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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It’s no easy job

The Sunday Island: "07/05/2005 by Namini Wijedasa in Hikkaduwa

Eyes aching, Kusum Piyaratne bravely tries to field questions without nodding off. An overworked fan is negotiating a breeze overhead but the heat is stifling. It’s a sweltering day in Hikkaduwa.

She laughs humourlessly when asked whether she’s tired. ‘It’s a struggle to work when you have lost so much sleep,’ she admitted. As divisional secretary of Hikkaduwa, Piyaratne has been working endlessly since the tsunami. Her staff have also laboured to cope with the influx of desperate people who still flood their office, months after the disaster.

‘Our lives are very difficult,’ she commented. ‘We have no facilities. Even my van is a hired vehicle. I visit displaced people every day. We have a staff shortage. I have to send officials to the field but don’t have enough. Our equipment was washed away and very few of our files could be salvaged.’

‘What’s to be done?’ she asked, fatalistically. ‘We have to keep working.’

Haunted train

A few miles away, in Pereliya, the haunted carriages of the Samudra Devi still perch dispiritedly on the rail track. The train has been salvaged and now stands memorial to the sheer force of the tsunami. ‘The sea showed the country its strength and took away our children,’ reads a sad white banner strung on its side.

Battered and bruised, the wreckage is today a popular tourist attraction. Foreigners and locals stare wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the crumpled sides and torn roof. Perhaps they are imagining how hordes of terrified people had streaked towards this train with a relentless wall of water at their heels. They had hoped to evade death by climbing onto the sturdy vehicle. They perished instead, along with at least 1,200 commuters. There’s an almost palpable aura of death at the site.

In the surrounding village and others like it, transit shelters are springing up. Permanent housing is also being constructed, though at a much slower pace. But there’s a pile of grievances to be addressed.

‘Please help me, miss,’ sobbed a young woman outside the divisional secretariat. ‘I still don’t have a transit shelter. Everyone else is getting one but the grama niladhari isn’t helping me. He doesn’t like me.’

Complaints

Such accusations are common. The system is so designed that it’s primarily the grama niladhari’s task to identify victims for housing and other assistance. He formulates the lists for the divisional secretariat. ‘We have heard that some officials are forced by village thugs to recommend housing for undeserving people,’ reported a local Sri Lanka Red Cross employee at Telwatte. ‘Some officials take revenge against people they don’t like.’

‘Yes miss,’ sniffed the young woman at Piyaratne’s office. ‘Our grama niladhari is rude to me. He has his favourites.’

‘That’s not true,’ shot back the official in question. Coincidentally, he was also present at the divisional secretariat and now offered an explanation: ‘I haven’t been depriving her. She had not provided her details on time. That’s why she hasn’t got her house. Her name is on the list. I put it there myself.’

This story was a mere drop in an ocean of allegations and complaints. People spoke of how they had filled form after form. But government assistance was dramatically disproportionate to the documentation they had completed. They had expected more, and faster.

‘I don’t know how many forms I filled,’ said Mahindapala, a fisherman and boat owner. ‘What’s the use? I got 5,000 rupees for two months but even that has been stopped.’

‘We didn’t get anything from the government apart from the monthly allowance and money for cooking utensils,’ said a woman living in a transit shelter on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. ‘Only white people helped us. Our chief monk has spoken to white people and other big people in Sri Lanka. That’s where we got our assistance.’

Wijeratne owns a glass bottom boat. It’s damaged and he hasn’t got money to mend it. He doesn’t know what to do. He has filled a form. No response. He doesn’t even know where it went. Last week, he visited the home of a Fisheries Corporation official, a personal friend. ‘I wanted to see whether I can get something done through him,’ he explained. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t in. For Wijeratne, it’s another week without solution.

Sudantha stares at a poster on the divisional secretariat’s notice board. ‘Do you know what this means, miss?’ he asks, confused. It was a notice explaining the government’s grant scheme for persons whose houses had been completely or partially destroyed by the tsunami.

‘I don’t know how this works,’ Sudantha said, eyebrows knitted. ‘I went to the bank and stood in a very long line. I filled a complicated paper. They asked me to provide a title deed and various other details. I did that.

‘Afterwards, they told me that my application had been cancelled. I had to fill the form again and provide all those details. I haven’t heard anything since. I just don’t understand’.

Piyaratne was surprised to hear of Sudantha’s predicament. She explained that he didn’t need to approach the bank directly. The grant was being handled through the divisional secretariat. Why were people getting their wires crossed?

Bureaucracy and confusion

A lack of communication has evidently left tsunami victims at sea. Many local officials have themselves been badly affected by the disaster. Weary and jaded, they find it difficult to be sympathetic.

An avalanche of work has placed untold pressure on what were already inefficient, ridiculously under-funded structures. Hapless tsunami victims are mired in bureaucracy. They operate predominantly on hearsay. While there is some provision of information, it is limited and inconsistent. The large number of local and international non-governmental organisations working in tsunami affected areas does try to clarify matters but they have their own work. All this doesn’t help the victims.

‘I think there’s still a good deal of confusion at local level about what the (people’s) entitlements are,’ observed Mary Sheehan, Head of Mission of the International Organisation for Migration. ‘The entitlements with regard to food and ration cards have been well communicated.

‘However, there’s a lack of clarity about how long it will take to determine whether a house is fully or partially damaged. Consequently, even people outside the buffer zones are afraid to repair their houses until an assessment is done.’

‘There is still no clear word on whether people will get full or partial government compensation if they also receive assistance from an NGO or private organisation,’ she continued. ‘These and other issues should be firmly stated in policy and conveyed to people in a language they can understand.’

Deceptions

There is a veritable landslide of grievances from areas like Hikkaduwa. Most are related to a perceived or real failure of the government to care for its people. Amid the complaints, however, it is also patent that not everybody is telling the truth.

‘It is the practice of our people is to say they didn’t get anything’ even when they do get something,’ commented Manoj Krishantha, Mayor of Hikkaduwa.

Mahindapala, for instance, claimed that his only boat had got wrecked in the tsunami. It was grounded near the harbour, a large hole in its side. ‘I haven’t worked for four months,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a boat.’ He later let slip that he had a second boat, which he was now operating.

Piyawathie, who weaves coir in Pereliya, is one of the few villagers who has already received a permanent house. ‘Yes, I have got a house,’ she admitted grudgingly. ‘But it hasn’t been plastered yet. Neighbouring houses have been plastered.’

This phenomenon is a tragedy in itself. In the heat of the moment, people are trying to grab what they can. Is it their fault? Maybe not.

Poverty

Poverty can drive people to desperation. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s poor have spotted an opportunity to thrust themselves into a different league. They are afraid to say they have got enough. They compare their situations with others around them, carefully measuring and assessing. Jealousies abound. To revile their actions would be to overlook the true nature of poverty.

Meanwhile, inhabitants of villages bordering tsunami-affected areas are also worried. ‘We are poor too,’ they assert. ‘Why is assistance being given only to tsunami areas?’

Optimists

Then, there are the optimists. Piyal Gunarathna is the proprietor of Nippon Villa. He refuses to be defeated. Gunarathna’s hotel cum guest house is literally on the beach. A short walk and the waves are lapping at your feet. He built the hotel with money collected during a three-year stint in Japan. When it was smashed in the tsunami and the tourists fled, Gunarathna cancelled staff holidays and instructed them to prepare for relief workers.

‘You may criticise me,’ he said. ‘But I’m a businessman. I have salaries to pay.’

Today, Gunarathna is confronted with a complicated dilemma -- one that all landowners along the coast face. Their once juicy plots of land have been dramatically devalued by banks. The government’s buffer zone policy has slammed them where it hurts most.

‘I want a loan,’ Gunarathna explained. ‘I need to get new furniture and bedding. My cutlery and crockery are not suitable. I have to upgrade my hotel. Despite owning prime property, the banks are refusing me money. They say my land has no collateral value.’

‘The government is providing grants to tsunami victims,’ he said. ‘Why won’t they help me? I’m an employer and so many people are receiving indirect benefits from my hotel. The laundrymen, the fruits and vegetables suppliers, the fishermen.’

Back at the divisional secretariat, Piyaratne toils on in her stuffy room. There are problems to be solved. Many more transit houses need building, essential documentation has to be sorted out, approvals and permits must be granted for countless programmes and projects. There’s no knowing when the workload will lessen. Not soon. That’s for sure.


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