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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. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

TSUNAMI IMPACT: Monumental Trouble in Sri Lanka

IPS: 16/10/2005" Amantha Perera

PERELIYA, Galle(IPS) - The twisted hulks of three railway carriages, standing near where they were picked up and slammed against houses in this fishing village by the Dec 26 tsunami, symbolise the power of nature as well as human frailities exposed in the aftermath.

Sri Lankan railway authorities left the wreck--the remnants of a train in which 1,500 people perished--behind as a monument to the victims of the tsunami but, pretty soon, it was attracting more visitors than anticipated.

Foreign relief workers, tourists and pilgrims heading for the sacred city of Kataragama stop by to spend a few minutes at Pereliya and gape at the carriages, the more adventurous pushing open the bent doors and exploring the mangled innards -- ignoring the signs prohibiting entry.

The fresh sea breeze has removed the nauseating stench of putrefying bodies that hung about the carriages but the metal seats, twisted like so much foil by the giant hand of the tsunami, still elicits a sense of horror and catharsis. Drama enough for a group of enterprising villagers to set up a booth hard by and sell tickets to awed visitors.

''We have formed a society and we are selling tickets to raise money for the village,'' said Peter Dharamadasa, self-styled village head told IPS as he stood near the wreck talking to IPS.

The booth was set up a little more that a month ago by a group of enterprising villagers led by Dharamadasa that decided to cash in on the influx of visitors and formed a 'village development fund' taking care to get the customary blessings of a Buddhist monk.

''That man is making money using monks and others and all this is not helping anyone else -- look he is building a house there from all this,'' screamed Anthony Karunawathie pointing at a spanking two-storey that Dharamadasa has constructed barely 50 meters from the carriages.

Dharamadasa is cagey about how he is going to spend all the money rolling in but mumbles something about rebuilding a temple and helping out villagers during funerals. But he admitted to having collected 6,000 US dollars in the first month after the booth was established.

The wreck has been a windfall not just for Dharamadasa. Just down the corner visitors can refresh themselves at the newly opened 'Tsunami Café' -- though this enterprise is legitimate and respectable.

Susila, who lives nearby cadges money off visitors especially dollar- bearing foreigners. ''What can we do, we don't have houses, no jobs, the government is not giving out the relief funds properly. I don't see anything wrong in asking for money and help,'' she said.

Susila's arguments are in line with Sri Lankan policy seeking and receiving billions of dollars worth of tsunami aid which is being misused, cornered by the influential or threatening to re-ignite an ethnic war raging on the island for more than two decades.

In Sri Lanka, just who is entitled to tsunami relief funds from international donors has gained the proportions of a national debate and the Presidential elections, called in November, are virtually a referendum on the issue.

Hoping that that the tsunami emergency might facilitate reconciliation between the government and rebel Tamil ethnic groups in the north and east of the island, which were seriously affected by the disaster, President Chandrika Kumaratunga entered into a deal to share international aid.

But the deal was successfully challenged in court by pro-Sinhalese groups on the grounds that sharing funds with outfits like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was unconstitutional. Some say the LTTE reacted by assassinating the country's foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar precipitating the elections.

In Pereliya, the big debate is on the future of the wrecks with one group seeing it as an asset and pushing for its conversion into a permanent monument and another demanding it's removal because they think it is an eyesore and even inauspicious.

''If you try to move it now, war will break out here,'' warned K. Somasiri, a villager who is in the camp that wants the carriages removed.

Indeed, when Somasiri raised the concern that the village was gaining a bad reputation for profiting out of a tragedy he found himself manhandled. ''At least now the fleecing has become systematised,'' he said philosophically, nodding in the general direction of the ticket booth.

Another advocate for the removal of the wreck, D. Kalupahana thinks that the wreck is unlucky. ''It has to be taken as far away as possible if we are to recover. These are three massive coffins in which hundreds died and it is the first thing I see when I open my front door.''

Kalupahana also finds objectionable the large boards requesting visitors not to give money to children as that might encourage them to hang around the wrecks and stay away from school. ''It is like those signs you see in the zoo warning people not to feed the monkeys.''

To him it is matter of self-respect. ''We can't say that we come from this village, because everyone thinks of people from Pereliya as beggars who make money from the dead.''

On top of all that, the wreck is sitting over a storm drain and with the onset of the monsoons there are fears that Pereliya and adjoining villages could get flooded.

The local administration formally requested the Railway Department in April to remove the wreck but to no avail, reinforcing the belief that there are vested interests higher up. As Somasiri discovered, moving the carriages will not be easy.

Many villagers think that the government could do at least put it under some sort of accountability. ''For now it is okay that we have this ticket business, but this (private money-making) is only going to get worse,'' said Soma Kariyawasam.

The reluctance of authorities to take charge of the wreck is surprising given that Pereliya has received its fair share of aid and help within an overall reconstruction effort -- though even here there are allegations of profiteering.

Villagers complain bitterly that housing projects, initiated by ministers Jeyaraj Fernandupulle and Amarasiri Dondangoda, are being badly executed and that houses are being allotted out-of-turn and as political favours to loyalists and party hangers-on.

There are few takers for sustainable, self-help activities in Pereliya. One local NGO, 'Help-O' has trouble setting up self-employment schemes for women while another 'Hela Saranaya' is trying hard to get the villagers interested in casting cement blocks for re-construction.

But none of these schemes match the wrecks for quick money, including dollars. ''The train has turned Pereliya into a village of beggars,'' said NGO activist A. Chandrika.

With the only tangible cash and benefits coming in from international donors and foreigners--like those who stop by Pereliya--the current joke in southern Sri Lanka is that any foreigner contesting the November elections would win hands down.

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