...]


Tempest Thursday brews ‘Force Evacuation’ storm


Disaster Minister AP Yapa toasted in Mexico while his ministry officials get roasted at home for lacking the simple bare necessities of relief aid

The death toll said it all: 208 dead, 90 missing and six hundred and thirty thousand displaced after one day’s rain last Thursday which had the nation horror-struck at how such a brief outburst from the skies could wreak such a terrible tragedy and leave such a trail of destruction in its wake. Last month on April 14th just when the nation was heralding the Sinhala New Year having boiled its milk of prosperity to over spill level and eaten heartily the auspicious milk rice at the appointed hour, the nation was buried in an avalanche of tears and grief when the man made Meetotumulla’s Mount of Garbage came crashing down to claim the lives of over 30 people.

And now this, an extraordinary flood of rain that fell upon the land already under a long siege of severe drought since January which had the Agricultural ministry officials warning that if the rains didn’t come by June the people would be forced to go on a diet of jak leaves and Japanese crotons, It also led the President to lead the pray for rain campaign from his old home town Polonnaruwa to invoke the blessings of the Weather Gods to make the parched fields bloom again. Perhaps the nation prayed too much, for when the heavens opened up last week, it didn’t merely rain, it poured.

FLOOD SIGHTSEERS: A man, presumably the father, takes this little boy to view the gushing waters that had already claimed the lives of so many, with scant regard to his or his son’s safety. They never will learn, now will they?

Unlike last month’s Meethotamulla tragedy which was manmade and could have been averted if the authorities had taken timely action, natural disasters cannot be prevented. In the face of nature’s fury, Science is impotent to make the clouds drift, the earth not quake and rumble. In such instances all any government can do is to be ready to meet disasters, not in its full frontal brutal assault but in its terrible aftermath and to prevent further loss of life and suffering. After all, this was not nature’s first virgin ravage on the Lankan terrain but a serial gangbang session inflicted year after year.

That is the very reason why a special ministry for disaster management was set up in 2005. Under this ministry comes an impressive list of departments which gives comfort and assurance to the public they can rest in sleep that come what may, relief will be at hand should heaven send its thunderbolt or if the earth moved. Consider the highfaluting names: National Council of Disaster Management, Department of Meteorology, Disaster Management Centre, National Building Research Organization and National Disaster Relief Centre. Comforting, isn’t it to know that when disaster, strikes, we have a special ministry with five departments to save lives, rescue the trapped, provide shelter to the displaced and clean up the mess nature leaves behind.

But despite having a forewarning centre, namely, the Met Department, under the Disaster Management Ministry’s belt to forewarn the four other relief and building centers coming directly under his Ministry, Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa could only blame the public on Wednesday for not taking seriously the Met Dept warnings of heavy showers. The question must be asked, whether his own ministry took heed of the Met Department and stood ready to meet the exigencies of the situation, if the Met’s forecast proved true. Sadly it did not.

But last week, whilst the rains lashed and the earth slid and hundreds were washed away in the rain that flowed in torrents and freak floods rendered half a million people homeless and left marooned in makeshift refugee camps, the Minister of Disaster Management was sojourning in Mexico – and no one can blame him for it, for not even the Met Dept possess the divine foresight to warn him of the impending disaster – lecturing on the podium of the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction’, on how “ Sri Lanka has put in place a program to “minimise casualties, damage to infrastructure, and economic losses” in natural calamities.
He also proudly declared how he “has made his department seriously consider the increasing trend of disasters and how he had collaborated with all ministries to implement medium and long-term disaster risk reduction programs in line “with the Sendai priorities to minimise casualties, damage to infrastructure, and economic losses” and hailed the fact that he had taken measures to “translate salient points of the Framework into our local languages, and conducted a series of awareness programs at national and sub-national levels,”

But whilst the good minister was regaling the world delegates at the conference and making them rooted in admiration; and blowing his trumpet in Cancun, Mexico, his own department’s officials in Colombo were throwing their hands helplessly in the air and bemoaning that the Disaster Ministry was hopelessly ill prepared to meet the needs of the hour on 25th May, the day disaster struck.

As the Sunday Times reported in its lead story last week, “The Disaster Management Ministry exposed its unpreparedness to deal with a disaster situation, admitting it lacks stocks of basic items such as blankets, life jackets, umbrellas, torches or even boxes of matches to distribute in such situations. In response to this week’s flood havoc that crippled the nation, the Ministry of Disaster Management was in shortage of basic humanitarian needs for an immediate response.”

Disaster Management Ministry Secretary S. S Miyanawala told the Sunday Times that purchasing those items was outsourced due to their availability in the market at anytime. He said, “We cannot keep all the items in our store rooms for long due to their expiry dates or instances of no disasters during a particular time period.”

But are there expiry dates for umbrellas, shelf life for blankets, terminating dates for life jackets, not to mention, mobile toilets, torches, candles and matches. And even food, canned in tins which according to United States Department of Agriculture, high-acid canned goods, like tomatoes and citrus fruits, will keep for up to 1½ years. Low-acid canned goods—that’s pretty much everything else, including vegetables, meat, and fish—will last for up to 5 years. Canned foods are sterile, so they won’t host bacteria. And as for water, though there maybe, water, water everywhere in times of floods but not a drop to drink, bottled water, has a shelf life of over two years.

Disaster Minster Yapa: Wants to bring laws for forcible evacuation

It would indeed have been a slow boat from Mexico’s Cancun – that exotic holiday resort set near a turquoise blue sea – that brought Minister Yapa to Lanka’s shores, five days after the floods. In his first press conference after his long drawn arrival, he blamed the public for disregarding the weather alerts the Met Department had given. He said, “Disregarding official reports on impending bad weather, could lead to serious consequences as had been witnessed.” The question must then arise whether the Disaster Management Ministry took heed of the Met’s advice and the warning it issued on May 24th and thus forewarned, yet failed to forearm itself to meet the challenges that would inevitably arise from the expected storm.

But fresh from his Mexico meeting, perhaps full with the tidbits of information he had gathered there, Disaster Minister Yapa was brimming with the plans he intended to take to prevent beforehand the tragedies that befall when the rains come falling down. One was to introduce laws which would give the government the right to ‘forcibly evacuate’ people from their homes in instances where ‘the government authorities considered the rains would pose a threat to their lives. ‘

Forcibly evacuate people? Forcibly drag them out of their homes and load them on to waiting trucks to be taken to an unknown destination which the government had earmarked as refugee centers, in a manner reminiscent of Jews in Nazi Germany being rounded and forcibly packed into death trains, to be dispatched and unloaded at concentration camps? In Lanka’s case it maybe to save lives and done with a good motive but many instances exist in the annals of history where many an evil is done with the best of intentions.

Had the Mexican tequila been taken without a pinch of salt that moved him to suggest that the government be legally empowered to forcibly evacuate people from their homes? Had he had enough time to study the consequences of his radical proposal and go public with it, only a few hours of making landfall on home shores? If he hadn’t, perhaps, he should consider the following. FIRST Whether it would infringe on civil liberties and trespass upon the very constitution of this country for some minister or some bureaucrat to wield the dictatorial power to compulsory round up citizens and cart them off to some refugee camp against their will?

If a person refuses to leave home and insists on his fundamental right to remain on home ground, insisting, even if the worst should happen, his preference was right to die in his own home than languish in some godforsaken makeshift refugee hell; and if his presence at his residence does not endanger the lives of his neighbours nor pose a threat to national security, what right does the Government have to forcibly pack him onto a truck and incarcerate him at a refuge cell and keep him there at the Government’s pleasure until the minister decides to give the all clear?

Many refuse to leave, and insists on staying home out of the fear that the moment the family vacates the household, it would be open sesame for those on the prowl waiting to ransack the valuables in deserted homes.
However good and great and admirable a government’s intention maybe to save lives, it still remains the right of an individual to remain at his home, to reside at his place of choosing and not be evicted from his lawful residence merely because a ‘Big Brother’ Government dictates otherwise.

SECOND If such draconian laws are introduced, which may well need an amendment to the constitution, on what prophetic source having the supposed knowledge and insight to forecast the vagaries of the weather will Disaster Minister Yapa seek refuge in to base his decision for the mass rounding up of the Lankan citizenry? Will he listen to the frogs’ croak, the dogs’ howl, the cats’ screech, fall on his knees and watch whether ants are crawling out in numbers from their nests? Or search the skies for Altocumulus clouds and mutter to himself that old sailor’s saying “Mares tails and mackerel scales, tall ships carry short sails” said to denote rain the following day or peer into the crystal ball and try to gauge the forecast from the anjanan eliya? Most probably he will have to settle for the High Priests at the Oracle of the Met and use them as the medium to foretell what the heavens hold for Lanka.

But he himself recognizes that the Met Department is limited in its ability to predict and is not infallible in the ambiguous prophecies it daily makes. Alas, even when the Met hits bulls eye when it says there will be heavy rain in the offing, it cannot predict the extent of the damage it will cause? Without knowing for certain the damage it will cause, how can any minister set off the alarm bells and order forcible evacuation?
As Minister Yapa himself admitted at the press conference on Tuesday, even the weather report issued the day before the storm broke last Thursday, could not say to what extent the damage it would cause. But despite this, Disaster Yapa is all set to bring in ‘forcible evacuation.’

Addressing the media he said, “This is the correct position. To tell the truth, the Met Department released a forecast on the weather situation. It stated that in certain places, there could be rain accompanied by winds. But the Met Department does not have the ability to give any information on the amount of rain that will fall in a particular area? Secondly there is a delay in reporting adverse conditions. Thirdly even if it is reported, certain people are reluctant to leave their houses. Thus we hope to bring in laws to allow forcible evacuation.”

Anyone who follows the Met’s weather predictions would have noticed the general wording of its bulletin which often runs like “There will be a few showers in certain areas at certain times accompanied by fairly strong winds. There also may be thunder showers in the Uva, Sabaragamuwa and Western province.” As Minister Yapa said at his Tuesday press conference, the day before the rains fell and caused the great flood tragedy, the Met forecast was: “There will be a few showers in certain areas at certain times accompanied by fairly strong winds.” Hardly a weather warning, is it, to alarm anyone? And make them abandon home?
If people were to jump out of their beds at this daily announcement and head off to the nearest place of refuge: or if the government were to jump the gun in the event of hearing the Met’s guarded report and set the alarm bells ringing and order troops from their barracks to conduct house to house searches and forcibly load its inmates into waiting trucks, will it not result in a case of shouting ‘wolf, wolf’ too often and thus reduce the entire action plan into a farcical charade that would not only make the government a laughing stock but reduce the citizenry to slave status who can be packed, boarded and dumped into any place of the government’s choosing anytime the minister decides to do each time the weather cock turns.

Take for instance the Met forecast for this Monday and Tuesday. It said that a depression had formed in the Bay of Bengal and Lanka faced a massive amount of rain on those two days warning the public to take precautions. Had the Government been armed with the right to order forcible evacuation, most probably the Disaster Minister would have pressed the red button and ordered the police and the army to action.
If he did not and had it rained extensively and caused a replay of last week’s tragedy, he would have been accused of negligence. In order to prevent the charge from falling on him, it would have been natural for any person in his position to have given the order merely to save his skin. For having had the power to order evacuation and not doing so, he would be called upon to resign as minister if the worst came to pass. Better safe than sorry would have been his scout’s motto and natural inclination of anyone who got the jitters about his own survival as minister, which, to some, seems to be dearer than life.

Luckily for Lanka, on Monday morn, totally against the predictions of the Met, the depression intensified into a cyclone and turned towards Bangladesh where it made landfall on Tuesday, thus saving Lanka from further disaster. Such are the vagaries of the weather. None can foretell which way the wind may blow. THIRD Has the minister considered the logistics involved? As admitted by the Minister the Met cannot predict where the rain will exactly fall and boil it down to a particular localized area but can only give a general prediction province by province. So in the event of the Met prophesying massive thunderstorms to hit the Western province, is the minister to order forced evacuation of the whole populace of the province? Are there enough buildings to house the lot, especially when many of them would also be under threat of flooding? And if anyone refuses to go, what are the forces going to do? Shoot them? For defying government orders to forcibly evacuate them to save their lives?

Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa has been foolish enough to take the same road Minister Champika Ranawaka took when a building in Wellawatte collapsed two weeks ago on May 19th. Then Ranawake, holding the grandiose title of Minister Megapolis, announced, even before the dust had settled on the rubble, that he will order the immediate demolition of 10,000 homes and office buildings in Colombo which had been constructed without due planning permission. He said, “Our estimate is that there are at least 10,000 illegally built homes, apartments and offices in the city of Colombo. We will take immediate steps to demolish them.”

When he made that statement on the 20th of May, did the Megapolis minister consider the consequences that would ensue, the logistics involved in finding alternative accommodation to those whose homes were to be demolished under his sledgehammer of authority? Merely because an allegedly unauthorized structure collapses due to a structural defect, it does not necessarily mean that 10,000 structures erected without proper planning permission had been constructed with similar defects.

But such seems to be the fashion of Lanka’s ministers that they not only seem to rush in to close the stable doors after the horses had bolted but announce, as their grand solution, the plan to demolish all stables in the land to prevent further escape by equines. Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa’s plans to make us all cattle to be kraaled into a refugee barn must be resisted as an assault on our fundamental rights to choose where we live, where we stay and where we die. And whatever the heavens may hold for us all, which like the weather none can foretell, not to fear the midnight knock on our door, telling us we must leave home on Yapa’s fiat and get on board his midnight express and be landed in some concentration camp merely because he can rest in peace in dreamy sleep on his own cosy ministerial water bed without having to worry about losing it.
After all, the people, forcibly bundled into trucks and taken to refugee dumps, will not have the opportunity to present the American Express card and say to their abductors: “Take me to the Hilton, instead”.

Bar Association follows SUNDAY PUNCH leadThree days after Don Manu’s Sunday Punch commented last Sunday on the increasing apathy shown by the government towards cracking down on those who provoke communal violence, the Bar Association followed suit in condemning this dangerous trend that threatens to embroil this nation in another bloody ethnic war, this time between the Sinhalese and the Muslims; and served notice on the IGP and the AG as to their legal duties.

U. R. DE SILVA: Bar Association President serves notice on IGP and AG to take action

Last Sunday’s column which dealt with the incorrigible Bodu Bala Sena chief Gnanasara who denigrated Allah in unprintable terms at Onekama in Polonnaruwa recently in the midst of police presence; and which condemned this saffron clad burly beef of a self appointed guardian of the Sinhala Buddhists for his despicable comments on the Almighty God of another’s religion and faith in total violation of the Buddha’s tenet to show tolerance to all religions, seems to have roused the black coat and black tie brigade of lawyers to speak without fee in the name of justice and in the cause of promoting racial and religious harmony.
This Wednesday, The Bar Association, representing over 17,000 lawyers nationwide urged the IGP and the Attorney General to take immediate action against racist and bigots who still suffer the belief that the saffron shroud and the white chauvinistic garb gives them licence to spout their hate and grants them immunity from legal reprisals.

In a letter issued to them, the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, U. R. de Silva and its secretary Amal Randeniya drew the IGP and the AG’s attention to the constitution’s Article 12 (1) which guarantees to every person equality before law and equal protection, and to the duty of the state to take effective measures to guarantee the safety and security of all persons irrespective of their race or religion.
Furthermore it invited their attention to Chapter XV of the Penal Code which seeks to arrest hate speech and thereby to protect places of religious worship and religious sensitivities of persons.
The Bar Association president warned the Government that “the failure on the part of the state to apply the law would result in a culture of impunity with mob rule replacing the rule of law. The damage would have an irreparable and disastrous consequence to Sri Lanka particularly to the racial and religious harmony which our nation has cherished for centuries.”

Last Sunday, the Sunday Punch asked: “Does the Maithripala government believe that Galagodaaththe Gnanasara is untouchable? A sacred bull that must be left undisturbed in its rampage? Merely because he wears the sacred robe of the Buddha? If so they are wrong. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara has shown by his actions that he is not fit to don it. “
Now that the learned members of the Bar Association led by its President and Secretary has demanded the IGP and the AG to uphold the rule of law, no matter upon whose bigoted bullocks the axe will fall, its time these law enforcement officials of the state do the needful, no matter the Government’s politics.

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