Broken promises, broken lives…

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On 23 November 2021, a ferry carrying at least 25 people, including children, toppled drowning eight including five beautiful children who were going back to school after months of lockdown. When Ceylon Today visited Kurunjankeni Lagoon, we passed a muddy and slippery site; an old bridge, collapsed and half submerged in water.

A 30-year-old mother, her six-year-old son, a three-and-a-half-year-old child, two sisters and a 70-year-old man drowned in the incident. The rest of the passengers included five girls, six boys, four women and four men survived. Out of them, 12 persons were hospitalised. Later, a six-year-old child died on 28 November and a 43-year-old woman joined the unfortunate on 4 December, while receiving treatment.

After nearly a year since the tragedy, the Kurunjankeni Lagoon, which claimed the eight lives, looks bleak, deep and stagnant, much like the promises to build a new bridge.

When the unfortunate incident took place it was reported that then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa even advised the Road Development Authority (RDA) to build the Kurunjankeni Bridge in nine months. The Navy has been running a temporary ferry service since 25 November 2021 and Army officials who visited the site promised a makeshift bridge for the locals till the actual bridge is completed.

Abandoned project?

According to the promises of the previous Government, the Kurunjankeni Bridge should have been completed by August 2022, but when Ceylon Today asked the local authorities who claimed that the Government should have started working on it right after the incident to finish the bridge by August 2022 deadline.

The current Divisional Secretary of Kinniya, Mohommad Kani noted that the funds to build the Kurunjankeni Bridge were passed through the RDA, and that the Divisional Secretariat was only informed of the project and funds that comes through the Provincial Secretariat. But since they were handled from higher authorities they haven’t been informed about the particulars of the project.

“I joined in March 2022. By the time I arrived, the ferry service provided by the Navy had also stopped, and I saw people using the makeshift bridge despite warnings put up by the RDA and the Urban Council. The bridge did not submerge since there wasn’t heavy rainfall in this area since last year. But after the heavy monsoon rains, half of the old bridge went down and it was unusable. When we inquired from the higher authorities and the RDA they noted that constructions haven’t commenced due to lack of funds. They only cleared a small part and added a few pillars. It is pretty much still under construction and dangerous to use,” he added.

He further noted that they held a meeting along with the RDA and informed locals that the bridge is dangerous to use.

“Due to the fuel crisis and the cost of living, people can’t afford to take the long path through three-wheelers and wait for the bus that was especially given by the RDA as a temporary measure. They have no choice, but to use the bridge as a shortcut, while risking their lives,” noted Kani.

Urban Council Chairman Mohommed Mustafa Niwas noted that constructions never started due to the lack of funds to purchase raw materials. He also confirmed the Divisional Secretary’s explanation. He further added that the Navy’s temporary ferry service was halted four months after the accident. 

The ferry service

When Ceylon Today asked the locals on a previous occasion, they said the ferry services were substandard.  According to reports, Chairman of the Kinniya Urban Council S.H.M. Naleem had issued a permit to an individual named M.A.M. Riyaz to transport people across the lagoon. The permit has been issued under conditions of providing safe transit, transporting school children free of charge and assessing the ferry’s condition from time to time.

Meanwhile, MP M.S. Thowfeek said, work began on 10 April 2021 and the bridge was closed to the public on the request of the constructors. Since construction was taking too long, the public asked for a ferry service as an alternative mode of crossing the lagoon. 

“At first, the ferry service was run by an individual named Akram. So, I spoke to Nimal Lansa and requested for a free ferry service from the RDA and other relevant Government institutions and Rs 2 million was allocated to the ferry service through the RDA. Initially it was supposed to be launched in two to three weeks. Due to lockdowns, curfews and office closure, construction activities and the launch of the ferry service were delayed by months. Amidst all of these, the then UC Chairman gave approval to Riyaz to continue the ferry service. The Chairman hadn’t consulted any engineer about the ferry’s capacity or informed the council regarding the approval,” he added.

Locals say that Riyaz’s ferry drew many passengers since it had an automated motor. In the meantime, they noted that he didn’t charge schoolchildren and that the place he docked the ferry was closer to the school. “Many kids and teachers used his ferry,” they said.  

Bureaucratic bungling 

When Ceylon Today visited Kurunjankeni Lagoon soon after the accident in 2021, we met the project manager’s driver at the worksite who revealed that the bridge’s construction was initially stopped due to wrong estimates taken by the constructors. 

“There was filling work going on though there was a delay at the worksite. First they estimated a depth of 27 metres, but halfway they found out that it was 37 metres, then the amount of materials needed had to be adjusted and there were some delays,” added Azeez.

These shortcomings which led to the unfortunate incident not only took innocent lives, but also shattered those who lost their loved ones. Six children, who had dreams of becoming worthy citizens of this country, sank to the bottom of the lagoon, thanks to the errors of responsible authorities and stakeholders.

The authorities arrested the ones responsible and are seeking to compensate the families who lost their loved ones. But, the real compensation they can receive could have been a safer and systematic ferry service or a safer bridge. Almost all the parents who lost their children in the tragedy had the same thing to say, “We want the Government to at least consider this as a wakeup call, so, no more lives are wasted this way”.

In this case, it is clear that delays by the Good Governance Government to implement a standard ferry service by releasing funds of Rs 2 million led to the loss of 10 lives. We don’t know how many more lives would be lost to the deep waters of the Kurunjankeni Lagoon due to the previous Government’s inability to keep promises and the present Government’s bankruptcy.

(Pix by Kinniya Correspondent A.R.M. Rifas)

By Nabiya Vaffoor