The Human Tragedy Of Koslanda…

By Nirmala Kannangara  – Pictures by Lalith Perera

Following last week’s Haldummulla catastrophe where more than 100 is believed to have buried alive leaving more than 75 children vulnerable and five deaths, accusations have now been leveled against the Haldummulla Divisional Secretary and Maskeliya Plantations for not taking action against the, landslide warning report submitted in 2005 by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) that cautioned earth slip at Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate, Haldummulla in the Badulla district.
Land slide victimAlthough the earth slips warning has been given to both Divisional Secretary Haldummulla and the Management of Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate the Maskeliya Plantations PLC, by the NBRO continuously in 2005, 2009 and 201, it is questionable why the Divisional Secretary or Maskeliya Plantation PLC ignored the warnings.

The Divisional Secretary, Haldummulla, Shanthi Jayasekera nor Managing Director, Maskeliya Plantations, Sunil Poholiyadda or the Superintendent Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate, T. Samarakoon was ready to comment on their failure to prevent this catastrophe.

Divisional Secretary (DS), Shanthi Jayasekera did not want to take the blame claiming that she was not responsible for not providing alternate lands as she was not the DS Haldummulla when the NBRO submitted its initial report in 2005 and discontinued the telephone call.

Managing Director Maskeliya Plantations Sunil Poholiyadda too slipped away from the questions posed to him about his institutions failure to look after the workers who have toiled hard to generate money for the company. It was the same with the Estate Superintendent T. Samarakoon. As Samarakoon did not answer the calls, a text message was forwarded to him seeking a comment on the issue. Samarakoon replied the message claiming he was at a meeting and would return a call later. However, till the paper went for publication, Samarakoon did not return the call.

land slide victims

Meanwhile Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate workers who wished to remain anonymous accused the Management Company for ignoring the NBRO warnings.

“When the plantation company was warned of landslides, instead of resettling us in a proper place, the management built few housing units in a remote place and wanted us to pay a down payment and a monthly rental. It is the responsibility of this company to look after us who have sweat to earn them money. We have being working for this estate for generations and is this the way the management treat us,” the estate workers alleged.

Meanwhile Senior Geologist and Acting Director Landslide Research and Risk Management Division, NBRO, Dr. Gamini Jayatissa said that it is the Disaster Management Center’s responsibility to identify landslide prone areas in the country and to inform it to the respective District or Divisional Secretaries and the Plantation Companies for action.

According to Dr. Jayatissa, after a thorough investigation, the NBRO has given its analysis report to the Divisional Secretary Haldummulla and Maskeliya Plantations in 2005 notifying how vulnerable the Koslanda Meeriya-Bedda Estate is for landslides and has recommended evacuating the estate workers at the earliest.

“A map of this area marking the unstable features was attached to the investigation report recommending evacuation as there were 75 families in this estate,” Dr. Jayatissa said.

Dr. Jayatissa said that as the NBRO recommendations were not implemented, the NBRO once again in 2009 has conducted an awareness programme for the estate workers how to identify early signs of a landslide.

“As the Divisional Secretary or Maskeliya Plantation did not resettle these 75 families, we conducted awareness programmes and trained them to identify the early signs of an earth slip. The NBRO also gave them

Rain gauge- to gauge the rainfall, mega phones- to alert the people in an emergency, power generators, first aid boxes, etc, to monitor a disaster situation,” Dr. Jayatissa claimed.

Alternative lands given

However according to Dr. Jayatissa, Haldummulla Divisional Secretary (DS) has later given alternative lands for some of the estate workers.

“Some of them have been given alternate lands but not for all. Hence we visited this area once again in 2011 and issued a letter to the DS, stressing the need to evacuate the families which was increased by then. We requested the DS to follow the recommendations the NBRO gave them in 2005,” Dr. Jayatissa claimed.

When asked Divisional Secretary Haldummulla, Shanthi Jayasekera why it was failed to give alternate lands to the Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate workers as recommended by the NBRO knowing the fact that it was a high risk area, Jayasekera said that she doesn’t know about it as she was not the DS then.

“I was not the DS then and I cannot make any comment,” Jayasekera said.

However, Jayasekera disconnected the telephone line without giving an answer when asked as to why she says that she doesn’t know why the Divisional Secretariat failed to implement the NBRO recommendations.

Meanwhile Media Spokesman Disaster Management Center, Sarath Lal Kumara said that 818 displaced are now taking at the two refugee camps- Meeriya-Bedda Tamil Maha Vidyalaya and Poonagala Tamil Maha Vidyalaya.

“Out of the 818 displaced, 323 are from the Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate. Out of them 189 including children survived as they were out of their homes and 100 are reported to have gone missing – believed to have buried underneath and 40 are believed to have gone out of Haldummulla for work. If these 40 do not return then we have to consider that they too have buried under the mud,” Lal Kumara said.

Lal Kumara further said that he too is surprised why the Divisional Secretary Haldummulla and the Maskeliya Plantations in 2005 and thereafter failed to evacuate the estate workers when the NBRO has requested the Divisional Secretary and the Maskeliya Plantations officially to relocate the people as it was prone to landslides.

“The NBRO’s duty is to inform the relevant authorities about their investigations. Although the NBRO have warned the DS Haldummulla and the Superintendent Koslanda Meeriya- Bedda Estate about the vulnerability neither of them took any action and the workers had to pay the ultimate price. The Disaster Management Center believes that this is the second largest natural disaster the country faced after 2004 tsunami,” Lal Kumara added.

Land vulnerable for landslides

Meanwhile Director National Institute of Fundamental Studies Prof. C.B. Dissanayake said that when there is heavy rain continuously for more than three days in deep slope areas they are more vulnerable for landslides.

“In deep slope areas with heavy rain for more than three consecutive days, the soil gets saturated with water and the soil become very heavy. If there is a rocky condition underneath the slope it triggers as the surface has become heavy and occur earth slips easily,” Prof. Dissanayake said.

However Prof. Dissanayake said earth slips will not occur on deep slopes if there are trees, shrubs or even grass on the slopes as they can bind the soil together.

“If trees, shrubs or even grass is removed for any construction purpose it will disturb the natural system and easy to occur earth slips. These are part of human activities and they make these deep slope areas unstable and make these areas prone to landslides,” he added.

Commenting the work of the NBRO, Prof. Dissanayake said although the NBRO has recognized the dangerous areas and have warned the people, it is disheartened to note that people still want to live in these areas.

“If need to carry out any construction on deep slope areas, people should know to consult Engineering Geologists as it is they who have the expertise knowledge to apply the engineering technology to prevent landslides,” Prof. Dissanayake said.

Present DS cannot say that she was unaware – Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister, W.D.J. Seneviratne

When informed of the Haldummulla DS’s ‘explanation  that she was not the DS when the NBRO issued the report in 2005, Minister Seneviratne said that no public officer can say that they do not know what happened before they took over duties.

“They should know what has happened. When the NBRO issued a report in 2005 on the vulnerability of this area, the DS should have given alternate lands from her area. If there are no lands then she should make a request to the District Secretary. If they cannot find state lands, then the DS should have asked alternative lands from the plantation company,” Minister Seneviratne said.

“I am informed that some lands and houses have been given but after obtaining them they have not moved out. This could be because they did not know the gravity of the disaster. Anyhow we now cannot point finger towards anyone as what ever happened has now happened. Now we have to look forward and find solutions to these issues,” he claimed.

All attempts to contact Plantations Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe as to what action he can take against Maskeliya Plantations for not removing the workers from the vulnerable areas were not available for a comment.

When contacted Managing Director, Maskeliya Plantations PLC, Sunil Poholiyadde as to why the company failed to relocate the estate workers although the NBRO warned of landslides, Poholiyadde said that the estate workers were provided houses and added that they were reluctant to live in those housing units but returned to the line rooms.

However when asked as to why the company wanted the workers to make a down payment and a monthly rental, Poholiyadde did not wish to make any comment.

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa has instructed to appoint a committee to find out why this unfortunate incident occurred. Because of this I don’t want to make a comment on the matter,” Poholiyadda said.

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‘Saw how my sister got buried alive under an earth slide’ – Nirushan

 Little Nirushan was at home with her younger sister when the disaster happened. “My sister Swarnika shouted saying that a helicopter is going and ran out of the house to have a glimpse of it. I too followed her. Instead of a helicopter we saw a heap earth and stones coming towards us. We immediately ran for our lives but within seconds I saw how Swarnika got buried to a mount of earth. I was helpless and ran for my life,” Nirushan said while whipping the tears on his cheeks.

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‘There is now only a heap of mud where my parents lived’ – Sinnamma

 Thirty two year old Sinnamma was speechless when she visited the estate to find out whether her parents, brother and his family are safe. “After marriage I went to live in an estate in Thalawakele. When I heard this fateful incident I came to see my family. All of them have gone leaving me behind,” Sinnamma said.

According to her, there is no trace to the house in which her parents, brother and his family lived but only a heap of mud.

“Most of my relations too lived in this line homes but they all have buried. None of my family or relatives is survived. The landslide has taken away all my family members,” Sinnamma said.

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‘Why did the landslide take my wife away from me’ – S. Subramaniam

Subramaniam was inconsolable as he has lost his wife.

“I was in the garden when I heard a loud noise accompanied by a thick smoke. Within a split second I saw how the mountain behind the line rooms came down with huge stones. I was clueless for a while to understand what happened and I ran for my life. When I came back there was no sign of my house and my wife Selvanayagam has buried alive to the heap of earth. Why did she leave this world without taking me with her?” Subramaniam queried.

‘We took the injured to Koslanda hospital’ – Puneswaram

 Puneswaram who lives in an estate adjoining the Koslanda Estate said that he too helped the rescue officers to take the injured to the hospital.

“I heard a huge noise and when came to this area, saw the devastation. I too helped the rescue officers to evacuate the injured to the Koslanda hospital,” Puneswaram said.

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‘I was able to unearth my wife immediately’ – Velu

 While I was away from the estate, I heard the big noise and when came running saw how my wife Radha was struggling under a mount of earth.  I dragged my wife rescued her life. She is now taking treatment at the Badulla General Hospital,” Velu said.

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