Getting a fair deal

Wednesday, 14 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

All actions have consequences. A nation grieved when three youth were killed after the Army fired into a civilian protest and cracked down on an appeal for clean water. The factory that was at the centre of this pollution scandal has been roundly blamed as responsible for the contamination of water in the Weliweriya area, a charge that the factory has vehemently denied. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office announced on Monday what the Government described as “solutions” to the water issue in the town of Weliweriya two weeks after the tragic events unfolded. Chairing a high powered, multi-stakeholder meeting, Rajapaksa gave several orders as part of resolving the crisis over contaminated ground water and alleged pollution by blue chip Dipped Products Plc’s subsidiary, Venigross Ltd. which employs 600 and manufactures medical gloves for export. A statement from the President’s Office noted that the Government Analyst will conduct an analysis of the water and if it is proved that the factory was responsible, it would be shut down. Even if the factory is proved to be innocent of the water contamination allegations, it will be moved from the Weliweriya area and relocated to an industry zone under the Board of Investment (BOI), which is the Government’s investment arm. The news will come as a relief to residents in a dozen villages around the Rathupaswala area. The heavy police and army guard that has been provided for the factory will likely ease once the assurances have reached people. However, foreign investors and the private sector in general have not been delivered a positive message. The point being made is that even a legally functioning factory that is not responsible for pollution will still be shifted, no doubt at great expense and loss of livelihood, to another part of the country to protect political blushes and official ineptitude. No doubt the Government will be keen to score political points after the shooting and regain some semblance of support in the SLFP stronghold of Gampaha. Lines were clearly drawn after Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa openly apologised to the people in Weliweriya through an interview in a daily Sinhala paper earlier this week. However, the factory is being painted blacker than necessary, one can argue, as tests have not conclusively proven that Venigross is single-handedly responsible for the quality drop in groundwater. Dipped Products exports 5% of global medical gloves, an impressive feat given Sri Lanka’s lacklustre record on industrial and manufactured exports. In fact, parent company Hayleys has a long and respected track record for doing business in the island and the 19-year-old factory managed a peaceful co-existence with residents till about three years ago when the water situation sprang to the surface. If authorities had paid proper attention to the residents’ complaints and isolated the cause in a responsible and transparent manner when it first cropped up, then the events of 1 August would never have happened. After the events have boiled over, there is danger that the factory is being made a convenient scapegoat for this serious oversight. Justice cannot be achieved unless all parties are treated fairly and Venigross cannot be left to suffer the burden of responsibility alone if it is proved innocent.