06 June 2017

The nation rises…


Calamity is responded to with horror.  It produces grief and helplessness. It prompts anger and finger-pointing.  The blame game is a constant undercurrent which gradually rises to the surface, often obliterating tragedy, the need to address post-tragedy relief and rehabilitation issues and the ultimate need to ensure there’s no repetition.  There’s blame for flawed or absence of policies, for  being unprepared, for being slow, for non-delivery etc., and a manifest non-acknowledgment of contribution.  We’ve seen all this before.  Calamities are painted by these things.  And yet, they also bring out the best in human beings.  This too we’ve seen before.  

It would be impossible to enumerate all efforts great and small to rescue people, and provide food, water, clothing, shelter, medicine and where necessary medical treatment.  It would be impossible to name all the good people who, individually and collectively, did the little they could to help their fellow citizens.  We can speak only of things generally.

First, let’s leave the negatives aside. For now.  People stood up.  Regardless of where they were from, what their vocations were, preferred and ascribed identities, age, gender and so on.  I can only speak of people I know personally or are known to me in social media or those involved in rescue and relief work whose contributions slipped into the forums I inhabit.  In a word, inspiring.  


They were tireless.  They were on the ground.  They moved and they moved others to move.  They used all communication technologies at their disposal and networks they were part of.  They created new networks when such were required to deliver and to ensure the process was efficient.  When things went wrong, they innovated.  They used whatever information they had, verified whenever this was possible, warned people who were in danger and alerted people in a position to help.  Naturally there were frayed tempers, there was frustration and disgust, but they did not allow themselves to be distracted too much by such things.  

Naturally, too, one can say ‘they could have done better’.  That goes without saying. They did and are still doing their best.  Amidst the cheers, not forgetting the inevitable jeers, one must add.  

No one asked them to.  No one demanded that they step in.  Aggregate all that and among other things we get a thing called hope.  Some may call it a resilient strain in the ‘National DNA’.  This should not surprise because it is ingrained in the vast majority that they have to put aside all difference, past animosities, egos and such and rejoice at the magula and be there at the maranaya.  Metaphorically of course.  


It is hard, as pointed out, to name them all, these national heroes who are not taking ‘selfies’ of heroics to advertise heroism.  There are however some observations (again, of thousands of observations impossible to gather) that say something about the last few days.  
Someone wrote and others shared the following: "මම" තේමාව කරගත්ත සමාජයේ......"අපි" තේමාව කරගත්ත උන් තමයි මිනිස්සු” (“Those who made ‘us’ the theme in a society that has ‘I’ as its theme…they are the truly human”).   That’s a quality that is deeply resident, I like to think.  We call upon it in moments such as this and it always our call, every single time.  Of course it would be presumptuous to say that it is a quality peculiar to Sri Lankans.  It’s just good, however, that it exists.  

There were more directly political observations.  Jonathan Frank reflected on volunteerism and came up with some conclusions: “1. We don't need a centralized, authoritarian state, 2. People can manage/ govern their own affairs in their communities through mutual, collectivist association, 3. Given the circumstances the people triumphed and exemplified egalitarian principles [and therefore] an Anarchist/Socialist society is possible, [so] don't stop believing!”

I would say that’s easy extrapolation but I will not say ‘stop deluding yourself’ for there’s spirit there which, at least in times of calamity, makes a difference and in its aftermath prompts us to revisit and evaluate the structures of governance.  

What we can definitely observe is the energy and innovation that this country is endowed with.  The citizens were able and more importantly, willing.  We have no way of predicting when and where natural tragedy will strike, but here’s an initiative based on the thinking that it is best to be ready. 
   

Sudara Pathirana, Saranga Anjana Wijerathna, Dr Pathum Kemer and 24 others are thinking ahead (as perhaps we all should and should have after what happened a year ago!). They are starting a ‘Rapid Deployment Unit’.  Here’s the gist of the announcement posted by Sudara:  

“This is an initiative that anticipates future floods. This team will have doctors and ex-military guys. We have got a Kayak and some medical equipment already.  Pathum Kerner will be the head of medical team and coordination will be done by Saranga and I. We need of your help to buy boats. We have got donations of about 2 lakhs through our friends and we need some more. Also we would like to have volunteers (prefer if you have been trained for disaster management or have experience, but not a must).”

I am sure there are not the only bunch of young people who are thinking along these lines.   They are thinking ahead, all of them.  They are not only anticipating calamities but are operating on the assumption that whoever or whatever fails those in distress their fellow-citizens should not and will not.  From there, it seems logical that they will go on to disaster mitigation.  Of course there’s very little you can do with a few hundred thousand rupees and two or three dozens of volunteers.  However, if we’ve learned anything from the past few days it is that people come together fast and collectives grow in numbers.  

There’s, then, a state of citizens that is in the making.  They are not calling for insurrection, but what they’ve done so far shows that they can resurrect a system that is clearly showing signs of collapse or rather, replace it with something that actually works.  Sooner or later they will encounter the illicit timber feller and all relevant accomplices.  They will confront legislation and institutions that stand in the way.  They may encounter the perverse ways of a mode of development and how certain state actors who are comrades in arms in rescue and relief operations are then called upon to defend these destructive institutional, legal and political structures processes.  They will be tested, this generation that has carried the nation over the past few days.   They have generated a lot of hope.  Let’s hope they will prevail.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene
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