Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Originally published in the Sunday Times Editorial
The floods and the landslides in most parts of the country have put a literal dampener on celebrations to mark Vesak, the month that is significant to Buddhists throughout the world. None celebrate the occasion with such gusto as the Sri Lankans.
Nature’s forces are a grim reminder that humanity is at the mercy of such external factors and man can make it worse. In the midst of grandiose plans for a Megapolis in the Western province, thousands of families have been flooded out of their homes or marooned by swirling waters after just two days of incessant rains and some showers thereafter. The death toll is still rising.
Many man-made reasons are attributed to the flooding and landslides, not least haphazard ‘development’, bad urban planning, corruption within local councils and the pressure of population on available land.
That the Met Department gave only a half-hearted warning on Friday May 13– and nothing on Saturday of an impending disaster — reflects as poorly on it as the unpreparedness of the Disaster Management Centre (which has a separate Ministry for the subject with Cabinet status) to get their act together in forewarning the people. Our Business Times section comments on how badly they performed and calls them a disaster by themselves. Not long ago, the Institute of Engineers wanted the Centre to change its direction to a Disaster Preparedness Centre, i.e. to a place that takes preventive measures rather than post-disaster measures, but Government leaders are too busy with the politics of the day to prioritise these matters and take necessary measures.
Fortunately, the Armed Services were there to be deployed in the midst of yet another political debate whether the country should on May 18 celebrate the end of a long-drawn-out armed separatist campaign seven years ago with a military display, or whether it should be a day of remembrance for all those who died in the near 30-year insurgency. The multifaceted role this country’s Armed Services play stands testimony to their usefulness in times of emergencies, even though some want them to be mere ‘museum pieces’.
The Home Affairs Minister is reported to have called upon public servants to assist the flood-stricken people disregarding government circulars and the Establishment Code. Easier said than done, however much such statements may appeal to the people. Public servants are reticent in taking the initiative these days fearing a backlash in the form of what they see is a persecution of some of their colleagues for using their discretion and going beyond the rule book in recent years. Corruption is one thing, but to ask public servants to ignore government circulars and use their discretion is a dangerous strategy to adopt and the public servants do so to their own peril.
In the medium and long term, global warming and climate change watchers predict irregular weather patterns, floods and droughts. Nothing can be taken for granted and once the waters recede, as they will, Government agencies and political leaders will go back to sleep. Calling for international aid is an easy way out for a country now accustomed to begging for assistance in whatever shape or form, irrespective of national pride; but donor assistance also has a fatigue factor to reckon with.
Keeping fingers crossed hoping nothing will happen again is not a viable option.
The immediate task is clearly to roll up the trousers and provide relief to the thousands affected by the floods. Amid the gloom however, there was a ray of shining light: the willingness of people to come to the aid of those affected by the floods. Ordinary people rallied to contribute to the relief effort, donating dry rations, cooked food, clothing and bottles of water, for which there was an urgent need. One hopes the aid is channelled properly and is not short-term. Even as the sun strains to shine, the affected will need assistance as they return to their houses or what’s left of them and try to rebuild their lives.
May all beings be happy
As the Buddhist world celebrates the month of Vesak, no other country probably does so with such gusto as Sri Lanka – the Dhammadvipa – the Land of the Dhamma. Monks, scholars, writers and lay preachers will inundate the people with ‘What the Buddha taught’ over the Vesak period, one of which is; “May all beings be free from suffering; free from sickness; be well and happy”. The emphasis is on “all beings”, which therefore includes animals. How much of that Dhamma is being practised in this ‘Land of the Dhamma’ is a hotly debated issue once again.
The debate comes in the backdrop of a Cabinet directive to the Ministries of Local Government and Health to come up with proposals on how to tackle the “difficulties” arising from the stray dog ‘menace’, which includes the spread of rabies. The animal welfare lobby has come out strongly in protest. The Government has assured them that the ‘No-kill” policy of their predecessors in office will continue, but the pro-animal activists say that is not enough. They want the stray dogs to remain where they are, on the streets, but under a WHO formula of CNVR (Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release).
Some years ago, the Japanese ambassador in Sri Lanka drew reference to these stray dogs and argued this was due to the humaneness of the Sri Lankan people. Unfortunately, some of them have broken legs due to the wickedness of some human beings. A few decades ago, then Health Minister Gamani Jayasuriya, troubled by a WHO directive to eliminate stray dogs from the streets with the rise of rabies, sought counsel from his President. He was told that holding public office required a Minister to act in the public interest. Over the years, the WHO too has changed its approach to this issue and adopts the CNVR approach instead.
The Government seems both hamstrung by finances and ham-fisted by officialdom when dealing with the stray dog issue. A ‘shelter’ run by the local council in Anuradhapura was described as a veritable hell due to both these reasons and eventually had to be shut down. On the other hand, a privately-run ‘shelter’ in Ahangama is a roaring success; so why shouldn’t the Government assist those volunteer organisations – like it assists schools and orphanages.
There is a worldwide campaign gathering momentum on the Rights of Animals. The anti-whaling campaign has been going on for years spearheaded by the Greenpeace activists. Last year, there were major successes around the world. Circuses with performing animals had to take off these acts in some countries. A ban on animals being used in laboratories is gathering speed. A bid to reverse the ban on fox hunting in Britain was defeated as thousands petitioned and there are even questions being asked about elephants taking part in peraheras. There is a global watch on the torture of animals, including the caging of birds and animals, in chicken coops and fish tanks and endangered animals being shot in Africa by poachers and wealthy foreigners so that they can hang their ‘trophies’ on the verandahs. In Sri Lanka, the slaughter of animals at Munneswaran was stopped by a court order and in Nepal’s Gandhimal Temple where thousands of animals are beheaded every five years in a gruesome animal sacrifice exercise, the temple’s Trust has declared that the next time – in 2019, it will be a ‘celebration of life’, not the destruction of animal life.
That animals have been trapped in the ongoing floods cannot be forgotten. If Sri Lanka includes the Rights of Animals in its proposed new Constitution it will be probably the first country in the world to do so. But first, we must accelerate the passage of the proposed Animal Welfare Bill that is struggling for years to be enacted into law. The world is seeing brutish wars, but elsewhere, it is also starting to be a kinder place.