Estate and government authorities trade accusations

924d5abb33a2e4d182130f3b94e45191_MAs search operations continue to find those missing due to the landslide that buried an entire village at Meeriyabedda in Koslanda, authorities and the estate company have started trading accusations regarding responsibility for the disaster. While teams continued to comb through the rubble for a fourth day yesterday (November 1), a police investigation had already begun on whether previous warnings of an impending disaster had been ignored by those who could have taken action. The whole area has been identified as prone to repeated landslides, according to National Building Research Organization (NBRO) Senior Geologist, Dr. Gamini Jayatissa. A potential disaster was averted when residents of Naketiya were evacuated before the area was hit by a landslide in 1997.

The first NBRO report, alerting the Haldummulla Divisional Secretariat of the danger of a landslide in the area, was issued to the Divisional Secretariat in 2005. A new research by the NBRO in 2011 came up with the same results, that the area was unsuitable for living and made the same recommendations for relocation.When asked why no action was taken to evacuate the residents since first NBRO report in 2005, Disaster Management Minister, Mahinda Amaraweera said that although land was provided for the purpose of relocation, residents were reluctant to leave their homes. The Grama Niladhari informed the residents of the danger of an impending landslide, but tragedy struck before the residents were able to evacuate, informed the minister.However, the minister also said any probe should look into whether the estate company had ignored warnings reportedly conveyed by authorities to help in relocating vulnerable residents, as they were employees of the estate living on estate land. When contacted Haldummulla Divisional Secretary, Shanthi Jayasekara confirmed that the land on which the line houses stood in Meeriyabedda belongs to the Koslanda Estate and the responsibility of relocating its inhabitants fell on the estate management, which is Maskeliya Plantations PLC.

Deputy Chairman of Maskeliya Plantations PLC, J.H.P. Ratnayake however, said if such a warning had indeed been conveyed to relocate estate employees, it had never reached the company’s Board of Directors. “If such a warning had reached the Board of Directors, I can’t ever imagine anyone would just keep quiet,” he stressed. He added the company would have taken action even if one person’s life was deemed to be at risk.He questioned why authorities and government ministries had not been more proactive.

“Why didn’t the Ministry of Plantation Industries get involved? The ministry gives us so many directions. They can get involved in this also. Even (Minister Arumugam) Thondaman could have raised the matter,” he further said. “The Koslanda Estate management was fully aware of the situation and provided 23 of the 60 houses required to relocate its workers to a plot of land that belonged to the estate, based on the 2005 NBRO report,” said Haldummulla Divisional Secretary, Jayasekara.The NBRO bulletin issued on Tuesday (October 28) evening was conveyed to the residents by the Disaster Management Center (DMC) via electronic media and SMS. According to the Haldummulla Divisional Secretary, the Grama Niladhari had warned the residents in person. “There was only a small fault line near the road, nobody thought much of it. The residents were planning to leave on Wednesday morning,” said Jayasekara.

Meanwhile, the special police team appointed on orders of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to probe into the Koslanda landslide disaster has now commenced investigations. The team, appointed by Inspector General of Police (IGP) N.K. Illangakoon, will investigate whether relevant authorities had provided adequate warnings to area residents to evacuate from the landslide prone area, and whether these warnings had been ignored, according to Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana. “The team will probe whether there was any negligence involved,” he explained. A report on the investigation is expected to be submitted to the president late this week.

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