Parliament debates the vagaries of
Our Lobby Correspondent
A pall of gloom hung ominously as the
country's legislature met for the first time this year. Many
members felt that the year 2005 should be considered the year
of rebuilding and rise from the very ashes like the proverbial
phoenix. Perhaps, a year in which past mistakes could be
The house had experienced a bombing
that killed and injured its members.
It has held emergency debates during
troubled times and debated the devastation of a prolonged war.
But the tsunami horror surpassed them all - and the
parliamentarians appeared shaken by the tragedy. Yet, it
turned out to be a traditional debate that offered no answers.
Two minutes silence was observed before
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse making a special statement
appealed to sink differences to overcome this national
He appeared sad enough - but had little
to say except exaggerate the role played by the government in
Hitting the nail on the head was UNP's
Mahinda Wijesekera who demanded to know as to why heads did
not roll following the tsunami devastation. He argued that no
geologist worth his salt could ignore the several tremors felt
in different parts of the island a week before the tragic
tidal waves swept the Sri Lankan coast, demanding authorities
be made accountable.
him Dr. Rajitha Senaratne interrupted Science and Technology
Minister Dr. Tissa Vitarana's speech.
'Why no warning?'
"Kalutara was hit around 10. 20 am
and Dehiwala around 12 noon. How come we were not
warned?" he demanded.
This, Vitarana studiously ignored. His
only admission to neglect was that authorities should have had
a scientific approach.
Making a direct appeal to the
international community for aid to rebuild the northeast was
TNA Leader, R. Sampanthan. He noted that reconstruction should
be done with the participation of those mandated - and
insisted that the LTTE be allowed an active role.
He made no bones about not wanting
government agencies, insisting that any effort that did not
bring in the Tigers into it would " fail."
For once, JVP's Wimal Weerawansa did
not disagree as he too took potshots at government agencies.
A subdued Weerawansa appreciated the
LTTE's network and its ability to assist the tsunami victims
and even advocated a participatory role for the Tigers in
Weerawansa however urged the LTTE not
to have false propaganda campaigns about relief not reaching
the northeast." That is not true. There are failures on
our part which is unintentional. Tell us your requirements and
we shall cater," he urged.
Giving the historical dimension of
tidal waves was Leader, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)Ven. Dr.
Ellawala Medhananda Thero. He said how tidal waves devastated
the western coast during king Kelanitissa's reign destroying
some fishing and pearl gathering communities. " Use this
to rebuild this devastated country, " appealed the monk,
sentiments SLMCLeader Rauf Hakeem echoed.
In their deep despair, all communities
have joined hands to help each other creating ethnic harmony
and an opportunity for peace, he said.
spokesman, JHU, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero spoke, he
insisted that this nation concentrate less on elections and
more on rebuilding.
" Elections are a colossal waste
of money- they are ill planned and conducted for the benefit
of the politicians than when they become due," he added,
noting how the bhikku community had come forward to assist the
destitute converting temples into refugee camps.
" Turn this catastrophe into an
opportunity. Have better planned cities, enhance coast
conservation and rebuild each sector," he appealed.
TNA's Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, was
daggers drawn as he accused the JVP of politicising a national
tragedy. At a time when most people buried their differences,
the JVP was working hard- to score political points, he
Demanding that the UNP draft bill on
disaster preparedness be unearthed was UNP's Dr. Rajitha
Senaratne. His many queries fell on deaf ears and only got
Social Services Minister, Sumedha Jayasena unduly activated.
He insisted that government red tape
was hampering relief operations. The government had miserably
failed to streamline relief operations and mercy flights flew
His comments earned Jayasena's ire who
shot back: " We have a unit which is operational 24 hours
a day," to which he snapped:" But what do they
Fisheries Minister Chandrasena
Wijesinghe spoke with a heavy heart, naturally, now that his
ministry has been practically rendered dysfunctional. He
admitted that he would now have to deal with relocation than
an industry that has been swept into the sea.
Wijesinghe claimed that some 154
refugee centres housed devastated fishing families and moaned
the massive destruction to the industry, but spoke more on
predecessor Mahinda Wijesekera and his failures than his plans
to rebuild the industry.
Calling for more allocations and a
disaster prepared mechanism was Karu Jayasuriya, the man who
was instrumental in preparing a draft bill on disaster
mitigation following the May 2003 floods. He noted that Sri
Lanka had received a terrible warning that could not be
ignored and appealed: "Let's build on our tears."
Ports and Aviation Minister Mangala
Samaraweera, having arrived four days after the catastrophe
from a holiday was keen on statistics. He claimed that the
Ruhunu University was assigned the task of assessing the
damage caused and an interim report would be ready shortly.
He appreciated the people's resolve to
rebuild and the eagerness to bury many differences in a
nation's hour of grief.
He noted that some elements were
twisting the tragedy into a political issue. " None of
the mercy flights returned due to the government's inability
to offload relief supplies," he declared.
While another tsunami may not arrive
during our lifetime, it is hoped that the rulers would bury
their differences and ensure that Sri Lanka is indeed well
prepared to rebuild a nation that has been torn asunder by the
vageries of waves.
Parliamentary officials reported
Parliament had its own tragedies to
mourn last week. Reported missing following the tsunami are
Morano Amit, the ever-helpful
Hansard editor and his wife, Kanthi Wickremasinghe, the
While entire Sri Lanka plunged into
deep despair, parliament mourned the loss of two diligent
workers and fine human beings and their two daughters.
Economic hopes and public's burden
Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The impact the tsunami has wrought on
the economy is expected to be less than earlier thought with
experts pointing out that those affected and unaffected will
have to bear some cost in the rebuilding process.
The devastation is expected to increase
the budget deficit, thereby increasing the cost of living and
inflation while hampering the expected growth rate for the
year. The foreign aid flow is expected to reduce the strain on
the foreign reserves and is also expected to boost economic
activities in the country.
However, looking at the world scene it
is evident that most often donor aid pledged does not reach
the country in full.
Iran is yet to receive the complete
donor aid pledged to rebuild Bam after an earthquake left the
city devastated taking thousands of life with it in 2003.
Central American cities which were pledged money for
rebuilding are so far reported have to have received only one
third of the money pledged.
The difference in monetary aid pledged
and received would be felt by the country as the rebuilding
process begins and also as it progresses. Millions of dollars
have been pledged to the tsunami affected region at the
Jakarta donor meeting last week, but it is during the
rebuilding process that the countries would have to feel the
pressure of expecting aid from the donors.
Invariably it will compel the
government to make some changes in budgetary allocations for
development purposes. The temporary breakdown in the tourism
and fisheries industries is also expected to rebound without
severely stunting the country's economic growth.
According to Central Bank Governor,
Sunil Mendis, the cost estimated for the rebuilding and
reconstruction of the devastation is expected to be around US$
1,500 million. This figure also includes the rebuilding of the
road and railway network in the areas affected.
The Central Bank points out that the
impact of the devastated tourism and fisheries industries
would not be felt much as the contribution to the GDP is
around 2.5% to 2%.
Rebuilding the nation is to begin by
January 15 and the nation would have to give all to rise from
In the tourism sector, while 4,000 out
of the 14,000 hotel rooms were damaged by the disaster, and at
least 3,000 rooms are to be rebuild within a month. Rs. 5
billion has been set aside for the development of the SME
sector through low interest loans. These loans will be
disbursed at a six percent interest rate with the minimum
amount being Rs. 100,000 and the maximum Rs. 5 million.
The government in a bid to strengthen
economic stability has requested donor agencies to defer loan
repayment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is
considering the request and is also in the process of
responding to the request for immediate assistance. (See box)
Donors have agreed to waive off some
debts of the affected countries at the Jakarta donor meeting
Ironically, it has been pointed out by
analysts that disasters always trigger economic activity. Be
that as it may, the country's economy so far seems to be
heading in the right direction with the stock market
performing well and the rupee strengthening against the
The nation would however have to face
many challenges in the rebuilding process, especially at a
time the country was on a rebound from experiencing double
shocks on the country's economy in the form of high global
fuel prices and a drought which hampered growth in the
The conclusion of Central Bank's third
quarter report for the year 2004 says, "The growth in the
first three quarters was consistent with the expected economic
performance for that period and the growth rate forecast for
year 2004 of 5-5.5%.
Although the growth achieved during the
past several quarters has been 5.0%, or even higher, some
important economic issues such as inflation, regional
disparities, the government debt burden and the vulnerability
of certain economic sectors such as agriculture and power had
surfaced during this period. The tsunami disaster has now
raised hitherto unimaginable concerns regarding the country's
vulnerability to natural disasters. This disaster will have an
impact on the growth prospects for 2005."
More aid from UN system
According to the United Nations
Information Centre, one week
the disaster more aid in cash and kind and in the form
of technical support is flowing from the UN system to the
Truck loads of food aid despatched by
the World Food Programme (WFP) are now reaching the hardest
hit districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu,
Hambantota, Matara and Galle. The total quantity of food, the
WFP has so far made available is worth US $ 2.2 million and it
will be sufficient to feed 750,000 displaced persons for a
The value of nonfood relief items
provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
now stands at US $ 2,509,100. The agency has committed nearly
US $ 6.4 million for shelter assistance.
The Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has allocated US $ 48,500 to the
Centre for National Operations (CNO) established at the
Presidential Secretariat as the central body coordinating all
relief operations which is funded by the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP).
UNVs deployed by the UNDP are helping
government agents to do comprehensive needs assessments in the
UNICEF has made arrangements to
despatch three water bowsers to Hambantota, Galle and either
to Kilinochchi or Trincomalee depending on a final assessment.
Household kits containing a mosquito net, a lantern, cooking
utensils, water purification tablets, two mats and two hygiene
are due to arrive in Colombo next Thursday. They will
meet the requirements of 50,000 people. Clothing especially
for women and children are also to be imported.
Immediate problems - a challenge
Senior Resident Representative, IMF,
Jeremy Carter speaking to The Sunday Leader said the immediate
problems faced by the country would pose a great challenge,
adding that the magnitude of the devastation should not be
Carter noted that the medium and long
term impact on the country's economy would not be as
disastrous as expected as on an economic point of view,
disasters always spur economic activities in the countries
The fact that the devastation was
wrought by a natural disaster is expected to minimise negative
impacts on industries, especially tourism. The short term
economic actions in the fisheries and tourism sectors will be
disrupted till the rebuilding process is in place.
Carter pointed out that the government
and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka have done the right thing as
the devastation has not affected the stock market and other
"There has been no melt down in
stocks, foreign exchange is faring well and the banks too are
performing well. People have as a result shown confidence in
the system," he said.
Although the country's GDP would take a
step down, according to Carter, it would not be as bad as
Be that as it may, the major
construction bill expected once the rebuilding process is in
progress as well as restocking of industrialists currently
affected by the devastation would increase economic activity
in the country in the coming months.
While saying that a large amount of
foreign aid would flow in to the country, Carter also observed
that the aid would never cover the whole bill.
"The people affected and
unaffected by the devastation would have to bear some of the
cost in rebuilding the nation," he said.
The impact on the budget is expected to
be quite severe. Carter noted that issues on the spending side
would mean the government would have to make several difficult
The government has requested the IMF
for emergency assistance, which according to Carter, would
take about a month to be realised and the deferment of loans.
The IMF is planning to grant US$ 150
million as emergency relief. "Money is fundable, it is up
to the government to decide on how to go about it,"
ADB ready to grant US$ 500 million
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is now
prepared to provide an additional US$ 500 million in support
of three of the countries affected by the December earthquake
and tsunami disaster, President Tadao Chino told the ASEAN
Leaders' Special Meeting.
Chino said that up to $ 500 million
would be provided to Indonesia, Maldives and Sri Lanka in the
form of grants and highly concessional funds. In addition,
more resources would be made available through reallocations
from ongoing programmes, estimated at US$ 175 million.
ADB is also prepared to lead and fund a
US$1 million study to develop a tsunami early warning system
for the Indian Ocean, Chino told the meeting.