Apr 26

Senior Engineers of the Irrigation Department have made recommendations over many decades to limit the damage caused to life, property and crops by floods occurring over the more vulnerable areas of the Island.  Most recently, retired Senior Deputy Director Eng Anton Nanayakkara has written to the Press (SUNDAY TIMES of 2 January 2011) on the subject of flooding in Colombo.  He has pointed out that the excavation of “lakes” to retain flood waters would be a “national crime” as these would not be a viable solution for the minimisation of the inundation of low-lying lands in the Colombo region.  His views, and those of his predecessors on similar lines, have fallen on deaf ears because it is only short-gestation-period projects (such as the construction of the proposed lakes that could be fitted into the 5-year period between Parliamentary elections) which are attractive to Ministers and MPs alike.  Politicians look for quick rewards – of various kinds – and one or more of them seem to have latched on, after the last floods in the Colombo area, to the profitable idea of excavating several lakes, ostensibly to hold back some of the runoff which would otherwise build up into floods.

Apart from stating bluntly that these lakes will not help control the floods expected, Eng Nanayakkara has also decried the damage that would be caused to the existing landscape and vegetation by carrying out these “wasteful experiments”.

In the interests of members of the public who do not have a close acquaintance with this subject, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) sets out below, in simple layman’s language, the basic technical aspects of the construction of lakes for flood retention as there is a dire need to dampen the excessive expectations placed in these lakes by those who claim that such lakes will help to mitigate the high flood flows which affect some localities badly during heavy thunderstorms.

Almost every adult member of the public and even most children in their teens are aware that storms occur frequently during certain seasons of the year.  Although the first storm of the rainy season could sometimes turn out be the worse than the ones that follow, the more general pattern is that some rainfall would be experienced over a number of days or a few weeks before the heaviest storms of the season occur.  Where the soil is sandy or gravelly, the smaller rainfalls which precede the heavier storms would percolate fairly easily through the soil towards the nearest drainage channels, streams, rivers, lakes or the sea without raising ground water levels greatly or leaving an excess for surface runoff.  However, in certain soils, especially those which one encounters in the lower reaches of valleys or other low-lying lands, the soil contains high proportions of clay, silt and decayed organic matter, all three of which tend to slow down the percolation of water, thus causing the water table to rise.  Whereas the steepness of the topography at higher elevations facilitates the rapid outflow of surface water, leaving little room for flooding, a rapid build-up of water levels will be experienced in the bottoms of valleys and in low-lying land.  Hence, one may expect that, after a few days of even moderate rainfall, the levels of water in any flood retention lakes and the ground water in the surrounding areas will rise simultaneously, with the result that the flood-absorbing capacity (“live storage”) left in the lakes to deal with the storms to follow is going to be minimal and, of course, far less than during the dry season.

The functioning of these flood retention lakes is not at all comparable to the effect of a dam built across a waterway, where excess runoff and percolation from the surrounding soils can be stored for a relatively long period, well above the dry season ground water levels, thus allowing time for the rains to decrease in intensity until the stored water could be released slowly thereafter for power generation or irrigation during the succeeding drier season.  In short, if one were to excavate a lake during the dry season in low-lying land so as to act as a flood retention aid, one would only be fooling oneself because the early rains, coupled with the poor percolation characteristics in this type of situation, will result in a rapid loss of the available live storage capacity, which is essential to deal with big storm flows.

There is another point that also requires study.  What does one do with the fine soils which are removed to form the ponds?  If they are to be dumped at a higher elevation, one would have to sacrifice good high ground to save poor, low-lying land.  How does one safeguard the dumped soil from liquefying into a dangerous slurry during heavy rain and flowing back into the nearest low-lying area?  Growing grass, shrubs and trees on the surface will not always work because we know that areas of weak soils and landfills, even if covered by dense vegetation, are known to “landslide” in adverse weather conditions.

Did anybody carry out technically realistic calculations of the topography, precipitation, percolation, runoff, ground water levels, extreme storm runoffs etc and then compute the usable depths and areas of lakes required, and their probable live storage, not to mention the preparation of proper documentation and the calling of open, competitive tenders, before giving out the recent contracts?  The answer would undoubtedly be a “No”.

CIMOGG has, for several years, been trying to persuade government institutions, before they initiate any kind of project, to furnish the public with timely basic information on (a) the details of the problem or need for which a solution is being sought, (b) the nature of the investigations carried out to help formulate a plan to solve the problem or to meet the identified need, (c) a comparison of the effectiveness and costs of alternative proposals studied, (d) an estimate of the time required for implementation, and so on.  Whatever be the nature of the proposals put forward, there is every likelihood that there are well-experienced members of the public who would be qualified and want, as responsible citizens, to contribute to the further improvement of all basic proposals and, perhaps, even the abandonment of unworkable ones provided that the requisite information is made available to them.

Instead, what happens generally is that almost every scheme that involves the expenditure of large sums from the public purse is hatched surreptitiously and the relevant contracts awarded, through “professional” middlemen, to selected suppliers or contractors.  Various excuses are offered to justify the need for secrecy and the hurried finalisation of contracts, which are often not in the public interest.  CIMOGG continues to plead that politicians and bureaucrats keep foremost in their thoughts that they should be mindful of the fact that they hold positions requiring strong adherence to the doctrine of public trust, which means that they should not squander public funds and assets as they have been doing for the past four decades with inceasing impunity and a near-total lack of accountability.

Leaving aside any question of financial wrongdoing, about which CIMOGG has no specific information in relation to this latest civil engineering adventure, its position is that the construction of flood retention ponds was a matter that should have been put up for a thorough public discussion before implementation.  Meanwhile, further construction should be brought to a halt.

Apr 07

On behalf of myself and the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance, which we usually refer to as CIMOGG, I most earnestly thank all of you, both the speakers and the audience,   for having decided to sacrifice a valuable part of your leisure time to be present at this Book Launch.

The first few pages of this book, including the FOREWORD, contain most of what you are likely to want to know about CIMOGG.  Nevertheless, as you would not yet have had the time to go through even a page or two of the book, I shall take upon myself the duty of giving you a very concise summary of what CIMOGG is all about, so that you would be in a better position to appreciate the views which will be expounded by our speakers this evening.

CIMOGG came into being largely due to the vision and enthusiasm of Mr Elmore Perera, former Surveyor General and, at the time, a very active Attorney-at-Law.  Unfortunately, he has had to go to Kantale on an urgent legal matter and is, therefore, unable to be present with us this evening.  He was ably supported by Mr W.B.A.Jayasekera, Chemical Engineer and past-President of the Organisation of Professional Associations, as well as by  Mr A.D.N. Fernando, former Secretary – to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development.

As there was no organisation at that time in Sri Lanka which had, as its specific object, the fostering of good governance and the Rule of Law, these pioneers considered that it was time to form one.  About one hundred and fifty interested citizens, of a variety of backgrounds and wide experience, were invited by them in the year 2002 to the initial meeting which was called to discuss what could be done about promoting good governance and the Rule of Law, both of which provide the foundation for the proper functioning of a democratic society.

Those present at that meeting decided to form a voluntary, non-political, non-profit, civil society movement towards this objective – and CIMOGG was born.  I might add, in a lighter vein, that the pregnancy was short and that there was no switching of babies.

CIMOGG was formally incorporated under the Companies Act in the year 2004.

Over the years, we, of CIMOGG, have come to believe that it is only by making citizens aware of what is being done with the powers that the People have delegated to Parliament,

the President, and the Judiciary that any abuse of such powers could be identified and corrected.  Ideally, the misuse of the powers delegated by the People should be countered by all citizens, who should get together to apply non-violent pressure on those to whom they have delegated most of their powers.

The People must never forget, at any time, that THEY are the original owners of the Country’s sovereignty and that it is THEY who delegate their powers to Parliament,           the President and the Judiciary.  Whilst the tradition of respecting those who belong to Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary is quite in order, the People must never allow themselves to be deceived into forgetting who is the master and who are the ones who have voluntarily come forward to serve them.

In order, therefore, to make the People realise this basic truth, it is necessary to educate every citizen not to become servile and sycophantic to those who hold the fleeting reins of power.  It is CIMOGG’s aim, untainted by private agendas, to re-empower the ordinary citizens of Sri Lanka by providing them with unbiased information on all aspects of citizenship and whatever issues occupy the attention of the public at any given time.

Unfortunately, the resources available to CIMOGG are inadequate to do what is needed.

Indeed, it would be more close to the truth to say that CIMOGG has no resources at all worth talking about other than the dedication of the members of its Executive Committee

and the Advisory Council.  CIMOGG does not receive funding from any institutions or governments inside or outside the Country.  It has been functioning for the past nine years on the small subscriptions paid by its members and some generous ad hoc donations          from a few of these very same members.  It has no infrastructure facilities of its own          and relies entirely on the resources made available by some of its members to keep functioning.  The poverty of our physical resources acts as a powerful constraint on our effectiveness but we are determined to keep going against all odds.

From the time CIMOGG was formed, it was recognised  that the electoral system in this country is such that it is largely those with a lot of black money, the backing of the underworld, and a highly pliable conscience who could aspire to get into the seats of power. Based on this recognition, we spent almost two years developing the framework of a new electoral system that would help to put in public office only honest and dedicated persons, without recourse to black money and the support of the underworld.  Thus, they would be better able to represent the People, to be accountable to the People, and to whom the People could reliably delegate their legislative, executive and judicial powers.

The system we designed was based on the so-called “principle of subsidiarity” so as to restore to the People their lost sovereignty.  Adopting subsidiarity, the People’s powers were to be divided into five components.  The components apportioned to the respective Grama Niladhari Divisions, Pradeshiya Sabhas, District Councils and Provincial Councils would be removed from the control of the Central Government but the necessary funding would be constitutionally provided for from the revenues collected by the Central Government.  You will find more details of the framework for a new electoral system in some of the articles in the book that is being launched today.

In the year 2005, we made representations on these lines, in Parliament itself, before the Dinesh Goonewardene Committee.  To say that the reception to our proposal was not exactly warm would be no exaggeration.  We came away empty-handed.  We came to realise that our proposal was not given a welcome because its adoption would have required Parliament to give back to the People many of the powers, privileges and perquisites that Parliament had wrongfully misappropriated to itself, especially after 1972.

We then began to attack the problem of poor governance in a different way – namely,           by endeavouring to call to account the President of Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition before our highest Courts for failing to take meaningful steps to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which had been passed unanimously by Parliament in 2001 with a view to limiting to some extent the arbitrary exercise of the powers delegated by the People to their elected representatives.  Our position was that, despite the oaths taken by these important persons to obey and safeguard the Constitution, they were all party to its gross violation.

Discouragingly, our first attempt was stymied in the Court of Appeal which told us          that the President, who was the virtual First Respondent, was not required to be present because he was immune to action in the Courts during his term of office and, in any case, we had not produced the letters of appointment given by the President to create the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, and so on.  Although the whole Country knew that these spurious appointments HAD been made and that these functionaries were wielding executive power unconstitutionally, the Court insisted that we produce the original letters of appointment, which, obviously, we were not in a position to do.  We were also told that, in any event, if there were shortcomings in the law, which led to any form of injustice, it was up to the Legislature and not for the Courts to put right such shortcomings.

In a second attempt, this time in the Supreme Court, we challenged the constitutionality of the appointment of two judges to the Court of Appeal and two judges to the Supreme Court itself on the grounds that these appointments had been made unconstitutionally.  Leave to proceed was summarily refused, with no reasons given.  This was disappointing enough but, to our dismay, the Court directed the Attorney General to ascertain whether the Petitioners, CIMOGG’s then Honorary Secretary, former Army Commander General Gerry de Silva, and I, as the Co-Petitioner, should not be charged, ostensibly criminally, for wasting the time of the Court and abusing the process of law!  Eventually, the Supreme Court, on its own, decided not to pursue the matter.

Even while all this was going on, we started on a press campaign of gentle persuasion,          followed later by naming and shaming those who were violating their oaths of office.  We are greatly beholden to a few independent owners and editors of the English language press who have given generously of space in their journals in support of our efforts.  We have found, sadly though, that naming and shaming does not work in Sri Lanka because those who hold the reins of power in this misruled land do not know what the word Ashame@ means.

If we had had the necessary financial resources, without strings attached, we would have reached out directly, a long time ago, to people at the grass-roots of Sri Lankan society         to get their help to put concerted pressure on the People=s representatives to change their ways.  We would have communicated with the public directly in Sinhala and Tamil,

without relying solely on the goodwill, coverage and courage of the English language press alone, which, like the rest of the media, is, as we are all aware, under increasing threat.

It was in the belief that knowledge is power that we turned our attention to try to find a way to communicate directly with citizens at the grass roots of society.  How long this will take is anyone’s guess.  What we should like to say is that we cannot expect to see sixty years of poor governance corrected in year or two but are confident that, with unremitting perseverance, we and others like us will succeed eventually in making a positive impact.

In August 2006, we made a 17-page submission to the All Party Representatives Committee, or APRC for short, covering subjects such as subsidiarity, making minorities proud to be Sri Lankan, the power to recall ineffective or corrupt People=s representatives,

a comprehensive Bill of Rights, a less political way of appointing members to the Constitutional Council, a provision to include distinguished laymen in an expanded

Judicial Services Commission, a Right to Information Law, a clear Public Interest Litigation Act, simplifying the language problem, and so on.  Our submission and 700 other proposals submitted by the public were not even looked at by the APRC.

Considering that over twenty journalists have paid the supreme price over the past several years for trying to keep the public informed on various important issues, one cannot reasonably expect the media to continue to risk their lives, families and properties to the same extent as they did not very long ago.  We can only keep chipping away at the huge, tough barrier that separates us from democracy, good governance and the Rule of Law.

We must not give in to despair.

Finally, before the Chairman guides us into the next part of the programme, there is one particular favour that I should like to ask of each of you.  Everyone knows that newspaper articles are read quickly and usually forgotten just as quickly.  The papers themselves are soon trashed, sold or given away.  As a result, the issues raised in even the most carefully crafted articles tend to get forgotten rapidly because there is no handy way to refer to them again unless one happens to be particularly patient and adept at navigating the internet.

It was with these considerations in mind that CIMOGG was persuaded of the value of compiling in book form all or most of the articles published in its name.  Thereafter, in a deliberate exercise of bravado, without any costing whatever, it was decided that the selling price of the printed book would be Rs480/- in the bookshops and Rs400/- at the book launch.  It was also decided that, whatever the cost over-run, CIMOGG would finance the shortfall from donations collected from its own members.  As things have turned out,           each of these books that is sold in the shops will carry a hidden subsidy of well over Rs140/- without a single cent’s return for CIMOGG.  We were prepared for this and are not shedding any tears on that account.  All the same, what would cause us to weep bitterly         is, if those who buy this book, just keep it lying around, unread.  So, my respectful request to each one of you is that, if you buy a copy, please read it and then lend it to such persons as you think may find at least some of its contents of interest – and who will also not forget

to return your book!  If you would kindly do that, our investment in this book would not have been in vain.