Kinniya UC Chairman arrested over ferry tragedy

  • Boat had permission letter for ferry service: Police
  • Unclear whether Kinniya UC Chair issued letter

BY Pamodi Waravita

Kinniya Urban Council (UC) Chairman S.H.M. Naleem was arrested yesterday (25) in relation to the boat tragedy that occurred at the Kuringankerni Lagoon in Kinniya, Trincomalee this week, although it is still unclear as to whether Naleem had given the letter of permission used by the boat owners to operate a ferry service.

Police Media Spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Nihal Thalduwa told The Morning yesterday that Naleem was arrested under the Penal Code. SSP Thalduwa confirmed that the boat that had toppled, leading to the accident, had had a letter of permission to operate a ferry service.

However, Naleem told The Morning on Wednesday (24) that he had only authorised an outboard service with an affixed, standard motor to fulfill the public’s need, under several safety conditions.

Naleem claimed: “I issued a permit to one private operator to do an outboard service with a motor, across the lagoon. The permit letter never mentions authorisation to other types of boats to operate across the lagoon. It also clearly states that safety standards must be followed, especially when transporting children, and that it is necessary to check on the boats from time to time. 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 I authorised. There are many makeshift barges and boats providing ferry services across the lagoon, operating on the basis of various political affiliations.”

Furthermore, Naleem said that during the initial meeting with the Road Development Authority (RDA), the Kinniya Divisional Secretariat (DS), and the Kinniya Pradeshiya Sabha (PS), before the construction of the bridge began, he had requested that public transport be arranged through the alternative route to fulfill 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.

Six people, including four schoolchildren, were reported dead after a ferry capsized in the Kuringankerni Lagoon in Kinniya, Trincomalee on 23 November, while 11 others sustained injuries and were admitted to the Kinniya Hospital. Following the incident, residents of the Kuringankerni area attacked the house of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Trincomalee District MP M.S. Thowfeek, severely damaging the house. Multiple attempts by The Morning to contact Thowfeek proved futile.

Meanwhile, SJB Parliamentarian Imran Maharoof said in Parliament yesterday that the allegations against Naleem are unfair, as Naleem’s letter, written in Tamil, authorises only a boat.

“SJB Trincomalee District MP M.S. Thowfeek also opened a boat service earlier this year. This was on his Facebook page. Anyway, whoever gives permission? Who is responsible for monitoring these services? If the Road Development Authority is doing the project, then who is supposed to monitor these services?” questioned Maharoof.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, State Minister of Rural Roads and Other Infrastructure 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. He added that there were repeated requests from the Kinniya UC and the Kinniya PS to operate a ferry service across the lagoon, following which a ferry service had been approved by the RDA. However, the RDA is yet to implement that service.

SSP Thalduwa confirmed that the makeshift boat had been very haphazardly put together using two barrels and some wood. The ferry owner and two operators were also arrested in relation to the incident on 24 November.

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 the 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.

Elsewhere, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has yesterday instructed the RDA to expedite the project and to finish the construction within nine months.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Navy Media Spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva told The Morning yesterday that the Navy has started operating one boat from yesterday for the transportation of schoolchildren, adding: “It has a capacity for 25 children and has five crew members, including two lifeguards. It will operate thrice a day,” said Capt. De Silva.

According to a press release by the Eastern Province Governor’s office, Governor Anuradha Yahampath, who had visited the area yesterday, has stated that a special team will be dispatched to investigate all ferry services that are operating in the province. The team will include police officers, navy officers, and engineers from the RDA.