News

Kinniya UC Chair blames ‘politicised’ ferry services

BY Pamodi Waravita and Ruwani Fonseka

Amidst allegations that Kinniya Urban Council (UC) Chairman S.H.M. Naleem had authorised the operation of the unsafe ferry service on the Kuringankerni Lagoon in Kinniya Trincomalee, that ultimately led to six deaths this week in an accident that involved a makeshift barge capsizing, Naleem told The Morning that there were many different types of boats and makeshift barges operating in the Lagoon, on the basis of various political affiliations.

Naleem claimed that he had only authorised an “out boat service” with an affixed, standard motor to fulfil the public need, under several safety conditions.

“I issued a permit to one private operator to operate a motor boat service across the lagoon. The permit letter never mentions authorisation of other types of boats to operate across the lagoon. It also clearly states that safety standards must be followed, especially when transporting children. This is the same kind of service that is given to tourists. The boat that toppled over was a makeshift one. I don’t know whether it was also operated by the same private operator that I gave permission to. However, I assure you that the type of boat that toppled over was not the type of boat that I authorised. There are many makeshift barges and boats providing ferry services across the lagoon, operating on the basis of various political affiliations,” claimed Naleem.

Speaking to The Morning yesterday (24), Police Media Spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Nihal Thalduwa confirmed that the makeshift “boat” had been very haphazardly put together using two barrels and some wood.

“Investigations are being conducted into whether this boat had the authority to operate,” said SSP Thalduwa.

The ferry owner and two operators, who were arrested yesterday over the tragic incident and produced before the Trincomalee Magistrate’s Court, were remanded until 8 December.

Furthermore, Naleem said that during the initial meeting with the Road Development Authority (RDA), the Kinniya Divisional Secretariat, and the Kinniya Pradeshiya Sabha (PS), held before the construction of the bridge began, he had requested that public transport be arranged through the alternative route to fulfil the public need. “The alternative route is over 3 km long and since there is no public transport along that stretch, locals like to cross the lagoon as it is much faster and cheaper to do so. We also requested a ferry service from the RDA at the time,” he said.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Rural Roads and Other Infrastructure State Minister Nimal Lanza said that during the initial discussion, it was decided to not give permission for a proper ferry service to operate across the Lagoon. However, he added that there were repeated requests from the Kinniya UC and the Kinniya PS to operate a ferry service across the Lagoon. “The Kinniya UC and the Kinniya PS also repeatedly asked us to put a ferry service, which we rejected. However, three months ago, Samagi Jana Balawegeya (SJB) Trincomalee District Parliamentarian Imran Maharoof requested a ferry service from the RDA. We listened to that and we are currently trying to put a ferry service. I advised the relevant contractors on 14 July,” added Lanza.

He further accused the Opposition of trying to politicise the incident, and added that Maharoof and Naleem are related to each other.

“Our Government expresses our sympathy to those who died in the accident and a speedy recovery to the injured. The need for a bridge to cross the lagoon has been there for a long time. The locals have been using unsafe boats for a long time to cross the lagoon. During the former United National Front-led Government, a foundation stone was laid but the bridge was never built. SJB Trincomalee District MP M.S. Thowfeek, who supports us, asked for a bridge and in April 2021 I went to lay a foundation stone for one of the bridges (three bridges are needed there). In November 2020, we decided, and the RDA permitted, that the alternative route should be used. The Kinniya UC has no authority to permit a boat service across the lagoon and the Kinniya UC Chairman is especially responsible for this incident. The Chairman is related to Maharoof, and the authorised ferry service was operated by a man close to them – Riyaz. I request that disciplinary action be taken against the Kinniya UC Chairman and action be taken by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID),” said Lanza.

Meanwhile, officials at the RDA informed The Morning that the bridge is due to be constructed in three stages (three bridges, each spanning a length of approximately 16 metres). The first bridge’s construction began in April this year, but was severely affected by lockdowns imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, a bid was awarded, through a tender procurement process, for the construction of the third bridge last month.

Six people, including four schoolchildren, were reported dead after a ferry capsized in the Kuringankerni Lagoon in Kinniya, on 23 November, where 11 others sustained injuries and have been admitted to the Kinniya Hospital.

Following the incident, residents of the Kuringankerni area attacked the house of Thowfeek, severely damaging the house.

Multiple attempts by The Morning to contact Thowfeek proved futile.