As the stricken X-Press Pearl lays waste to Sri Lanka’s marine environment including one hundred and twenty five kilometres of prized coastline from Chilaw and Negombo to Bentota and Galle in a veritable modern replay of Dante’s Inferno, is there enough money to calculate as fair compensation? Will no one punish these wastrels? The country [...]


Sri Lanka’s version of Dante’s inferno and the ruination of this land


As the stricken X-Press Pearl lays waste to Sri Lanka’s marine environment including one hundred and twenty five kilometres of prized coastline from Chilaw and Negombo to Bentota and Galle in a veritable modern replay of Dante’s Inferno, is there enough money to calculate as fair compensation?

Will no one punish these wastrels?

The country will feel the impact of its worst marine disaster for more than a century, experts warn as horribly disfigured dead turtles and fish with plastic pellets embedded in their mouths wash up on our once pristine beaches. Regardless, reprehensible Ministers, including former leftists reduced to sad caricatures of their fire-breathing selves, cackle about compensation as if this is an acceptable quid pro quo. Will no one punish these infernal wastrels in political garb who destroy Sri Lanka, day by day, hour by unholy hour? And what is to say that we will get this compensation in any event, given the grossly incompetent handling of monumental disasters by officials, never mind greedy and greasy politicians?

Several questions arise for critical inquiry. First, what are the Government’s procedures of checking the cargo of ships entering Sri Lanka’s territorial waters? Are we to assume (ludicrously) that the Harbour Master or associated persons in authority merely accept the word of those on board without independent verification? As recently as April this year, a (Chinese) ship carrying nuclear material was permitted to berth at the Hambantota Port and only thereafter had been instructed to leave by authorities who said that they were ‘clueless’ about the entry as no ‘prior clearance’ had been obtained.

This is much like the Ministry of Health officials saying that they were ‘clueless’ about vaccine recipients in Kandy being asked to sign a consent document containing a stamped signification of consent to the administration of only one dose of the Sputnik vaccine. It is one thing to explain to people gathered for vaccinations that there is a shortage with the result that one dose may be guaranteed and quite another matter to get written consent to that effect. In law, this implies coerced consent from anxious if not terrified citizens. It clearly violates the constitutional right to equality given that this selective treatment was not meted out elsewhere in the country.

Public cry for accountability roaring from the land

And if that mysterious if not patently illegal requirement on consent documents handed out in Kundasale vaccination centres did not emanate from officialdom, who was responsible? It is the same principle that applies in regard to the surreptitious entry of a ship having nuclear material on board in Hambantota. How in the name of all that is marvelous, are ships allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters, let alone berth at a Port, without ‘prior clearance’? Should we say as the olden local (racist) idiom goes when something unbelievable is claimed, ‘tell that to the queue-wearing Chinese’?  Now the Chinese people no longer sport ‘queues’ (a historic plaiting of hair by men) but we have become China’s vassal state.

But to return to the X-Press Pearl calamity, the public cry for accountability that roars across the length and breadth of this land is not a ‘political question’ notwithstanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request not to make this a political issue. Put simply, it is not that difficult to imagine a similar calamity taking place during the chaos of the later days of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition (2015-2019). Neither are all failures traceable to the Office of the President as this wondrously ultra-sensitive incumbent may be reminded. So, we return to the question as to whether the responsibilities of relevant authorities were discharged with due diligence?

This is crucially important to prevent another and perhaps deadlier occurrence with the next probability quite likely being a ship with neuclear material on board exploding in one or the either of our Ports. Sri Lanka’s officials have claimed that a ‘leaking container’ of chemical material was no reason to have got unduly alarmed on entry of the X-Press Pearl to the Port (‘Harbour Master sets the record straight’, Statement of the Harbour Master, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, 04/06/2021). But instead of ‘setting the record straight’, this Statement raises more questions than it answers.

Troubling inconsistencies in issue

It is claimed that the Port had the means to deal with the situation. But the contrary  was patently the case as is now evidenced for the world to see. Indeed, this is somewhat like a former Defence Secretary jabbering that the jihadist engineered Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 was ‘something we knew would happen but not to this extent.’ There is, in fact, a deplorably casual tone to this response of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority in tandem with the way that the extraordinary emergency was responded to from the outset. The ship had notified the authorities of ‘a container with a chemical leak that they needed permission to repair,‘ on 20th May.

At that very point, should not a worse-case scenario have been anticipated, a thorough inspection done and the ship taken out of Colombo’s outer harbour? Instead, this was attempted to be done, reportedly on the President’s directive, only several days later when the fire-engulfed vessel predictably sank. Was this because the focus was more on potential compensation than the colossal damage to marine life? And did this have to wait till the President gave the directive? What exactly are officials for,  from the (ex-General) head of the Ports Authority to stuttering officials of Sri Lanka’s key marine agencies, NARA and MEPA who are clearly if not miserably out of their depth?

Their role is not to quack obedience to politicians or be servile to military authority. In fact, it so transpired that both India and Qatar had declined to attend to the leaking container, stating that they did not have the needed expertise to do so. Consequently greater diligence should have been demonstrated by the Ports Authority  rather than this mix of complacency and greatly misplaced arrogance. Moreover, when a fire had begun smouldering, long before it got to the inferno which eventually scuttled the ship, were the proper fire fighting measures resorted to?  Environmentalists have spoken against water-dosing a ship on fire with (unknown) combustible chemicals, arguing that certain inflammatory chemicals may react with water.

The nine concentric circles of Dante’s Inferno

There is another factor that emerges from a cursory examination of relevant laws. Shipping companies and crew routinely and sometimes purposely fail to declare hazardous material on board in order to avoid higher cargo rates. A loose regulatory framework permits this, even globally and more so in Sri Lanka, despite boasts of being ‘a major transshipment hub’, (Statement of the Harbour Master, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, 04/06/2021). In turn, this inhibits the efficacy of firefighting measures. Even now, it is not yet certain as to what exact hazardous material was on board on the X-Press Pearl apart from what was officially declared.

Above all, the larger problem is this Government’s unwieldy handling of each and every crisis, from vaccinations to a ship with hazardous materials on fire. The answer is not to entrust everything to the military. Appointments of military men from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to the Ministry of Health has resulted in confusion worse compounded, for which these unfortunate worthies cannot entirely be blamed. Competent experts must be appointed to those positions and given the effective line of authority. The latest Presidential directive is for the army corps of engineers to study means of local production of organic fertilizer while farmers from every nook and cranny of Sri Lanka wail, pointing to their forlorn farmlands.

In what tormented circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno located within the Earth is Sri Lanka struggling? When – or perhaps more pertinently where – will this stop?

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