Arming against disasters | Daily News


 

Arming against disasters

Sri Lanka faced several terrible disasters – floods, landslides and an explosion - in the last few weeks. They came one after the other like private passenger buses in the city racing along motorways. In magnitude they were second only to the devastating tsunami little more than two decades ago that devoured 40,000 of our people in one sweep.

Our people rose magnificently to the occasion and provided necessary relief and humanitarian assistance along with government authorities. As in the case of the tsunami they displayed a rare unity of action which spanned over all divisions racial, religious, class etc.

Public servants too actively engaged themselves in the relief work with much personal sacrifice. It was reported that a Grama Sevaka in the Aranayake area paid with his life in saving those trapped in the landslide at Samisara kanda despite being not on official duty.

However, in typical Sri Lankan fashion everything is forgotten conveniently once routine life returns in the areas that faced the calamity. No serious attempts are taken to prevent the recurrence of disasters or provide virtually permanent solutions despite the proclamations of politicians and officials to the contrary.

Disaster prevention measures

The situation at the Disaster Management Centre itself points to the sad state of affairs in disaster prevention measures entrusted to it. It was reported last Sunday that equipment worth billions of rupees in public money that lie idle in its premises and have become unusable. Among the equipment were those necessary to set up a Disaster Management Communication and Response Capacity Building Project which would have been valuable in the case of current disasters. What makes matters worse is that no responsible officer has given a comprehensive and reliable information about the state of affairs. Instead of honouring the people’s Right to know they pretend to be not knowledgeable on the matter or minimise the lacunae.

Explosion at Salawa Army Camp. Picture by Eranga Jayawardena

Several factors seem to have contributed to this sorry state of affairs. First and foremost among them is the callous attitude of those responsible to public property and the lives of the people. This is not a new phenomenon but has been in existence for long. One could recall how the Pallekele seismic monitoring station was closed on the day that tsunami struck our coasts and how the Minister in charge of Science and Technology then (now a vocal member of the Joint Opposition) justified the conduct of the errant officials on the ground that it was a holiday (Sunday) as if seismic activity ceases on holidays.

Though the government has changed there has been no discernible change in the running of the public service. It is infested with traditional apathy and lack of feeling for the people. To it must be added the arrogance of power which most public servants display towards members of the public. From the top to the bottom, from the highest official up to the casual labourer the majority displays such arrogance.

Plight of disaster victims

This apathy even infests the public and civil society organisations who also forget about the plight of disaster victims once life returns to normal in the main and the victims are left to mend themselves.

The public sector needs urgent reform, a fact acknowledged but not addressed so far satisfactorily. First of all, there should be an attitudinal change among public servants who should understand that they are not masters but servants of the public. However, the direction of their thinking and attitude is apparent from the change of the designation of Grama Sevaka to Grama Niladhari (from village servant to village official). It is ironic that during the colonial period the arrogant colonial public servants signed their letters to members of the public as “Your obedient servant”.

It is often said that low wages is a reason for the apathy in the public service. But it is only a half -truth at best for generally salary increases have not reduced apathy. The prevailing conditions in society where self-interest and greed for wealth and ostentation predominate does not engender a climate of sharing or public god.

Misuse of public funds

Sri Lanka has become a country which is disaster prone. This calls for constant preparedness and the institution of rapid response mechanisms. Are we ready?

It also calls for strict economising of public resources and prudent fiscal management. The present culture of extravagance and ostentation seen in both private and State sectors should be done away with. Sacrifices should be borne equitably with those at the top giving example to those lower down the hierarchical set up. This also calls for zero tolerance for corruption, wastage and misuse of public funds. Unfortunately the reality is much different, especially at the top echelons of power.

The situation calls for emergency measures. However, our politicians and officials are in no hurry except in cases of promoting and ensuring self-interest. Enhancing emoluments, perks and privileges of Parliamentary representatives and Ministers is a case in point. In more important matters of State they prefer to mark time or let time solve the problems.


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