Eyes aching, Kusum Piyaratne bravely tries to
field questions without nodding off. An overworked fan is
negotiating a breeze overhead but the heat is stifling. It’s a
sweltering day in Hikkaduwa.
She laughs humourlessly when asked whether she’s
tired. ‘It’s a struggle to work when you have lost so much
sleep,’ she admitted. As divisional secretary of Hikkaduwa,
Piyaratne has been working endlessly since the tsunami. Her
staff have also laboured to cope with the influx of desperate
people who still flood their office, months after the disaster.
‘Our lives are very difficult,’ she commented.
‘We have no facilities. Even my van is a hired vehicle. I visit
displaced people every day. We have a staff shortage. I have to
send officials to the field but don’t have enough. Our equipment
was washed away and very few of our files could be salvaged.’
‘What’s to be done?’ she asked, fatalistically.
‘We have to keep working.’
A few miles away, in Pereliya, the haunted
carriages of the Samudra Devi still perch dispiritedly on the
rail track. The train has been salvaged and now stands memorial
to the sheer force of the tsunami. ‘The sea showed the
country its strength and took away our children,’ reads a
sad white banner strung on its side.
Battered and bruised, the wreckage is today a
popular tourist attraction. Foreigners and locals stare
wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the crumpled sides and torn roof.
Perhaps they are imagining how hordes of terrified people had
streaked towards this train with a relentless wall of water at
their heels. They had hoped to evade death by climbing onto the
sturdy vehicle. They perished instead, along with at least 1,200
commuters. There’s an almost palpable aura of death at the site.
In the surrounding village and others like it,
transit shelters are springing up. Permanent housing is also
being constructed, though at a much slower pace. But there’s a
pile of grievances to be addressed.
‘Please help me, miss,’ sobbed a young woman
outside the divisional secretariat. ‘I still don’t have a
transit shelter. Everyone else is getting one but the grama
niladhari isn’t helping me. He doesn’t like me.’
Such accusations are common. The system is so
designed that it’s primarily the grama niladhari’s task
to identify victims for housing and other assistance. He
formulates the lists for the divisional secretariat. ‘We have
heard that some officials are forced by village thugs to
recommend housing for undeserving people,’ reported a local Sri
Lanka Red Cross employee at Telwatte. ‘Some officials take
revenge against people they don’t like.’
‘Yes miss,’ sniffed the young woman at
Piyaratne’s office. ‘Our grama niladhari is
rude to me. He has his favourites.’
‘That’s not true,’ shot back the official in
question. Coincidentally, he was also present at the divisional
secretariat and now offered an explanation: ‘I haven’t been
depriving her. She had not provided her details on time. That’s
why she hasn’t got her house. Her name is on the list. I put it
This story was a mere drop in an ocean of
allegations and complaints. People spoke of how they had filled
form after form. But government assistance was dramatically
disproportionate to the documentation they had completed. They
had expected more, and faster.
‘I don’t know how many forms I filled,’ said
Mahindapala, a fisherman and boat owner. ‘What’s the use? I got
5,000 rupees for two months but even that has been stopped.’
‘We didn’t get anything from the government
apart from the monthly allowance and money for cooking
utensils,’ said a woman living in a transit shelter on the
grounds of a Buddhist temple. ‘Only white people helped us. Our
chief monk has spoken to white people and other big people in
Sri Lanka. That’s where we got our assistance.’
Wijeratne owns a glass bottom boat. It’s damaged
and he hasn’t got money to mend it. He doesn’t know what to do.
He has filled a form. No response. He doesn’t even know where it
went. Last week, he visited the home of a Fisheries Corporation
official, a personal friend. ‘I wanted to see whether I can get
something done through him,’ he explained. Unfortunately, the
man wasn’t in. For Wijeratne, it’s another week without
Sudantha stares at a poster on the divisional
secretariat’s notice board. ‘Do you know what this means, miss?’
he asks, confused. It was a notice explaining the government’s
grant scheme for persons whose houses had been completely or
partially destroyed by the tsunami.
‘I don’t know how this works,’ Sudantha said,
eyebrows knitted. ‘I went to the bank and stood in a very long
line. I filled a complicated paper. They asked me to provide a
title deed and various other details. I did that.
‘Afterwards, they told me that my application
had been cancelled. I had to fill the form again and provide all
those details. I haven’t heard anything since. I just don’t
Piyaratne was surprised to hear of Sudantha’s
predicament. She explained that he didn’t need to approach the
bank directly. The grant was being handled through the
divisional secretariat. Why were people getting their wires
Bureaucracy and confusion
A lack of communication has evidently left
tsunami victims at sea. Many local officials have themselves
been badly affected by the disaster. Weary and jaded, they find
it difficult to be sympathetic.
An avalanche of work has placed untold pressure
on what were already inefficient, ridiculously under-funded
structures. Hapless tsunami victims are mired in bureaucracy.
They operate predominantly on hearsay. While there is some
provision of information, it is limited and inconsistent. The
large number of local and international non-governmental
organisations working in tsunami affected areas does try to
clarify matters but they have their own work. All this doesn’t
help the victims.
‘I think there’s still a good deal of confusion
at local level about what the (people’s) entitlements are,’
observed Mary Sheehan, Head of Mission of the International
Organisation for Migration. ‘The entitlements with regard to
food and ration cards have been well communicated.
‘However, there’s a lack of clarity about how
long it will take to determine whether a house is fully or
partially damaged. Consequently, even people outside the buffer
zones are afraid to repair their houses until an assessment is
‘There is still no clear word on whether people
will get full or partial government compensation if they also
receive assistance from an NGO or private organisation,’ she
continued. ‘These and other issues should be firmly stated in
policy and conveyed to people in a language they can
There is a veritable landslide of grievances
from areas like Hikkaduwa. Most are related to a perceived or
real failure of the government to care for its people. Amid the
complaints, however, it is also patent that not everybody is
telling the truth.
‘It is the practice of our people is to say they
didn’t get anything’ even when they do get something,’ commented
Manoj Krishantha, Mayor of Hikkaduwa.
Mahindapala, for instance, claimed that his only
boat had got wrecked in the tsunami. It was grounded near the
harbour, a large hole in its side. ‘I haven’t worked for four
months,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a boat.’ He later let slip that
he had a second boat, which he was now operating.
Piyawathie, who weaves coir in Pereliya, is one
of the few villagers who has already received a permanent house.
‘Yes, I have got a house,’ she admitted grudgingly. ‘But it
hasn’t been plastered yet. Neighbouring houses have been
This phenomenon is a tragedy in itself. In the
heat of the moment, people are trying to grab what they can. Is
it their fault? Maybe not.
Poverty can drive people to desperation. In the
aftermath of the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s poor have spotted an
opportunity to thrust themselves into a different league. They
are afraid to say they have got enough. They compare their
situations with others around them, carefully measuring and
assessing. Jealousies abound. To revile their actions would be
to overlook the true nature of poverty.
Meanwhile, inhabitants of villages bordering
tsunami-affected areas are also worried. ‘We are poor too,’ they
assert. ‘Why is assistance being given only to tsunami areas?’
Then, there are the optimists. Piyal Gunarathna
is the proprietor of Nippon Villa. He refuses to be defeated.
Gunarathna’s hotel cum guest house is literally on the beach. A
short walk and the waves are lapping at your feet. He built the
hotel with money collected during a three-year stint in Japan.
When it was smashed in the tsunami and the tourists fled,
Gunarathna cancelled staff holidays and instructed them to
prepare for relief workers.
‘You may criticise me,’ he said. ‘But I’m a
businessman. I have salaries to pay.’
Today, Gunarathna is confronted with a
complicated dilemma -- one that all landowners along the coast
face. Their once juicy plots of land have been dramatically
devalued by banks. The government’s buffer zone policy has
slammed them where it hurts most.
‘I want a loan,’ Gunarathna explained. ‘I need
to get new furniture and bedding. My cutlery and crockery are
not suitable. I have to upgrade my hotel. Despite owning prime
property, the banks are refusing me money. They say my land has
no collateral value.’
‘The government is providing grants to tsunami
victims,’ he said. ‘Why won’t they help me? I’m an employer and
so many people are receiving indirect benefits from my hotel.
The laundrymen, the fruits and vegetables suppliers, the
Back at the divisional secretariat, Piyaratne
toils on in her stuffy room. There are problems to be solved.
Many more transit houses need building, essential documentation
has to be sorted out, approvals and permits must be granted for
countless programmes and projects. There’s no knowing when the
workload will lessen. Not soon. That’s for sure.