It never rains but it pours! Floods have displaced thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of houses. Some bridges have given way and many roads are still under water. The flood level continues to rise in some areas aggravating the suffering of the victims. Eight districts have been badly hit. Wrath of weather gods seems to know no bounds. In the North, the military and the LTTE are girding up their loins for what is considered an imminent showdown. Skirmishes have already begun. People in the other parts of the country are living in fear of deadly bomb attacks. There seems to be no end in sight to the natural and man-made disasters!
It is against this backdrop that Christmas is celebrated today. Joy and sorrow, as is the way with life, exist cheek by jowl. After today`s celebrations comes tomorrow`s commemoration of those who perished in the Boxing Day tsunami, the worst ever natural disaster this country has experienced.
The much advertised tsunami recovery process has failed to achieve its lofty goal. The government claims more houses than needed have been built. But, strangely, many of the tsunami-displaced continue to languish in temporary shelters. Who has got those newly built houses? Most of the tsunami affected people in the Eastern Province are without houses. Statistics and political claims are hardly any substitutes for real houses for the displaced people whose lives are still far from rebuilt. The incidence of corruption involving the tsunami reconstruction is believed to be very high. Some do-gooders who undertook to build houses and got funds for that have disappeared. Unfortunately, some of them are from the very countries that were kind enough to rush relief here in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster.
Now, more houses will have to be built for the flood-affected people. Vast extents of agricultural land have been inundated and it will be months before the poor fully recover from the havoc wreaked by floods. That means more funds for rehabilitation and reconstruction, which will constitute a drain on the public purse.
The Catholic Bishops` Conference in Sri Lanka deserves plaudits for its inspiring Christmas message. It has said, `This year, we cannot celebrate Christmas with external pageantry and festivities as there are so many men, women and children who are suffering in the strife-stricken areas.`
But, the good Bishops` appeal has evidently fallen on stony deaf ears, if what is going on around us is any indication. There is a mad rush for shopping as if all the shops were going to be closed down after Dec. 31. Car parks at Colombo shopping malls are chock a block and sales brisk. Hives of dipsomaniacs could be seen clinging on to wayside squalid liquor outlets to replenish their stocks of spirit for the season, to hell with the basic needs of their families struggling to make ends meet. This kind of stupidity is not something surprising in a country notorious for `enjoying champagne on a toddy income` as one of our readers has pointed out in a letter.
The main tsunami commemoration ceremony is being held in the southern township of Matara, one of the worst affected places. The newly widened bridge across the River Nilwala is scheduled to be declared open tomorrow with pomp and ceremony. It is, no doubt, of immense benefit to the people but should a grand show be made of some improvement effected to an existing bridge? It is like, as a local saying goes, a girl having her kotahalu magula after her wedding ceremony! The traffic police could have opened the new addition to the bridge for public use with a simple religious ceremony without funds being wasted and inconvenience caused to the people due to the usual security purdah associated with VVIP visits. Why waste funds borrowed at exorbitant interest rates? The cost of the Mahaweli project, it is being argued, could have been drastically reduced and some more development projects implemented, if the then government had desisted from incurring massive expenditure on propaganda to gain political mileage and stealing public funds allocated for it.
The good Bishops` message is of relevance not only to Christians but also each and every Sri Lankan and its meaning will not be lost even after Christmas.
This is the time for austerity and not profligacy. Tsunami, floods and the conflict have rendered many of our fellow citizens homeless and thousands go to bed on empty stomachs daily.
`The Lord Jesus,` the Bishops have said,` by opting to come among us in the humble existence of his human birth directs our attention to those who are suffering, especially the children in refugee camps without even the security of a home and basic needs. If we forego all unnecessary expenditure for external celebrations, we can channel the fruit of such sacrifices for the well-being of children?`
These words of wisdom need to be heeded!