Post-floods, The Long Wait For Compensation

2016 was an eventful year for Sri Lanka. Amidst the politics, celebrity deaths and world’s largest Christmas tree, Mother Nature also left an indelible mark on the people of this country who were scarred by the suffering they endured due to landslides and floods in May last year. Forced to escape the rising levels of water, many families in Colombo left their homes to be destroyed by the raging floods.

May 19, 2016: families were forced to leave their homes to escape the floods, only to return to homes that had been damaged, or in some cases destroyed. Image credit: Arunagirinathan

Seven months have elapsed since then, but the troubles of affected families have not ended. The government at the time promised compensation for all those who were affected, but many residents of flood-affected areas claim that thus far, they have received only an initial instalment of Rs.10,000.

For the last six months, Suminda Piyal, whose hotel in Kaduwela was inundated in eight feet of flood water, has been toiling day and night to get his workplace back in order. The refrigerators, stoves, cutlery and crockery, as well as many other items, were destroyed due to the floods. Piyal’s hotel is situated opposite the Kelani River, and so the flood water took more than five days to completely subside. He received the compensation of Rs.10,000 in August last year.

“I lost more than Rs. 500,000 worth of property due to the floods. What can I do with a mere Rs.10,000? I used it to paint the hotel,” he said.

Documents Damaged And Destroyed

Last October, the Grama Niladhari in Kaduwela had distributed forms which had to be filled in, in order for people to be eligible for the second instalment of compensation amounting to Rs. 15,000.

The situation is however prickled with sad irony: the Grama Niladhari’s office was also inundated due to floods; hence he had lost all the equipment and documents which were stashed in his office. Some of these documents included applications for issuance of National Identity Cards (NICs) and original copies of birth certificates. Suminda Piyal’s NIC application was also among these documents. He lost his wallet a year ago, and along with that, his identity card. He finally got around to applying for a new NIC last May, but his application was among those lost at the Grama Niladhari’s office during the floods.

“I managed to fill in the first form pertaining to the first instalment of compensation without my ID number. When I applied for the second instalment, this turned out to be a problem. There are some of us who lost our NICs in the floods. Most people do not remember their NIC numbers. We have expressed our concern to the Grama Niladhari,” Piyal lamented.

The Grama Niladhari, who requested not to be named, also expressed frustration, adding that he has informed the District Secretariat about this issue. So far, no steps have been taken to redress this problem, he said, adding that the people in the area have accused him of being lethargic and inconsiderate.

“What am I supposed to do? People find it so hard to fill in these forms. Now they have a technical problem to deal with. I am not the only Grama Niladhari who has this problem. It has been almost seven months since the floods, and some of our offices are still not functioning,” he said.

Losing Hope

T.B. Sumithra had to borrow money to rebuild his kiosk, which was severely damaged by the floods. Image courtesy writer

Four and a half kilometres away from Kaduwela, T.B. Sumithra sits in his roadside kiosk-hotel in Kotuwilla. His kiosk is located on the bank of Kelani river. Walking around the kiosk, he points to the line which indicated the water level during the floods; it was six feet high. Sumithra says he has lost faith in the government. He has no intention of filling up the form for the second instalment of compensation. He had borrowed money from his relatives to rebuild his kiosk. Rs. 15,000 is only a meagre portion of the Rs. 300,000 needed to restore the kiosk to its former state, he says.

“The form for the second instalment also requires the same information that the first form did. Why do we have to fill in another form? How can we measure the loss? Each spoon, each fork and knife must be accounted for. This is very difficult,” he said.

On the other hand, families whose houses were affected along the Avissawella Road, Wellampitiya, say that they have not even received a form which would enable them to receive the second instalment of compensation. A.M. Sithy lives in a single room shack. When the flood water was seeping into her home, she solicited her neighbours’ assistance to move her belongings to a higher level.

“All our dresses and mattresses were soaked, so we were left without clothes, she said. Regarding the compensation, she explained that the situation had become complicated, because those who were not affected by the floods also demanded compensation. “Our Grama Niladhari didn’t have a mechanism to monitor who was affected and who was not,” she said.

Medical Bills And Livelihood Struggles

Sithy’s neighbour, Geethika, had the similar complaints. Her electronic items, including a refrigerator, TV, and washing machine, were destroyed due to the floods. A mother of young children, her foremost concern was not the loss of her belongings and her partially destroyed house, but the health of her children, who were exposed to toxic flood water which flowed through the Meethotamulla garbage dump.

Geethika: “We spent a lot of money on medical bills.” Image courtesy writer

She recalls, “The water was so toxic, my children were often falling sick. The water was infested with bacteria, and my child who was exposed to it suffered a severe rash. We spent a lot of money on medical bills. I don’t think the government will compensate that. However, if they even bother to compensate for the material loss, we will be happy,” she said.

Meanwhile, D.M. Siddiq, who runs a grocery store in Wellampitiya, claimed that he is not reliant on the government for compensation. Other businessmen who spoke to Roar had their hopes pinned on receiving government compensation, but Siddiq said he did not feel the same way.

“I will not make that mistake. My grocery store is my livelihood. It is how I feed my family. I suffered a loss worth more than Rs. 325,000. Why is the government treating this as a joke? They took so long to provide us with the Rs.10,000. The next instalment will definitely be delayed. We bought the deep freezers and refrigerators spending more than Rs.300,000. Will the government ever reimburse all of that? I don’t think so. So many months have lapsed since the floods. The delays in the payment of compensation makes us doubtful as to whether it will ever be paid,” he said.

Authorities Respond

Roar took up the matter of delayed compensation with the District Secretary of Colombo, Sunil Kannangara, who conceded that there had been delays and added that the role of the District Secretariat was only to assist the National Insurance Trust Fund (NITF), the principal organisation responsible for dispensing compensation.

“However, we have given compensation to [people in] several areas in Kolonnawa. The accusation about the NICs is not true. If that was the case, how did they fill up the first form? They all received the initial Rs.10,000,” he said.

Delays And Logistical Problems

Siddiq: “The delays in the payment of compensation makes us doubtful as to whether it will ever be paid.” Image courtesy writer

Kannangara did, however, concede that there were logistical issues, which were the reasons for delay. It was partly due to these issues that last October, Minister for Disaster Management, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, made a proposal to the cabinet of Ministers seeking approval to obtain the services of 30 retired trained Technical Officers at the Divisional Secretariat level for a period of three months, in order to assess the damages caused by the explosion at the Salawa Army Camp, the landslides that occurred due to the heavy rains that fell in the Kegalle District, and the floods that occurred in May 2016. This move was supposed to help expedite the payment of compensation to the people whose homes and properties were damaged as a result of the disasters.

The Tricky Business Of Damage Assessment

Roar also spoke to Chairman of the NITF, Manjula de Silva, who promised that most of the flood victims will be compensated by the end of this month, and the rest by February. He explained that damage assessment had to be completed before the next instalment went out.

“We paid an advance of Rs. 10,000 to the affected parties. A little over 70,000 households have received this payment. We are now at the next stage, where detailed assessments are being done house to house to determine the actual damage,” he said, adding that “this is being done by the divisional secretariats, by their respective technical officers. They visit each house and estimate the losses using a recommended process. We are now beginning to get the claims. It took some time for this process to materialise. After all, it was a massive exercise involving so many districts with about 60,000 to 70,000 affected houses to look into,” he said. tDe Silva also noted that the NITF has received 30,000 claims for compensation thus far. “We are now starting to process them. Within the next month, we will be able to settle most of this. There are more claims which are yet to come,” he said.

Regarding accusations that those who had not been affected by the disasters were also claiming compensation, de Silva explained that the NITF also faces the same problem. He said that the NITF is very much concerned about this debacle, and added that the screening process pertaining to this was ‘very tricky.’

“We are tackling this problem by sending technical officers to each house. The divisional secretariat has also appointed a committee who will thoroughly study the claim, and conduct verifications. These are transferred to the district secretariats, who will also assess these claims prior to sending it to the ministry of Disaster Management, which will, in turn, transfer it to the NITF after their assessment,” he said.

De Silva also explained that the NITF has its own process in screening the claims, and noted that it was not practical to perform a detailed check as it will cause more delay.

“Wherever we feel that a claim is exaggerated or appears to be falsified, then the NITF will thoroughly assess it to validate the claim. This is another reason as to why it is taking such a long time to conclude the compensation process,” he explained.

He further noted that flood victims are covered for damages amounting to up to Rs. 2.5 million, which is the cap for each household as well as small business enterprises that have a turnover of less than Rs.10 million per year. Anyone with a turnover of more than Rs.10 million is assumed to be able to afford their own insurance cover, and are therefore not considered under this scheme.

Claims To Be Settled By Next Month

De Silva added that all claims will not be settled completely in January; however, the claims that the NITF received up to now will be settled by the end of this month, he said. He further noted that the smaller claims that amount to Rs. 50,000 will be paid in full, and that the relatively larger claims of more than Rs.100,000 will be paid in instalments.

“This is to make sure that the money is used for the purpose of repairing and reconstructing their houses. We will be able to settle the 30,000 claims [thus far received by the NITF] by January, but there are more than 25,000 claims which we have not yet received. Settling these will take a while. We are hoping to complete the entire process by the end of February,” he said.

A common complaint of the flood affected was that some of them were not aware as to how to assess their loss. Some of the flood affected, like Sumithra, had also used their personal funds to rebuild their homes and businesses. A few of them have been accused of falsifying their claims by their respective Grama Niladharis, although they say they were genuinely affected.

Commenting on this issue, de Silva said, “The Grama Niladhari in each area did a preliminary assessment during the immediate aftermath of the floods. When the claims were submitted for the initial advances, this preliminary assessment was utilised. However, the technical officers are now looking into the matter. They will have to use their judgment to determine the genuine claims from the falsified ones. We will not hold it against the residents if they have taken steps to rebuild their houses. If there was enough evidence to prove that the damage actually occurred, that will be sufficient. The NITF completely understands that these people do not have alternative lodgings and that they cannot live in squalid and flood-affected houses, and were compelled to rebuild and repainted their houses using personal funds,” he said.

A new year has already dawned, and the month of January will soon run its course. The people of Kolonnawa, Wellampitiya and other affected regions have long since started picking up the pieces, trying to restore their lives to their former state, bereft of faith in the government, which has delayed compensation for so long. The latter’s saving grace would now be to expedite compensation and conclude all settlements by the end of February, as promised.

Featured image: May, 2016: A man makes repairs to a flood-affected dwelling in Kerawalapitiya. Image credit: Arunagirinathan

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