02 November 2014

Orphaned tragedies

How many deaths does it for something to be called a ‘tragedy’?  What is more tragic, a long drawn out war that takes more than a 100,000 lives, an insurrection that takes 60,000, a tsunami that kills 50,000, Dengue or CKDu that affects tens of thousands, a flood or landslide that takes away a hundred or a child who has just learned that her parents were buried alive? 

Tragedy is described in numbers but it cannot be quantified. Quantity is a non-issue for the dead and a small matter for the near and dear who grieve.  Numbers do matter, however, when it comes to galvanizing relevant authorities into providing relief.  They matter, more importantly, when tragedy forces a re-visitation of policy, both at micro and macro levels. 

Where did ‘Meeriyabedda’ come from?  Was it a creation of victims who didn’t take warnings seriously? Was it the plantation company that manufactured a mass burial through criminal neglect including refusal to follow instructions from relevant authorities to relocate people whose lives were in danger?  Should the authorities take responsibility for not enforcing a decision conveyed to the plantation company?  Is it the Government that is at fault?  Given that earth-moving processes often involve the play of multiple factors over considerable lengths of time, we could easily conclude ‘all of the above and perhaps something else as well’.  It doesn’t lessen the tragedy of course, but it can help us be more alert and respond better the next time.

If people are to blame, then this tragedy should alert all people not to take warnings lightly.  If the Government is to blame, this is but one of many things one can attribute to the sloth, arrogance and inability of officials and politicians.  The same goes for plantation companies.  While corruption was rampant when the plantations were all run by state agencies, hanky-panky has only taken a different form when the private sector regained lost ground.  There are many companies who are in it for short term again and therefore don’t have to worry about the welfare of workers or making changes necessary for long terms sustainability. From state-control to private sector control without regulation that does justice to the term cannot be good. 

Then there’s the issue of overall land use policy dating back to the days of the British.  Deforestation has not only enhanced the possibility of natural disasters but has had a negative impact on the entire country, especially the rivers serviced by what used to be handsome catchment areas in the central hills.  The crass neglect of plantation workers, corrected somewhat by the rise of trade unions, is perhaps second only to the immense dislocations that the Kandyan Sinhala Peasantry was subjected to, a tragedy that hardly finds mention these days. 

There has been very little discussion on the impact of climate change in precipitating ‘Meeriyabedda’.  Is it too big a topic, one wonders.  Is it, as the biggest and most notorious exploiters of natural resources say, a non-issue?  Either way, the pernicious fingerprint of the human species on processes that yield outcomes such as ‘Meeriyabedda’ cannot be ignored forever.

This brings us to policy.  Have we got our ‘development blueprint’ right?  Do we have a pulse on the time factor or are we in the business of extracting maximum value as quickly as we can regardless of costs to the environment and therefore future generations, not to mention the inevitable right-here and right-now tragedies such as ‘Meeriyabedda’?

As a nation and as a collective that is part of the larger human family and the still larger community of earth-inhabitants, there are questions we need to ask ourselves.  The easier ones will obviously be about response.  That’s taken care of.  The difficult ones will be about development policies and activities.  The most difficult one will be about development paradigms. 

We had systems that work.  We had subsequent ‘systems’ that have made recovery of the lost frames extremely hard.  We have thinking-systems that rebel against a reconsideration of that which worked before.  We are tuned to follow, much like the rats and later the kids followed the Pied Piper.  To disaster, we must add. 

The point is that politicians, after they are done with the photo-shoots at tragedy-site, will play blame games.  They’ll throw so much mud at each other, but not enough to bury one another which, some might say, is poetic justice.  They will not question the dominant paradigm of development. 

That too is tragic and indeed a tragedy that is not given to ‘numbering’.   It is a bastard creature, without parents, an orphan no one will pick up perhaps until there’s no one left to pick up either. 


sajic said...

Send translations of this to Sinhala and Tamil news outlets as well. There has been criminal neglect and negligence.

Padraig Colman said...

Which particular plantation company is this?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Maskeliya Plantations