Sri Lanka’s ferry tragedy turns into ugly politics; ruling and opposition MPs trade charges

ECONOMYNEXT – A ferry tragedy that killed at least six people including four children in Sri Lanka’s eastern district of Trincomalee on Tuesday (23) has turned into an ugly political hot topic as both ruling party and opposition legislators openly blame each other for the accident.

The blame game is on who gave the approval to operate a ferry and why the government didn’t provide safe alternate mode of transport as requested by Kinniya residents.

Related: Angry residents burn tires in protest following ferry tragedy in Sri Lanka

An emotional opposition MP Imran Mahroof, who is from the Kinniya electorate, blamed State Minister for Rural Roads and Other Infrastructure Nimal Lanza for ridiculing him when he told the parliament that his constituents needed an alternative road.

“Who is responsible for this tragedy? Who gave the approval for the ferry service? Was it approved by the RDA (Road Development Authority)?” he asked the government in parliament on Tuesday, hours after the tragedy.

Rishard Bathiudeen, leader of a minority Muslim party in the opposition, said the tragedy could have been prevented had the government provided an alternative on time.

“There are 100,000 people living in Kinniya and an alternate road should have been considered,” he told parliament.

“You should take action against whoever is responsible for this tragedy,” he urged Johnston Fernando, Minister of Highways, under whose purview the RDA comes.

Fernando, however, said the blame seems to have been “heaped” on the government.

“’The [previous] Yahapalana government laid the foundation stone without any estimation and tender. After our government came into power, under the President’s Vistas of Splendour and Prosperity manifesto’s 100,000 bridges programme, we estimated and called for tenders to build a part of this bridge,” Fernando told parliament on Tuesday.

“In fact, we had given an alternative road, But that road was 3 kilometers long and people were not willing to use it. Then, the ferry service was started by the (Kinniya) urban council.

He said one council is controlled by Sri Lanka’s main opposition the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and another one is controlled by the opposition Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

“I consider this a murder. Don’t point fingers at politics on this. I have asked the police to take appropriate action,” Fernando said.

SJB MP Nalin Bandara said his party does not have control over any council in Kinniya, to which Fernando replied that if it was not the SJB, then it was the United National Party (UNP), which the SJB had broken away from after the 2019 presidential election defeat.

Repeated foundation stones

Foundation stones have been laid more than five times for the renovation of the Kinniya-Kurinchakerni bridge, which was originally built in 1977. It was the main route of transport for over 10,000 people whose families lived in the Kinniya Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) and Kinniya Urban Council (UC) limits on the two sides of the lagoon.

Since the bridge has been under construction for more than seven months, the UC chairman had approved the latest ferry service on October 28 with three key conditions including ensuring the safety of passengers, the approval document showed. However, residents complained that there was no compliance.

On Tuesday morning, the ferry – made of long planks of woods across three dinghy boats laden with motors and some plastic barrels – capsised as one of the two side dinghy boats went off balance. Most of the passengers slipped to the sinking side of the ferry.

“It then sank and unfortunately most of the passengers got trapped below the ferry and could not be saved within the first 30 minutes,” A H Akram (48), a witness of the tragedy, told EconomyNext.

“It was too late to rescue some of them.”

Of the four children who drowned, two girls were from the same family and the other two drowned along with their mother. The sixth victim was a 70-year-old man.

Residents told EconomyNext that people were compelled to go on the ferry as it was the shortest and cheapest mode of transport for thousands who wanted to cross to the Kinniya UC area.

“If we take the alternative road to cross the lagoon, we need to travel 5 kilometres, and there is no public transport. You need to either take a three-wheeler or use your own vehicle,” a Kinniya PS resident told EconomyNext.

Another resident said he had to pay 3,000 rupees a month for moving his child across the lagoon via the alternative road since the bridge was closed for renovation. He had paid only 800 rupees when the three-wheeler used the dilapidated bridge before its closure.

“Low income families had no choice other than using a ferry to cross the lagoon,” the second resident said.

It takes only 10 minutes to cross the 150-meter breath of the lagoon, and most school children use it because the more developed schools are located in the Kinniya UC area. The depth of the lagoon where the ferry capsized was nearly 3 meters, residents said.

Clash after tragedy

Residents reacted angrily and aggressively. Groups of people attacked the residence of M S Thowfeek, a legislator who was elected under the opposition SJB ticket, but backed the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) when the 20th constitutional amendment was passed.

They smashed the metal gate, broke it, entered the premises and pelted the legislator’s house with rocks, CCTV footage showed.

The mob was furious that Thowfeek, who is now with the government, did not help to have an alternative route constructed that suited their needs. A rumour that it was the legislator who had started the unsafe ferry service only fanned the flames.

Kinniya residents said Thowfeek started a ferry service in April with no approval. However, this ferry operates in an area with a depth of less than one metre.

Thowfeek was not immediately available for comment.

The spontaneous outburst, some of the residents explained, was due to difficulties they had been undergoing for the past few months since the dilapidated bridge was closed for renovation.

On Wednesday, State Minister Lanza reiterated his claim that the opposition was to blame.

“The Kinniya PS requested permission from the RDA to operate a ferry. We told them very clearly not to go for a ferry and that we would not allow it. The UC also asked for permission and we clearly told them too that there is no permission for a ferry and told them to use alternate routes,” Lanza told parliament.

“It was under this condition that the Kinniya UC, using power it does not have, gave approval for a ferry service to transport people and earn money.”

“There was no mention of safety measures to be followed in that approval letter. Not even a life jacket was mentioned. The Kinniya UC, especially the chairman, is clearly responsible for this tragedy as we never gave them the approval.”

He said the RDA was given approval to start a ferry service on July 14 and Kinniya UC had no right to start a ferry service.

Lanza also claimed that KInniya UC Chairman S H M Naleem was a cousin of opposition MP Imran Mahroof while the person who operated the ferry service was a close ally of Mahroof as well.

“This is a business venture approved by the Kinniya UC chairman by force.”

The ferry owner, operator, and a labourer have been arrested over the incident.

Naleem, Kinniya UC chairman, however, said his approval document has specifically mentioned safety measures.

The approval letter in Tail, seen by EconomyNext, showed that ensuring all necessary safety measures, free service for school children, and frequent checking of the ferry’s stability had been included as key conditions.

“When they discussed the bridge renovation, we requested a shorter by road or a free of charge ferry service or public transport as an alternative when the bridge would be under construction. But nothing was granted by the government,” Naleem told EconomyNext.

“Residents know what is the truth and that is why my house was not attacked when people reacted angrily. But after the initial reaction, now some people who are eagerly waiting for provincial council polls are manipulating facts and trying to attack me for something I did with sincerity for the people.” (Colombo/Nov25/2021)

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