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Welfare programs continue for landslide areas

One month after the Meeriyabedda landslide tragedy the plight of the affected people can be heard only occasionally. Immediately after the incident this poverty-hit community in the estate sector captured the world's attention as the incident made global media headlines and generous donors and kindhearted people came to support them.

Some houses in the housing scheme where 63 Meeriyabedda families resettled.

A displaced family

Around 40 people are living in a classroom at welfare camps in two schools in Poonagala.

According to statistics given by the officials there are 1,213 displaced people belonging to 342 families in welfare camps. In the Mahakanda factory welfare camp 275 people belonging to 82 families are residing. Another 341 people belonging to 108 families are living in the Poonagala Tamil Mahavidyalaya welfare camp. In the Poonagala Sinhala Mahavidyalaya welfare camp 52 people belonging to 11 families are living. In another camp called “Gapkade Camp” there are 292 people belonging to 75 families and they are from a landslide-prone risk area in Poonagala. In the welfare camp situated at the Kovil another 180 people belonging to 55 families from a risk area are living. There are 73 people belonging to 11 families in the Makaldeniya welfare camp situated close to Koslanda.

The welfare program is managed from the main welfare centre located at Mahakanda factory. This abandoned tea factory used as a firewood storage facility had been converted to a welfare centre by Sri Lanka Army. The army is still supporting the Bandarawela Divisional Secretary office staff to manage the welfare service and security of the welfare camps.

Until the end of November the Army provided cooked meals thrice a day for the people living in all the welfare camps except Makaldeniya camp which is located separately. Last week people in the Mahakanda factory camp staged a protest against the decision to terminate cooked meal supply and provide dry ration. The people in other camps agreed with the new arrangement, cook their meals, at the common kitchen in each camp. Later, after mediation of the political leaders people in the Mahakanda factory camp too have agreed to new arrangements but refused to voluntarily cook their meal and finally the estate company has to pay the wages for the cooks.

Though the displaced people receive assistance and care satisfactorily at the moment, they cannot live like this for a long period. Solution to their housing issue is urgent. In the Mahakanda factory camp people are living in 100 sq feet room divided by thin plywood boards and in some rooms around 7-10 people are living.

In the camps located in schools around 30-40 people are living in a classroom. Now they have been living over one month and the young people are expecting a house or land and other kind of assistance.

Officials who manage the welfare program said that contribution of the Disaster Management Ministry officials of the Badulla district is not sufficient.

K. Manogaran from Meeriyabedda in Room No.1 complains about discrimination of distribution of aid receiving from donors. He said that everything is given to the people living in Mahakanda factory camp. The people said that they don't even have the basic needs; milk powder for kids, and cloths. But officials deny this and they said that all the supplies come to the main store in Mahakanda factory and they are equally distributed to all the displaced people. However, now the distribution of aid has been limited to encourage them to return to their houses after the risk is reduced.

The views expressed by the displaced people are varied and all of them are expecting a kind of assistance in material, cash or housing.

According to estimates socio economic status, 61 percent of estate sector households are in the poorest category compared to 20 and eight percent in rural and urban sectors (IPS Blog).

Officials said that 57 houses have been damaged in Meeriabedda division of the estate by the landslide and eight houses are in the high risk area. There are 342 families in all five camps and all of them expect houses. But the officials said that only 75 permanent houses will be provided and the conditions for receiving a house are; they should be employees of the estate, should not have a house in the housing scheme and they should have been directly affected by the landslide or are in the high risk area.

According to the officials, a land for these permanent houses has been selected and construction work will commence soon. Others in middle risk areas will not get permanent houses but there is a plan to provide temporary houses for them.

D.A. Karthik (33), a community leader said that houses should be given to the affected people. He has five in his family and said that it is difficult to live here without any work. “We get food and other essential things but we want to leave here as soon as possible and start work again, he said. Karthik's house had sunk in the landslide and he has lost everything they had. Luckily they were not in the house when the tragedy struck. His wife Kanagalechami who returned from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia after three years working as a housemaid just 12 days before the tragedy, said that all she earned were lost and they have to start life again.

The claim for new houses is much higher than the actual number of houses affected and situated in the vulnerable areas. There were several families living in these households and at this occasion each family is seeking a new house. The people who left the villages and lived or worked in Colombo or other areas too have come back and now living in the welfare centres and claiming new houses. This situation has created a division among the community and the people who actually lost houses said priority should be given to them. M. Kokila who lost his mother together with his house claims that families who did not suffer any damage too are in welfare centres to receive aid and expecting a new house.

Meeriyabedda had been identified as a high risk landslide-prone area and alternative lands had been provided to construct houses. Lands have been provided for 63 families under this housing scheme located around one km away from the Meeriyabedda landslide.

Only 13 families have shifted to this new housing scheme and most of the other houses are partly completed or not even started construction. When we visited this housing scheme only one family was living there and all other 12 families had gone to the welfare camps.

Thangeshwari (40) a mother of two who remained in their house said that immediately after the landslide they too went to the welfare camp and later returned considering the children's education and inconvenience in the crowded camp. Bandarawela Divisional Secretary Jayasundara said that this housing scheme area too has been recognised as a landslide prone area in the long term and mitigation work has been done for the time being.

The landslide area is now abandoned and a few people, few stray dogs and debris of houses and the temple could be seen at the site. The initial estimate of the death toll of the landslide was over 200 but today the official figures confirmed that only 37 people died.

According to Divisional Secretary Jayasundara, the death toll was confirmed at 33 Meeriyabedda residents and four outsiders who stayed with their relatives. The figure has been confirmed after interviews with the people who were fortunate to escape the tragedy and official documents with the Grama Niladhari and the plantation company.

Now reasonable time has passed and if there is anybody missing there should be complaints to the police, Jayasundara said. Thiyagarajah who we met at the landslide location said that his six-year-old daughter Nilushika died while she was walking to the school.

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