Waiting for another tragedy?

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While developed countries simply encourage and pave the way for their schoolchildren to dream about landing on Mars, Sri Lanka has a considerable number of children who wake up every morning with a dream of reaching their schools safely. On an unfortunate morning in November 2021, in Kinniya, five children who got on to a ferry to reach their school, which is located on the other side of the Kurunjankeni Lagoon, drowned with all their dreams unrealised.

Last year, the Kurunjankeni Lagoon ferry accident took the lives of five primary grade schoolchildren and three adults, leaving a whole country in anguish. 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 who 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.

This accident was the result of years of negligence by the authorities responsible for ensuring a safe passage across the Kurunjankeni Lagoon. Despite allocating funds to build a bridge, it did not get off ground, making the residents in the area to seek the services of ferries to cross the lagoon. The majority of those who have to cross the lagoon on a daily basis are schoolchildren and teachers.

It took the sacrifice of eight lives to get the attention of the authorities on the plight of Kinniya residents, and for them to finally realise the urgency of either building a bridge across the Kurunjankeni Lagoon or establishing a safe ferry service.

Addressing the media on 26 November 2021, along with former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Media Spokesman, Kingsley Rathnayaka and Road Development Authority Director-General Sardha Weerakoon, Highways Ministry Secretary R.W.R. Pemasiri said the incident where a ferry capsized in the Kurunjankeni Lagoon in Kinniya, Trincomalee, killing six people, including schoolchildren, was a matter of great concern and even though it did not come under the purview of the RDA, steps will be taken to construct the Kurunjankeni Bridge within nine months, on the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

According to this promise, the Kurunjankeni Bridge should have been completed by August 2022. By then, at least the authorities could have taken steps to commence a safe ferry service until their promise to build the bridge was fulfilled. But, along with the two million rupees that was allocated, it appears that the ferry service has been totally forgotten by the authorities. Instead, what they have done was to cancel the temporary ferry service that was provided by the Navy after just four months.

However, whenever inquired, the authorities kept on passing the ball from one court to the other, saying it is outside their purview.

A year ago, at the time of the accident, area residents protested near the Kinniya Divisional Secretariat claiming that the construction of the bridge across the lagoon connecting Kinniya and Kurunjankulam is purposefully being delayed by the authorities. They said the ferry was being used to cross the lagoon instead of the existing bridge, as it was under construction.

Yet, 10 months later, the bridge is still being constructed, albeit at snail’s pace. Authorities still feign ignorance when prompted for answers as to what has caused the delay in completing the construction. They don’t even bother to come up with flimsy responses.

It is the bounden duty of the elected officials as well as public officials to ensure the safety of their citizens, which is their foremost task in governance. And yet, they repeatedly fail at this task. What option do they leave for the public but protest against them?

When the North-Eastern monsoon batters the Kinniya region this November and December, it will cause the water levels of Kurunjankeni Lagoon to rise, making the passage across quite perilous. The question that comes to mind at this time is whether the authorities are waiting for another tragedy to unfold before they take concrete steps in completing the bridge construction, or whether they will utter a few words of condolences and yet again disregard their bounden duty?