The Permanent Disaster

Posted on January 30, 2005  /  4 Comments

Here is an interesting article recommended by Nalaka Gunawardene:

Four years ago, this magazine’s editor, environmentalist Anil Agarwal, wrote a scathing comment after the Bhuj earthquake: “Disasters come and go but our government has become a permanent disaster”. While we are vulnerable to natural disasters — cyclones, earthquakes, floods or droughts, and now the tsunami — these temporary and preventable disasters turn into massive calamities because of the “perpetual disaster that this country’s governance system has come to represent”.

Why? Because earthquakes do not kill, the buildings do. Anil put the question: why, then, do we not build, in areas identified as seismic, earthquake-resistant structures? After all, traditional architecture took into account a region’s vulnerability and so designed buildings that could withstand tremors. “Why then does the proud, loudmouth, supposedly competent, modern India fail to build this simple knowledge into its daily reality?”

We need to ask this question again today, even as we confront another appalling human tragedy. There will be another natural disaster, sooner or later. Thus what we do today will lessen the pain and suffering of those affected tomorrow. If we do not, it can only mean we are wilfully negligent. And after the Orissa cyclone, Bhuj and now the tsunami — 3 natural disasters in 5 years — even criminally so.

read full article


  1. The argument here is that governments are disasters because they are negligent in not fulfilling their duties regarding disaster preparedness and mitigation. These are sins of omission. But what about senior government leaders such as the President and the Minister who led the delegation to the Kobe Disaster Conference using words carelessly about earthquakes that are about to happen and tsunamis that are coming, contributing to the generation of rumors and panic? These are sins of commission. How can we get these people to behave responsibly?

  2. Something that I wrote a few days ago.


    A month after: Opportunities and dangers

    Sanjana Hattotuwa*
    25th January 2005

    “… so that long afterwards we would be tempted to wonder if we did not hurry forth too fast straight into the morass that is now our malformed freedom”

    The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, M.G. Vassanji

    One month after the tragic events of 26th December 2004, there is a palpable sense of hopelessness. Lest we forget, the continued puerile rhetoric bandied by politicians not only mocks the deaths of over 40,000, but also toys with the continued trauma of those who have lost everything – their families, parents, children, livelihoods, income, community and support structures. Many have lost the one thing that makes us human – hope.

    While it is true that the tsunami did not discriminate along ethnic, religious or caste lines, it is also the case that in Sri Lanka and in many other regions severely affected by it, the weakest segments of society, the most impoverished and economically disadvantaged communities suffered the brunt of its force. To face the full horror of the tsunami requires sensitivity to the psychosocial aspects of its destruction, and not just observing the physical devastation. In communities where life was inextricably entwined with the ebb and flow of the sea, to have so much taken away by their life-giver in an instant is beyond comprehension.

    The tsunami has dismembered lives in a country which did not need more trauma. It might, as some argue, be a fortuitous event, for in its wake the tsunami has engineered a more reconciliatory tone from the key stakeholders in the peace process. Yet, sporadic murmurings of cooperation and collaboration aside, the LTTE and the Government do not seem to be able to agree on a mutually acceptable framework to disburse aid and more importantly, embark on activities that address the needs of the ravaged communities in the North-East.

    Wire reports on the situation in Sri Lanka paints a schizophrenic attitude of key actors towards the immediate, medium and long term needs. It is almost as if the generosity of the world (in the form of aid free from any donor conditionality) has galvanized, not restrained zero-sum politics. One the one hand, there is the seeming inability of the incumbent government to create inclusive, participatory and accountable structures to address the long term needs of relief and the longer term needs of reconstruction. Reports that documents for requesting and channelling aid were dispatched to the North in Sinhala point to both a severe lack of capacity and a callous insensitivity to fragile ethnic relations within the structures that have been set up to spearhead the long-term relief efforts by the central government. One cannot seriously expect a traumatized population to fill in documentation in a language they cannot comprehend in order to get the relief they deserve as citizens of Sri Lanka. It is unforgivable that we continue to trivialize the rights of entire peoples in this fashion, even after such a catastrophic disaster.

    On the other hand, the LTTE while rightfully demanding donor aid and human resources to rapidly address the suffering of those affected by the tsunami in the North East, must realize that the same principles of accountability and transparency apply to their operations. Relief organizations in foreign countries which had been identified as fronts for the collection of funds to arm the LTTE cannot be forgotten in an instant under the guise of providing channels for aid to those affected on the ground. The continuing concerns of child recruitment (which some reports alarmingly state has continued unabated even after the tsunami) must not be ignored or brushed aside in efforts to mainstream the participation of the LTTE in the long-term relief efforts. Violations of human rights cannot be countenanced in any circumstance. Pressure must be placed on both the government and the LTTE to ensure that aid is disbursed to those who need it, for the purposes which the aid was intended for, in a manner that is accountable to both the donors and more importantly, the people themselves who were affected by the tragedy.

    We must also recognize the moral duty that the acceptance of donor aid binds us to. It is unfortunate, as some analysts have already pointed out, that grandiose projects to ostensibly address the destruction of the tsunami have taken a life of their own. Whilst communities on the ground in certain parts of the country still await concrete measures to restore a semblance of normalcy, the reconstruction agenda overflows with hurriedly assembled blueprints for building cities, highways and electric railways. As mentioned earlier, we seem to think that unconditional donor aid flows are a golden opportunity to kick-start developmental processes that lay dormant with the stasis in the peace process. The suffering of communities must not be the currency with which we negotiate funding to build Sri Lanka’s infrastructure. It is morally reprehensible to hold those who have lost everything ransom to processes that are aimed at reversing a historic incapacity to engender sustainable development in Sri Lanka. Such parasitic behaviour, which feeds on the plaintive voices of those on the ground, will inevitably result in a cataclysmic failure to create sustainable developmental processes and may further entrench ethnic distrust and sow the seeds of future violence.

    It is unfortunate, in this respect, that the necessary inclusiveness in a conflict sensitive developmental process is not one that is espoused by stakeholders such as the JVP, who are wholly against the participation of the LTTE in the relief efforts. The pathetic fallacy of their arguments mirrors a larger depravity of mainstream political parties to mutually agree upon a national consensus for long-term relief. If, on the one hand, the LTTE states that the relief efforts take precedence over political differences that existed prior to the tsunami, it is up to the political forces in the South to take up this position and lock the LTTE into a national dialogue that uses long term relief efforts as a springboard to re-energise a dormant peace process and lock them into frameworks that are democratic, accountable and transparent. Clearly, the LTTE has demonstrated an ability, in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, to rapidly mobilise rescue efforts. What is unclear is whether they are receptive to enter mechanisms that lock them into aid that then cannot be used, for instance, for the procurement of weapons. Mechanisms that both vision new futures must also address the plague of continuing human rights violations at present, realising that both co-exist in a continuum that can only be challenged by democratic means and not by hegemonic control over territory as the sole arbiter on all matters of development and relief. Given that the LTTE has expressed a desire to work collaboratively with the government on the long term tsunami response, it is up to the powers in the South to come up with structures that include them in transformative processes that will seamlessly dovetail with efforts at peacebuilding as well.

    Donors have a special role in this new paradigm. While it is correct that the conditionalities to the disbursement of aid imposed in Tokyo in 2001 may no longer hold true, it is also a challenge to create structures that can work with both the Government and the LTTE. The creation of infrastructure and livelihoods is bound to be hotly contested issues in the communities and geographical terrain that the tsunami has affected the most. Donors are thus placed in a precarious position, but one that is ripe with opportunity. They once again command the authority to instruct frameworks that disburse money to do so in a manner that is equitable and resonant with needs on the ground.

    The deaths of so many in Sri Lanka and the region may blind us to another danger. Sri Lanka and South and Southeast Asia, in the space of a few weeks, received more aid than most other humanitarian disasters in Africa which have existed for far longer, with cumulative casualties that dwarf the numbers who died in the tsunami. As Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV / AIDS in Africa succinctly states:

    “It is hugely worthy of applause that the governments of the world, overwhelmingly of the western world, have pledged, in a mere three weeks, some 5.5 to six billion dollars. However, it is bracing to note that in more than three years, they have summoned, in pledges, almost exactly the same amount – $5.9 billion – for the Global Fund to fight the pandemic of HIV / AIDS.

    Without the slightest invidious intent, it is important to recall that there are today, now, at this very moment, six million dying of AIDS, 4.1 million of them in Africa. I don’t begrudge a penny to Southeast Asia. But what does it say about the world – that we can tolerate the slow and unnecessary death of millions, whose lives would be rescued with treatment?

    The tsunami must be seen to be the turning-point. The publics of the world have shown their desperate concern for the human condition: how long will it take for government to do the same?”

    We must consider ourselves lucky. Coupled with a gratitude to the unprecedented generosity of individuals and states must also lie a commitment to ensure that the help we have received should not go waste, or into the private coffers of those greedy for short term gain. An acute awareness of the continued suffering of people in equally if not more desperate circumstances in other parts of the world must sensitise us to how lucky we are to be faced with the financial and human resources to build a better future.

    As civil society organizations have also pointed out , one needs to address the complex dynamics of sustainable development in a holistic manner. This may not lie in the creation of wholly new frameworks and institutions to deal with the tsunami relief efforts, but more critically, in strengthening existing institutions (and processes) to augment their capacity to address the needs of the social fabric affected by the tsunami. With accountable and transparent frameworks, aid should also go to legitimate, proven civil society organizations that have a demonstrable capacity to address the ripple effects of the tsunami on a number of levels – from grassroots to the levels of policy making. The government and LTTE must come together to forge a covenant that eschews bickering and instead builds frameworks for the sustainable development of regions affected by the disaster. The trust relationships created in this exercise would be invaluable in the larger processes of peacebuilding. Conflict sensitive approaches must be mainstreamed into every aspect of long term relief. Consonant with a renewed call for the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation, relief efforts must always be open to the rigour of public scrutiny. It is only by the creation of accountable and transparent structures that one can avoid further erosion of ethnic and communal harmony, and counter perceptions of favouritism or bias in aid delivery and relief work. All communities in Sri Lanka, especially the Muslim and Tamil communities in the North-East, must be equal partners in the long term relief efforts to ensure that partisan bias does not creep and undermine the sustainability of relief efforts. Long term relief needs to be looked at holistically – from a media that acts in the public interest to enabling legislation that strengthens the accountability of relief mechanisms the myriad of ways in which Boxing Day 2004 can change, for the better, the contours of the larger peace process remain uncharted to date.

    The long term relief efforts are also not merely about development as something that is uncontested and straightforward. It is unfortunate the even today, the State is openly eschewing a participatory approach to the myriad of tasks that lie ahead, instead taking a position that all aid and operations should be funnelled though its failed (or failing) apparatus. The incomprehensibility of this stance is more acute when we realise that it was on account of the inability of the State to meet the aspirations of communities and identity groups in Sri Lanka that gave rise to the ethnic conflict in the first place. The imperatives of a holistic and conflict sensitive development process make it imperative that Southern politics realises the acute need to reach out to communities in the North-East. Furthermore, notions of neo-liberal development, which governments of the day have a peculiar penchant for, must also be contested. There is a significant corpus of literature that strongly suggests that economic development that does not have roots in the communities it is supposed to liberate by a high GDP growth, that does not endogenously develop community resources, that does not transfer knowledge and creates vicious dependencies, that draws a simplistic linkage between high growth and economic empowerment, do not, in the long term, result in an equitable and just social system. While the argument is also not to revert to a pastoral Marxism, blueprints drawn up in non-consultative ways are bound to be rife with problematic normative assumptions of developmental theories, which if allowed to take root, may severely affect politico-social relations in the future and again lay the seeds for violent conflict.

    It is imperative that we do not let the events of 26th December 2004 derail our nation’s progress. It is our response to the tsunami that will forge our mettle – to have used the tsunami as a watershed to create a more just social order, to heal strained ethnic relations and make government more responsive to the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka. One recalls the emotive words of John Hume:

    “All of us are asked to respect the views and rights of others as equal of our own and, together, to forge a covenant of shared ideals based on commitment to the rights of all allied to a new generosity of purpose.”

    The danger of not doing so is to turn our country into a sarcophagus of hopelessness from which we may never escape.

    The world is watching us.

    * The author is a Rotary World Peace Scholar at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. The views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at

  3. As we think about the role of the state in disaster preparedness, warning, recovery, relief, rehabilitation, etc., it is worthwhile to ponder the significance of the news item given below: