The tsunami catastrophe was a national calamity witnessed in the country in recent times. The management of such a disaster undoubtedly required a massive effort on the part of the government in power. Disasters of such a magnitude not, only lead to the loss of valuable human lives but force the affected people on to the streets as their house and property are ravaged by the fury of such an assault. Very many of those who were fortunate to survive the disaster comprised a traumatic society who needed not only material assistance but medical care for both physical and mental health problems. Although natural disasters are not always predictable some degree of disaster preparedness on the part of the state has become essential. If a disaster of this magnitude couldn't be prevented for obvious reasons then at least the relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and redevelopment phases of the disaster should be handled efficiently through a team of hand-picked personnel noted for their integrity, efficiency and pragmatic approach. Needless to say that officers handling such a devastated and traumatic society should be imaginative, dynamic, creative and humane to handle the issues with the efficiency and speed it deserves.
Can this government genuinely claim to have accomplished this task to a satisfactory degree? An examination of the post tsunami issues suggest that the government has dismally failed to solve most of the issues and created more problems to the affected people in the process of attempting to tackle those problems. Initially the government seems to have been in a deep slumber noted by its notorious state of inactivity. It was the private individuals, societies and other voluntary organisations that came to the rescue by providing the basic needs of the affected people. When the government eventually stepped in it did so with an unfocused and meandering state bureaucracy which was to cause more distress to an already traumatized people.
One of the first acts of the government was to hastily introduce a coastal buffer zone to mitigate the ill effects of a second tsunami as if one were to follow immediately after the first. The government went on to introduce a 100 metre buffer zone in the South and a 200 metre buffer zone in the North East without any-meaningful study. What was even more amusing was that it got the state bureaucracy to extol the virtues of the buffer zone merely because the opposition (United National Party) protested against this amateurish move The false tsunami 'scare that followed within weeks not only exposed the unscientific basis of the buffer zone but forced the government to contradict its own ruling by asking the coastal people to move a distance of two km, from the coast line causing utter misery to an already battered population. In fact the government, merely scared the people on to the roads without any organised effort to help them to safety. The obvious reaction of the people who had once experienced the deadly impact of a tsunami to run helter- skelter in the false scare was construed by the government as a moral victory to the buffer zone ruling. What it didn't realise however was that if the 100 metre buffer zone ruling was rational then the people only needed to move beyond 100 metres of the coast and not 2 km as directed by the government. It is indeed an irony that in that the government or its advisers did not realise that there were other factors apart from the distance from the coast line that determine the impact of a tsunami. Even the lessons of experience do not seem to have deterred the unresponsive and stubborn government to reconsider its repressive stand in relation to the buffer zone.
Consequently the reconstruction and redevelopment phases of the tsunami devastated areas are lagging behind for want of land beyond the so called buffer zone. The government by its insistence of an illogical buffer zone has thereby contributed to a shortage of land for housing to replace the houses destroyed by the tsunami. Many donors who wanted to construct houses for the affected people have found it extremely difficult to find land for housing construction. On the other hand the government has failed to provide alternative sites for house construction. Strangely though, the only resource adequately available for tsunami assistance appears to be money from donors. All other Resources are difficult to come by primarily due to the political blundering, bureaucratic lethargy and inefficiency.
The slow progress in the reconstruction phase is a reflection of government policy which constrains not only government funded projects but also those initiated by NGOs and other private organisations and individuals. Construction activities have been further hampered by proposals to relocate some of the tsunami affected townships. These town development proposals are apparently held in secrecy and not made known to the public for reasons best known to the government and state bureaucracy.
Moreover town planning requires the involvement of the community in every stage of the town planning process. In Sri Lanka there appears to be a completely different approach where the community is kept blissfully ignorant of some of the planning proposals. Ideally planning proposals should be widely publicized to generate public discussion and debate. This is because town development affects all residents of the town and requires the consensus of at least a majority of the community.
Planning a town is not a mere physical planning exercise where the planning of an area's physical structure i.e. land use, communication utilities etc. are undertaken. This ancient approach has far outlived its usefulness. Modem planning is multi disciplinary and entails the integrated planning of the socio-economic, physical and environmental aspects of an area. The mere concentration on the physical aspects alone as pursued by ancient architects will leave the job ill done. This is because a town is not a mere physical object. It is a dynamic entity. It has an active population, a viable economic base, an established role, a functional magnitude and a historical and cultural background among other things. The mechanical approach of attempting to uproot such towns for relocation without adequate consideration and devoid of public debate could result in a costly blunder with irreparable damage.A government in power is not necessarily required to be competent in both decision making and technical decision making. It is quite adequate if it could take appropriate decisions on the basis of sound advice of a competent state bureaucracy. However, if bureaucrats are selected only on the basis of personal friendship or party loyalty, that would be reflected in their decision making: Management is basically how to get things done and the politicians should have the capacity to choose people who could deliver the goods.
The state intervention in the post-tsunami relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and redevelopment phases have been amateurish, tentative, experimental, and has caused further misery to the affected people. Its buffer zone rule has led to confusion worse confounded in the sphere of reconstruction and town redevelopment. The proposed relocation of townships has met with widespread protests from a cross section of the affected people. The uncertainties associated with the building and planning regulations due to the buffer zone and the consequent scarcity of land for house construction beyond the buffer zone have scared away would-be foreign donors who intended to construct houses for the affected people. It would therefore seem pertinent to seriously re-think the post tsunami reconstruction and redevelopment phases and develop appropriate strategies which could address problems faced by the affected people.
(The writer is the former Head/Department of Town & Country Planning, University of Moratuwa, Director of Post-Graduate Studies and Senior Professor of Town Planning)