27 May 2016

In search of a state like Kapuru Banda

I do not know his ‘ge’ name.  I do not know his address.  I do not know if he owns 3 acres of land, 5 acres or 100.  All I know is that he is a mason.  All I know is that he donated a 3 acre plot of land to those who were displaced and indeed had lost all possessions including the land itself courtesy the Aranayake landslide. I know his name.  Kapuru Banda.  I have not seen any account in social media of Kapuru Banda taking a selfie or doing some such thing to advertise his magnanimity.   Kapuru Banda’s generosity will be written about no doubt. For now, he offers a counterpoint to the actions and inactions of a lot of people. 

Contrast Kapuru Banda’s act of kindness with that of politicians who used tragedy as an opportunity for self promotion (Sujeewa Senasinghe, please stand up!).  

Contrast him with others who perhaps with good intention helped, but marred themselves by advertising the fact.  And contrast the man’s thoughtfulness with the absolute cluelessness of relevant authorities before the tragedy and in response to the tragedy.  We can only hope that there would some similarity between Kapuru Banda and the post-calamity actions of the Government. 

It is easy to say ‘this should not have happened’ after the fact.  On the other hand this is a county that has multiple institutions to gather information on relevant factors as well as institutions mandated to ‘read’ the relevant information, anticipate and deal with ‘disasters’ including taking prompt and preventive measures to ensure the safety of citizens.  There are disasters waiting to happen and disasters that are unpredictable.  This is why there’s something called ‘Early Warning Systems’.  Where such mechanisms exist, those in risk can be evacuated.  Didn’t happen in Meeriyabedda [read 'Orphaned Tragedies'].  Didn’t happen in Aranayake or Bulathkohupitiya.  Why not?

The flooding of the Kelani Ganga might help us understand all this better.  If proper information systems and mechanisms to analyse relevant data existed, we would know the impact of a certain amount of rainfall in a certain area on vulnerable areas downstream.  If we know that the river will rise by a particular number of feet in a particular period of time given a particular volume o rainfall, we can easily ascertain which areas will get inundated and by how much of water.  We will immediately be able to identify the population that is most vulnerable.  Then we can take steps to evacuate the people under risk.

In this case the evacuation came after the fact.  It is thanks to ordinary people (the Kapuru Bandas of the country) and of course the disciplined and tireless efforts of Army and Navy personnel as well as other public servants that no one died.  The Army officer in charge of search and rescue operations pointed out that their work was hampered by ‘spectators’, those who flocked to see what was happening.  Even if the intention was noble, for example if they came with relief items to distribute, there should have been a mechanism in place to ensure that they didn’t get in the way.  For instance, declaring an area a ‘High Security Zone’ (the declaration came late by the way) would allow for designated rescue workers to do their work, including the gathering and distribution of relief items supplied by thousands of good hearted people from all parts of the country.  What the officer’s comment reveals, once again, is the lack of preparedness and therefore lack of planning.

There are questions that need to be asked.  Was it possible to predict ‘Aranayake’ and ‘Bulathkohupitiya’?  Was it possible to predict (based on rainfall data) that the Kelani Ganga would break its banks?  Is there any system in one or more of relevant state institutions to conclude that people could be affected and even killed?  If such mechanism existed, is there another system to alert the public? 

Here’s a Facebook post by Arjuna Seneviratne that provides much food for thought: “The National Disaster Management Act is top heavy and not people friendly. the National Council for Disaster Management (NCDM) consists of the President, the Prime Minister, leader of the opposition and the ministers in charge of social welfare, environment, home affairs, health, rehabilitation and reconstruction, science and tech, housing, coast conservation, irrigation, power, defense, police, finance, land, fisheries, foreign affairs, water supply, highways, urban development and education and the chief ministers of every provincial council. TWENTY ONE MINISTERS and the PM and President. I ask you good people, if you have ever seen a single instance where such a group agreed to anything and I ask you if it is at all possible for then to do so in the minutes and hours after disaster strikes. In the present sociopolitical and political economy, can you see any clear decisions coming out? I cannot. Suggestions, anyone?”


Every year approximately 500 million rupees is set aside for ‘disaster management’.  That’s 2.5 billion rupees over the past five years.  With that kind of bucks one would expect that this country possess cutting edge technology to predict disasters, prevent where possible, early warning systems with top class communications equipment to alert vulnerable populations and an impeccable response systems to crisis situations including well-training search and rescue teams.  What happened to the money? If indeed the money was spent, on what was it spent?  What happened to the equipment?  Is it true that if a tsunami were to strike us at midnight tomorrow, approximately 2 million lives will be snuffed out (as opposed to the 50,000 that died in 2004 just because it happened in the morning) on account of the systems to warn and evacuate are either inadequate or non-existent? 

This country is fortunate to have lots of Kapuru Bandas.  We are culturally disposed to rise to the occasion in moments of tragedy.  The Sinhala norms about putting aside all differences in the event of a Magula (occasion for celebration) and a Maranaya (literally ‘Death’ but essentially referring to times of tragedy) does inscribe a certain civic consciousness that helps.  It’s different when it comes to governments and the state.  Here, we have responsibilities.  Here we expect those who are paid by the taxpayer to do certain tasks.  The Kapuru Bandas never failed those who needed help.  The government failed.  The state failed.

What’s happened has happened.  All done.  Too late to turn back.  The issue is what is going to be done to prevent the next ‘Aranayaka’ and ‘Bulathkohupitiya’ and of course to ensure that the next flooding of the Kelani Ganga will not put people at risk.  Let’s not have yet another ‘commission of inquiry’ though!  Instead let’s make sure that those who get paid or are voted to power by the people do justice to the salaries they draw and the power they enjoy respectively.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  This article was first published in the Daily Mirror (May 26, 2016).  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene
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