Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Minister of Justice and Administration Rauff Hakeem says more relief is needed by the people in flood affected areas in order to get back on their feet.
Hakeem points out that the damage caused to the livelihoods of the people in these areas will only be felt in the months to come and warns that the assessment of such damage will be staggering. He asserts that a well-formulated long term plan is needed to minimise the impact caused by natural disasters. Hakeem further speaks about the upcoming local government election and the preparedness of the Government and his party, the SLMC, amidst the catastrophe that has befallen the nation. Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: How bad is the situation in east after the flooding?
A: The water has receded by now. Life in the flood hit areas is slowly returning to normalcy. But the main impact on livelihood loss will only be felt in the coming months. The impact on the paddy harvest is going to be the worst. Hopefully the impact could be minimised if some kind of subsidy or assistance is announced. This is a matter we have to discuss with the Government.
It is important that we take some action in order to get these innocent people back on their feet. This is a misery all round. It’s unfortunate that they had to undergo such misery for almost a week to 10 days. In some flood hit areas, drainage facilities were not scientifically organised. The river basin areas were the worst affected. In some areas, proper drainage into the sea and the lagoons has not been properly organised.
As a long term measure, the Government will have to concentrate on the overall drainage plan and we also have to properly regulate and monitor construction and building activities. In the future proper attention will be paid to all these areas so that we can minimise the impact caused by such natural disasters.
Q: How long will it take to return to normalcy?
A: People have already begun their day-to-day work. Unfortunately it is going to have a negative impact on their livelihood for some time to come. The damage on crops and livestock is immense. In certain areas, thousands of cattle have been totally washed away and have died due to the floods. It is difficult to say that lives in these areas will return to normalcy immediately. We are yet to assess the total damage caused to their lives through the loss of their livelihoods. All this has to be collated properly. Once the assessment is done it is going to be a staggering amount.
Q: What do you have to say about the relief operations carried out in the east?
A: We have to admit that the disaster management response was swift. It was a sudden downpour within 48 hours that caused all this havoc. Nobody anticipated such a downpour. In certain areas within a period of 24 hours almost a year’s rainfall was experienced. It was a torrential rainfall that was totally unexpected.
Despite the magnitude of the disaster, people weren’t marooned; particularly in Batticaloa. We should be glad that the loss of lives was very minimal. Though there were a few deaths, the armed forces and other disaster management units worked hard to make sure the impact of the floods on lives was not high. All armed forces and Government agents need to be mentioned at this point.
I must especially thank the President; he dispatched a Disaster Management Minister who stayed there for two three days at stretch. Though this was an unexpected and a sudden disaster, there was a methodical response from the Government.
Q: We saw several protests demanding relief aid. Does that mean relief operations in flood affected areas were not carried out properly?
A: Given the scale of the disaster, there are certainly limitations to what the Government is able to do. You cannot satisfy everybody 100%. Nobody will say that the intervention of Government was 100% adequate. It is difficult for anybody to respond to such a disaster on a fully satisfactory level.
In the circumstances, the Government has done its best. Donors and foreign governments have also contributed. There is food aid coming in; a United Nations assessment team is also in the country. To a certain extent, the dry rations and other aid have now been streamlined.
Whatever we could do personally we have done; for instance we got in touch with a few dignitaries who extended their support. The Malacca Chief Minister immediately flew in. He was away in Brazil, but he was kind enough to come to Sri Lanka and visit the flood affected areas. He has promised more assistance by way of housing and livelihoods.
Anyway in a situation like this, adequacy of aid and relief will be challenged. The opposition will always try to exploit the misery of the people and score some brownie points. However, I don’t think any aspect was overlooked; the President swiftly instructed everybody to put in their best effort.
Q: What is the total estimated damage caused by the recent floods?
A: The assessment of damage caused to property, household items and similar things has already begun. I believe they would have completed it by now and they should have a rough estimate. Those figures could be ascertained from respective Government agents. The Disaster Management Ministry is coordinating this aspect. However, the damage caused to livelihoods can only be estimated during the harvesting period. The harvest is due in another three to four weeks.
Q: Local government elections are around the corner. How are you going to face the elections amidst a catastrophe like this, which was only second to the 2004 tsunami?
A: This was an unforeseen destruction caused due to a natural disaster. Yet, since the election has been announced, there are no legal provisions that can postpone the election unless we invoke Emergency Regulations. The president is not keen to invoke Emergency Regulations when it comes to democracy and the franchise.
We carefully considered the matter and felt the immediate impact of the floods will soon be gone. Therefore, it would be futile for us to postpone the elections. We felt that we should go ahead with the elections because the local authorities should have the same leadership. It is a grassroots level political institution; we have to empower them and should not encourage direct rule.
As it come under special commissioners or competent authorities until the elected people takes office, we should not let unelected officers run these authorities. So we have decided to go ahead with the elections and install administration. This is the feeling of the Government. The Government has the strength and ability to hold the elections on time without postponing them.
Q: How prepared is the SLMC to face the forthcoming local government elections?
A: We are well prepared and we have already deployed our teams on the ground. Our area organisers have already been made aware of what needs to be done. We have come to an arrangement with the Government in a flexible manner. We have looked at mutual benefits from each side; the SLMC is a predominant Muslim party with a wide representation in many parts of the country, particularly in the north and the east. We have decided to contest separately in some areas. In other areas the SLMC would be contesting with the UPFA.
Q: Will you be contesting the entire island or only concentrated areas?
A: We will be contesting all over the island. In the north, east and some part of south; wherever we find it prudent and pragmatic enough to return the particular number of candidates, because we have to look at the prevailing system of Proportional Representation at local level – may be at the grass-root level representation, the communities’ political power should not also be compromised. We have looked at all these aspects and come to a mutually acceptable formula.
Wherever we contest together, we want to ensure the UPFA wins. Even if we decide to contest on our own, we want to see it strengthen the SLMC’s chance of winning the council. But even if we do it alone, we would have a few members who will be elected separately but join and work with the Government, the ruling party in the council.
Q: The popularity of the Rajapaksa administration is gradually waning, mainly due to the high cost of living and lack of democracy. Isn’t this going to have a negative effect on the SLMC as a coalition partner of the Government?
A: As far as the propaganda is concerned about the cost of living, the lack of democracy and other issues, the opposition is using whatever means it can to tarnish the Government’s image. But the Government is doing the best it can. It is doing all it can do to control the cost of living. The ultimate reality would be that the Government will capture power in almost all the local authorities. It would invariably happen because that is how local authority election have taken place even in past.
The local population will not want to bring in the opposition knowing very well that the centre and provincials are ruled by the ruling party. It would be necessary for the people to have the patronage of both the centre and provincials. Almost all provincial councils plus the centre have a two-third majority and especially since the President is in an assailable position, people would dare to think of a change in administration. Going by historical appearances, it would be futile to think that the opposition can do better than the present Government.
Q: What do you have to say about the allegations that no proper development has been carried out in the east so far?
A: I was in the opposition until recently. I was part of this bandwagon. As a person who represents the north and east, I have to say that there is unprecedented development taken place in these areas. It is happening even right now. That is there for everyone to see. Maybe it is not enough – maybe there is so much more to be done. But what we need to keep in mind is that a lot has been done and a lot is in the process of being done. Any administrations in the recent history have not been able to carry out this level of development, particularly until two years ago.
Q: You were in the forefront campaigning for the release of General Sarath Fonseka. Now that you have joined the Government, have you given up your struggle for Fonseka’s freedom?
A: Well… I am not only a party leader and a politician with some conscience; I am also the Minister of Justice and Administration. One thing I can say is that there is absolutely no interference from the Judiciary. As far as the judicial network is concerned, I can vouch as the Minister of Justice that justice will prevail.
The opposition may want to prove that justice is not done to Fonseka. On certain issues they will also bring out canards with no base what so ever; like the resignation of the Chief Justice episode, which they tried to manufacture. These are all done out of desperation. The opposition is so desperate that it is trying to come out with whatever theories to tarnish the Government’s image. In my view, such attempts are all futile.
The judicial system will very fairly look at the issue and then do justice on Fonseka’s behalf. Our judicial system hardly has any interference from the Executive. People talk about the power of appointment to the higher judiciary, but throughout the past it has been the Head of State who made these appointments. It was not done in any other manner during UNP regimes. It was the President who made the appointments to the higher judiciary. The Judiciary Commission is very much alive and functioning and how could they say there is interference in the Judiciary? It’s all manufactured to cover their own political misfortunes.