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Engineering ethics, Sampoor power and civilian trauma

Under the cover of war, the HSZ is being used as an illegal pretext to tamper with the area flouting accepted procedures that include parliamentary approval, environmental impact assessment, proper alienation of land and compensation. The Defence Ministry is far exceeding its authority and competence in shoving people around and making permanent changes to their lives and environment. A plan drawn up in 2004 designated the area for eco tourism, now arbitrarily thrown out by military fiat.
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by Dr. Rajan Hoole


(June 08, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When we passed out as engineers in the early 1970s, it had been impressed upon us that an engineer was not only a decision maker, but also fully responsible to the community at large for his actions. Those of us at Peradeniya were confident that our faculty gave us the best possible training in the world and we would do her proud in anywhere we served. At the Engineering Students’ Union we were able to discuss communally divisive issues, like language-wise standardisation, amicably. I remember many of my Sinhalese colleagues while agreeing that this was wrong, held that genuine social handicaps should be redressed. We had good reason to be proud as a group.

Bombed and shelled out

On installing a coal power plant on land from which the people of Sampoor were bombed and shelled out in August 2006, your journal quotes a CEB official evading the humanitarian issue by treating it a fait accompli - the Government declaring it a High Security Zone with the people’s access barred. This is a shoddy means of exonerating CEB engineers from complicity in a crime against humanity. A range of international covenants, statutes and advisories make this clear. Article 4 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights says ‘deportation or forcible transfer of population without grounds permitted under international law, in the form of forced displacement by expulsion or other coercive means from the area in which the persons concerned are lawfully present, constitutes a crime against humanity’.

Codes of ethics for engineers make their duty clear. The code of L’Ordre des ing‚nieurs du Qu‚bec (OIQ) puts it succinctly: “In all aspects of his work, the engineer must respect his obligations towards man and take into account the consequences of the performance of his work on the environment and on the life, health and property of every person.” The CEB’s discovery that that Sampoor is the most feasible spot for coal power was not based on any objective evaluation. Less than a month after capturing Sampoor, the Power and Energy Ministry simply announced that at the request of the Army and Navy commanders, the location of the power plant has been switched from China Bay, a predominantly Sinhalese area, to Sampoor (Daily Mirror 3 Oct.2006).

Illegal pretext

Under the cover of war, the HSZ is being used as an illegal pretext to tamper with the area flouting accepted procedures that include parliamentary approval, environmental impact assessment, proper alienation of land and compensation. The Defence Ministry is far exceeding its authority and competence in shoving people around and making permanent changes to their lives and environment. A plan drawn up in 2004 designated the area for eco tourism, now arbitrarily thrown out by military fiat.

In the case of the Norochcholai coal power plant, after the first feasibility study in 1997, the CEB had to go through a long phase of negotiation with the people concerned. In letters to the two presidential candidates on the eve of the 2005 presidential election, the CEB Engineers Union argued that the land had low fertility, only 73 families would be displaced and no more than 258 acres are required.

A compensation package was also discussed. Had instead the Government declared an HSZ in Norochcholai, would the CEB have regarded its obligation to the people and environment annulled?

In Sampoor 16 000 people were shelled out from a very fertile area, killing 350 persons, to grab 700 acres for a power plant. It was so simple. They were Tamils!
The authorities kept changing their story even as the people were chased by shelling. Soon after the capture of Sampoor in early September 2006, military spokesman Brigadier Samarasinghe indicating the people could return, said: ‘the threat posed by the LTTE to the Trincomalee harbour and the adjoining naval base was no more following the successful operation involving the three forces.’ The President affirmed that the Government took Sampoor ‘purely for the benefit of the people’. The present military spokesman Brigadier Nanayakkara now ascertains the civilians cannot be allowed back because the LTTE would infiltrate and threaten high security installations like Trincomalee Harbour and Prima Flour Mills!

Here we have in a nutshell the cyclic rationale for the development of Trincomalee: Plant some installation, push the Tamils out for security reasons, use the space for more installations, push remaining Tamils further for the same reason and so on. There are really no plans to defeat the LTTE, when it is so handy a pretext for decimating the Tamils and pushing them around for bogus security reasons. Bogus, because until 1996 the Army was in Sampoor and under Colonel Udayakumara, relations with civilians were good and the Army helped them to farm. The place was considered so unimportant that the Army vacated it.

Such were ‘development’ plans from the early 1980s, to implement which hundreds of Tamils were killed by the Army and scores of Tamil villages in Trincomalee laid waste. Engineers in the Mahaveli Authority became part of the scheme. Mahaveli System L was planted in ‘Weli Oya’ on murder and expulsion. This was also the time the LTTE began massacring Sinhalese civilians. Far from development, what resulted was a war that has lasted a generation and this Government cannot survive without it.

Human and engineering disaster

The Accelerated Mahaveli Project was a human and engineering disaster. The project billed for rupees 55 billion in the early 1980s, enflamed a war costing annually rupees 200 billion. Development of Trincomalee is a must, but not under the bloody legacy of today’s Unitary Sinhalese State. It should be done after a federal political settlement where the people affected are adequately consulted.

Engineers have a irrevocable obligation to the ‘public good’, which the Institution of Civil Engineers UK stipulates “encompasses care and respect for the environment, and for humanity’s cultural, historical and archaeological heritage, as well as the primary responsibility members have to protect the health and well being of present and future generations.” What is going on is a plan to obliterate the heritage of Tamils in and around Trincomalee. Engineers should not bring their profession into disrepute through complicity with, what at the core, amounts to creeping genocide.

( The writer is a Martin Ennals award winning rights activist, hated by both LTTE and government.)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

1 comment

Pragma said...

Engineers should not be held to or expected to carry out their duties as some super human beings. They too are subjected to the same political pressures that doctors, lawyers, university teachers etc. face. There are plenty of examples from all over the world where engineering recommendations are being passed over for what is more politically appropriate. It is the job of engineers to carry out technical analysis and recommend but elected leaders have to consider many other factors and come to a final decision. Dr. Hoole seems to be holding the engineers responsible for a political act. He needs to understand that engineers and other technocrats are not elected by the public. Their responsibility ends at their technical recommendation to the politicians.

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