Lessons from Kinniya | Sunday Observer

Lessons from Kinniya

28 November, 2021

The most horrendous aspect of the tragedy in Kinniya is that it could have been easily prevented in one of two ways. A bridge would have been the best option. It is incomprehensible that a foundation stone has been laid for a bridge across this lagoon way back in 2017 but no one in political authority had bothered to take it forward with the same enthusiasm displayed for building roads and bridges in the main cities. Politicians in remote areas are known to promise the earth to their poor constituents at election time, never to be seen again until the next election 4-5 years later, when they effortlessly repeat the same lies.

This is probably what happened to the proposed bridge in Kinniya. Once the foundation stone ceremony under the glare of TV lights was over, they promptly forgot about actually building it. This story has been repeated numerous times all over the country, as proved by half-built roads, culverts, bridges and buildings. In the end, the rural folk suffer immensely due to the total lack of commitment by area politicians to address their woes. It is also well known that many local politicians are in cahoots with contractors who do a half-baked job, so that they can get the contract again ostensibly for ‘renovations’.

The other option in this case would have been a safe ferry, instead of the rickety contraption that passed for a ferry in Kinniya. It seems that the ferry in question was unauthorised or at least operated on the sly with the tacit approval of certain corrupt officials and politicians in the area. Instead, tenders could have been called by the Kinniya UC from reputed companies and even Government institutions such as the Sri Lanka Navy for a proper ferry operation. The failure to pursue such a prudent course of action resulted in the deaths of six innocents.

There are two major flashpoints in local ferry operations – overloading and the lack of safety devices. There is ample evidence that the ill-fated Kinniya ferry was overloaded by the operators. This is also frequently seen in the ferry operations in the Northern islands. Even a slight imperfection in load balancing can topple over a boat. The Police or some local authority must supervise the loading of ferries – some of which carry vehicles and goods in addition to the foot passengers – to ensure that the load is well within the boat’s specified weight capacity.

There is also no sign that any of the victims of the Kinniya ferry disaster were wearing life jackets, which should have been mandatory in Sri Lanka by now, after so many tragedies of this nature. Despite repeated appeals by authorities, only a few ferries and boats supply life jackets to their passengers. Even the few ferries that have them do not encourage the customers to wear them. After all, like life belts in cars, life jackets in boats do save lives.

There is also no indication that the Kinniya ferry had any floatation devices or ropes on board, which would have helped save at least a few more lives. These must be made mandatory for all water craft carrying paying passengers. In fact, the use of life jackets can save hundreds of lives each year, if one counts the number of people who drown while bathing in the sea and inland waterways. Many countries have tough life jacket laws and regulations and it is time that similar legislation is introduced here for both commercial and leisure water craft and even for casual waterway users. That is the only way to prevent the loss of precious lives in our waterways.

This is an eye opener for the Local Government and Provincial Council authorities to identify where unsafe ferries are deployed in the sea, tanks, lagoons and rivers countrywide. There are places where bridges cannot possibly be built (such as between the Jaffna islands), making the ferry the only option. In these instances, the authorities should inspect the ferries thoroughly for their adherence to safety protocols including life jacket use. If they fall short, the ferries or operators should be replaced. Concessions can also be granted for the purchase of boats and ferries from reputed ship builders in Sri Lanka, which will generate local employment as an added benefit.

In other places where bridges can be built, that should be expedited. There could be other instances like Kinniya where the construction of bridges has been abandoned halfway. These should be identified pronto. Moreover, there are many old and unstable bridges in rural areas that need to be replaced. These too are accidents waiting to happen. In some places, there are makeshift wooden bridges or even a simple tree trunk across a waterway – called the Edanda in local parlance – that are veritable death traps. These too should be replaced with proper concrete and steel bridges.

On the whole, more attention should be paid to the transport infrastructure in the country’s remote hinterlands. Television news bulletins often show dilapidated roads in remote villages where no vehicles can ply on. Some villages have no access roads at all and even critically ill patients have to be taken on foot to the nearest proper road, which is usually several kilometres away, to hail a passing three wheeler. There is nothing wrong in building bridges and flyovers in the cities, but the same attention should be given to such facilities in the rural areas, where most of the population lives. That will spur development in these areas and above all, help save precious lives.