Monday, January 10, 2005

The Disaster Management Centre of the Eastern University

We got back and after breakfast (the food in Batticaloa is different - Iddli and Thosai) , Mano takes us to the University at Chenkaladi which is north of Batticaloa. We head to the Agricultural Engineering Department workshop - Mano introduces us to Thividarshanan is a junior academic who had previously developed a sand filled filter to extract the hardness of the water around Batticaloa and so he helps setting up the Water Treatment plant, the leaks there are minor - Jayasundera has as usual been workmanlike in doing all the fittings - so we load up the unit in the van - Ravi drops by and he has helped arrange for water quality analysis with the Chemistry and Microbiology departments. Mano, "Thiviyan" and the rest of us went to the "Disaster Management Centre" of the University - which normally is the Nursing Unit located in Batti town.

The University is a major institution in Batti and the VC is also a key player along with the government agent and the Bishop. Ravi has to attend a meeting at 11 am with the INGO - the NGO establishments have not proliferated so that now there are new categories such as International NGO. They travel around in new 4-wheelers of the latest vintages.
These meetings between local officials and the INGO are dominated by the INGO who are more voluble compared with local officials. But the funds come through the INGO and they need to be supported, their work eased, their bottlenecks taken care of, responsbilities narrowly confined, arrangements made so that it helps them in such matters as to maximize travelling so as to disburse travel claims among their staff.

Thiviayan and Jayasundera set up the water treatment unit here and thereafter they organize the transport of water from the refugee camps. We meet two others - Kumuthini, a Senior Lecturer in Agriculture who recognises me from a Teaching Methods Course we had attended at the University of Peradeniya about 8 years ago and Sriskandarajah, the University Engineer, who was perhaps a few years behind me as an undergraduate in Engineering at Peradeniya.

They are all short-changed here - without both available vehicles or funds to purchase things quickly - Iqbal clears that bottleneck by providing $20. Later, they do the treatment with Alum and Chlorine and visually the murky water that came in from the camps had cleared up. Later they would do the laboratory tests for water quality before they distribute.

They must have been happy with this unit for after returning to Kandy, I see that they have put up information on their website.

The University had been allocated the task of information management in dealing with the emergency. There are rows of about a dozen chairs set up facing each other. Sitting on one side are University volunteers, on the other are the affected who had misssed being surveyed in the camps somehow. The volunteers fill out two printed survey forms that had been developed at EUSL and is about 30 or 40 questions long. There is no queue here. There are also informants from the GA's office who supply additional data here. There are Senior Lecturers upstairs taking care of processing the data.

Inside, there is a constant supply of tea - in one room and then in another room a communication center - essentially a room with a telephone and fax. In another room by the side, there is a computer room and its here that one of the Assistant Lecturers has been leading the development of the website He is marshalling the support of many of his collegues overseas in the site development. The University here like in other parts of Sri Lanka essentially prepares people for the outside - they all seem to leave - the problem is sharper in Batticaloa, contested territory, in a Civil War - the protagonists are sensible enough to give that war a backseat while people try to recover.

The limitations that they have (lack of transport, constant stoppages of vehicles by those with guns, the lack of resolution of minor problems, the lack of financial authority and access) all seem obscene against the crucial work they do here.