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Sunday, 12 June 2016

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Firestorm

By now the nation will have seen the images of fiery devastation, shattered livelihoods, a dazed populace and, also, an angry populace. This is the aftermath of last week's firestorm at the Army base in Salawa, in the Avissawella area.

The total disaster impact, while major in terms of Sri Lankan proportions, is somewhat smaller in impact when compared to some similar arms dump disasters that have occurred in larger countries with far bigger military installations. Nevertheless, whatever the comparisons being drawn - including comparisons with war devastation in the North - the communities in the picturesque countryside around the Salawa cantonment experienced a disaster they need not have experienced.

What with the growing global outcry over climate change, the nation is finally realising that the 'natural' disasters striking this island are actually a mix of powerful natural events that, then, trigger a chain of other subsidiary disaster events that are the result of human mismanagement and abuse of land and water resources. Further, the scientific understanding of climate change helps us realise that those initial 'natural' events, themselves, may have been caused by severe and sustained human damage to the environment.

But in Salawa last week there occurred a disaster that was, entirely, due to human agency, including human failures. What these failures are, we expect the twin probes, one by the Army and the other by the Police, to tell us eventually. The nation expects to hear the answers despite its previous experience of governments loudly declaring 'investigations' and later quietly shelving the resultant reports.

People are already questioning the location of a massive arms and munitions storage facility in a populated civilian area rather than within a large, isolated, military installation that would have then distanced any civilian population from such a disaster at least to some degree. Indeed, there are elaborate global standards already set that govern the storage of military hardware and explosive materials, just as there are global standards that cover storage of fissionable and other nuclear materials, chemicals, general inflammable materials, etc. The Army leadership seems to be acknowledging a failure in this regard.

While the causes of the disaster are being probed, most urgently, there needs to be a multi-pronged response to the effects of the Salawa firestorm. Just as in the separatist war battlefields of the North, there is a need to swiftly deal with the explosion fall-out of toxic chemicals arising from burning explosives, ammunition metal casings, and pollution of water and earth by lead and other poisonous elements thrown up by the fiery blasts. Sri Lanka's long experience with war has equipped the government and civil society with skills and resources in de-mining and the disposal of un-exploded ordnance (UXO).

The government must give top priority to this aspect of the disaster, including the long-term health effects and treatment facilities.

A second priority is the clean-up of the entire area and the cleansing of water resources and soils that may affect human settlements and agriculture. A third priority is treatment of a literally shell-shocked populace for the psychological and social trauma it has suffered. A fourth priority is the swift rehabilitation of the economic capacities and infra-structure of the affected region so that livelihoods could recover and resume. The protest demonstrations towards the end of last week by groups of residents in Salawa indicate a public impatience over delays in support for their recovery. Unlike a largely natural disaster, the local populace is fully aware of the fact that they were hit not by a rainstorm but by explosions of human-made and stored materials. No wonder, then, the people are quick to demand responses from humans who claim to bear responsibility for such matters.

The Army has notably been in the forefront of the rescue and recovery efforts so far. The Army Commander must be commended for this initiative. It is up to the government now to deploy its responsible ministers and relevant officials to give leadership to the overall recovery programme.

Confidence

The defeat of the 'No Confidence' motion against the Minister of Finance tabled by some sections of the Opposition in Parliament was not un-expected. The parliamentary arithmetic was always clear as to the relative voting strengths. The test was to see how big would be the government's 'Nay' vote majority over that of the Opposition's 'Aye' vote.

In the event, it was primarily that section of the Opposition that comprise the UPFA rebel faction, which voted for the No Confidence motion. It must be noted that it was not even the main, formal 'Opposition' in Parliament that originated the motion in the first place. The originators were the UPFA rebels who choose to call themselves the 'Joint Opposition'. (A bemused citizenry is yet trying to decipher as to what this 'joint' means.)

The formal Opposition, comprising the TNA, whose head of parliamentary group is the official Leader of the Opposition, and the JVP, the next largest group in Opposition, were both more spectators in this parliamentary mini-drama than serious actors. The TNA chose to be absent from the House at the time of voting while the JVP voted in favour of the motion.

It is up to the TNA to explain to the citizenry, whom it claims to represent in 'Opposition' irrespective of ethnicity, why it de-prioritised the No Confidence vote by not even being present in the chamber to participate in the voting. As the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Sampanthan must explain the reason for this lackadaisical parliamentary behaviour in relation to a vote that has relevance to the nation's finances.

The Government cannot sit back on its laurels after the defeat of the UPFA rebels. After all, it is a matter of direct relevance to the economic well-being of the people. History has taught that economic interests and socio-economic needs underlie all other interests, even ethnic community interests. No one but the political leadership can be blamed if it fails to factor in the socio-economic interests of the people along with the other strands of governance, such as the repair of democracy and the solving of the ethnic conflict.

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