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Meeriyabedda to Makaldeniya life After the landslide

The Meeriyabedda-Koslanda landslide of October 2014 drew national attention both for the massive destruction it caused and for the gaps it exposed in Sri Lanka’s disaster response mechanisms.

Groundviews was able to obtain, directly from Digital Globe, the above Google Earth imagery of the landslide. This image was taken on November 6th 2014, and measurements within the software estimate the length of the landslide to be about 855m.

The subsequent resettlement efforts and updating of relief and response protocols have been hailed by the government as comprehensive and effective. More than three years after the disaster took place, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) spoke with government officials, relief officers and affected families who have been resettled in Makaldeniya during a visit to the Badulla district. Their experiences highlight the attempts to improve the system, but also expose the challenges that remain.

‘In the aftermath of the landslide, Cabinet approved 12 lakhs for the construction of each house,’ says Additional District Secretary for Badulla, Mr. Gamini Mahindapala. This number was determined by National Building Research Organisation (NBRO); each house was to be given a water tank, an elephant-proof fence and they would also be supplied with electricity free of charge.

Further, a committee from the Badulla Divisional Secretariat was appointed to look into the damages, and assess the insurance money that would be given to the victims. Mahindapala was on this committee, and once he and his colleagues had submitted their reports to the Disaster Management Centre, they would decide the final figures.

"The amount they allocated was lower than what we had recommended - they made this change without ever having visited the affected areas," Mahindapala said.

In addition to an existing government circular that determined compensation amounts for the victims, funding from the Indian government was also utilised for relief and construction.

In the immediate aftermath, the army carried out relief operations for nearly a year, and began the construction of houses. They stopped after two years, when satisfactory construction materials could not be found. In addition, the change in government part-way through construction caused further delays.

Far right: Ampitikanda Factory, used as a relief camp.

Relief camps were set up in Poonagala and Koslanda, each providing shelter to around 1,500 people. An old tea factory in Ampitikanda was also in use, and money was spent to renovate the factory so that it can be used for emergencies in the future. During this period, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) built a relief centre that cost nearly Rs. 30 million, so that schools would not be disrupted to be used for camps.

‘For two years - from the time the families were residing in these camps till they moved into their new homes - they were given rations from the government. These were distributed twice a week, and amounted to about Rs. 100,000 per month.’ However, Mahindapala states that there was no solid data on who lived in each house. For example, there might have been cases where family members worked in Colombo yet they too came to the camps to collect relief.

"Victim consultation for site selection didn’t happen," says Mahindapala. Relocation areas are decided upon by the Plantation Ministry, in places where tea doesn’t grow well.

Those among the affected who worked in the plantations had to give up work because it was too far from where they were resettled. They couldn’t meet the strict plantation work times, and would see their daily wage being deducted.

No compensation was provided for lost assets, particularly for livelihood assets. The jewelry of some residents was recovered after the landslide but those were not returned to residents, and instead declared as Assets of the State by the Courts. Mahindapala is unsure as to why this measure was taken.

He says that there is a disaster drill practice carried out across five Grama Niladhari divisions in Badulla, where people are evacuated and brought to camps. ‘However, given that nearly half of the Badulla district has been gazetted as landslide-risk areas, we need also to think of more long-term solutions. The DMC needs a district and divisional-level plan in place for at-risk areas.'

‘Homes of equal value were given to every affected family’, says Wasantha Udaya Kumara, a Relief Officer with the National Disaster Relief Service Centre. This was not in accordance to the land a particular family lived on previously, or the assets that they owned before the disaster. Therefore, everyone living in the new housing scheme has the same house, appliances and furniture regardless of their previous financial situation. After the houses were built and handed over to the people, the distribution of rations and compensatory payments stopped.

He notes that they are made to pay bills only for electricity, which was not supposed to be the case according to the initial plans laid out by the Disaster Management Centre.

The Women & Children’s Unit of the Police and the National Child Protection Authority looked into cases of children who were victims, beginning a fund for them to cover their school expenses. Four children who lost their parents were taken in by relatives, and the Provincial Council contributes to their schooling expenses.

Children who were orphaned are given a monthly scholarship for their education of Rs. 500 per month for child who had lost one parent, and Rs. 600 per month for a child who had lost both parents. These payments were issued at the discretion of the Minister and not through any circular. The payments are issued every four months, but they have now been reduced to Rs. 1,700 (or Rs. 425 per month).

"What we really need is coordination between officers and institutions, in the aftermath of a disaster. They need to be able to take independent action in an emergency, or there is too much of a delay when Person A has to wait for Person B and Person Z to approve a procedure."

He notes that funds were easily released from the Treasury, to meet the needs of the relief work. He also adds that coordinated action between the DMC and the NDRSC is needed, beginning from the fact that people are not aware of the varying roles of each one. ‘The DMC is supposed to generate awareness and warnings before a disaster happens, and we are supposed to respond in the aftermath.’ However, Relief Officers often end up performing both duties, engaging in weather forecasting, for example, in addition to their normal relief duties.

He added that affected families are put under further strain when they approach either of the offices with a request, only to be told that isn’t their mandate, or that they should be looking somewhere else for that kind of assistance.

He also notes that the NDRSC needs more officers, because officers appointed to a certain area can be relocated temporarily to other areas where disasters occur.

‘Land outside a risk area is best for resettlement, but there are chances that it might be drastically different to what the people are used to’, he notes. The ground at Makaldeniya is hard, and families that used to grow vegetables for additional income are not able to do so. The layout of the new housing scheme also means that they cannot rear animals as they used to.

"Even if it means giving cows to families, people should be resettled according to what they had before. A jarring change to their lifestyles only adds to the impact the disaster itself has had on them."

Despite the initial compensation process and the plans supposedly put in place for the future, the resettled residents continue to face a range of issues that have prevented them from restoring the daily routines and normalcy that they had prior to the landslide.

Marimuththu Selvaraja

"The Government gave us each a cupboard, gas cooker, water filter and gas cylinder."
"We even received ownership documents to our homes, they say they will give us deeds in two years but we’re not sure."

'Ensuring land ownership to rural and estate sectors, the middle class and government employees' was an item on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's Economic Policy Statement in 2015. However, Marimuththu and the other survivors are among many living in the plantation sector who are yet to see this promise being fulfilled.

"There is a small error in mine. See, in the Tamil version it says I own 7 perches, but the Sinhala one says 6. How is that possible? If the authorities come to check this for some reason, won’t I be the one to fall in trouble for their mistake?"

Kalaimala

""They said we would each be getting 6 or 7 perches, and this is what the documents they gave us said. But each house is actually closer to 4 or 5 perches!
"The toilets and pipes are bursting, and causing cracks in our homes. There is an issue with the water, and people are always being hospitalised. It is especially risky for our children."

Ramyawathi

"My livelihood is at a standstill. The land they brought us to is nothing like the land we used to live on. We were used to raising animals, and growing vegetables, living off the land. It is difficult to do the same here, with the tough ground. My husband lives elsewhere, and we both bring in an income for our family. There is no other way to make ends meet."

R. Indrani

"I stopped cutting the grass near my house, because it holds together the crumbling land at my doorstep."
"The houses are constructed in tiers on a slope. There is no drainage canals built in, however, resulting in water pooling in lower houses like mine. We have to put in pipes and dig canals at our own expense; no funds are available for this purpose."
"I lost my mother and sister in the landslide. I’ve written letters to the Haldummulla government agent, the Grama Sevaka, the Prime Minister and the Presidential Secretariat, that they will address what we are still going through. There hasn’t been a response from any of them."

Muththiah

"The walls in my house are showing cracks. Our roofs are leaking too, thanks to the improper water management systems here.
"We are not sure if they can be repaired. Actually, we are worried that if we repair and change anything, there will be action taken as we don’t have deeds to these houses yet."

The issues that the survivors continue to face owe largely in part to the absence of victim consultation in disaster response, something that CPA has consistently advocated for in any justice process. Proper victim consultation needs to be supported by closer coordination between the various bodies and agencies working at a national level – including the Disaster Management Centre and National Building Research Organisation – and those agencies working on the ground level – such as the the National Disaster Relief Service Centre and District and Divisional Secretariats.

The mistakes in the deeds also raise the concern of the need for Tamil language support in administration and institutions, in keeping with the Official Languages Policy. This has been previously flagged in light of the Disaster Management Centre’s ongoing lack of Tamil-language weather warnings and updates (seen most recently with the May 2018 floods). A recent CPA study also highlighted that ministries and government officers are lacking in the capacity to respond to queries and dispense services in all three languages, as set out by the policy. This is often written off as a secondary concern, but the impact it has on the lives of citizens denied equal access to services due to language barriers highlights the need for better implementation.

A new report published by CPA highlights the current ad-hoc nature of reparations and stresses the need for a comprehensive response mechanism. This should incorporate victim concerns and also streamline the activities of the relevant authorities for faster action in an emergency. Until such a system comes into place and is fully implemented, victims of disasters – natural or man-made – will continue to face more hardship in the aftermath.

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