The tragedy is a wake-up call for us to reconsider hillside development projects, even if they are for the benefit of the public, says the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4).
The tragic incident in Bukit Kukus, Paya Terubong, Penang, which has so far claimed nine lives, is something that could have been avoided.
This incident and others in the past, such as the one that claimed the lives of 11 people on 21 October 2017 in Tanjung Bungah, proves the incompetency of the local council and state authorities in monitoring hillside development in Penang.
From 2017 to 2018, there has been hundreds of landslides incidents reported in Penang. One such incident is at the Granito project site It has been one year since the Granito incident occurred in October 2017, but the state inquiry committee on the incident is yet to finalise its report into the investigation and no one has been held responsible thus far. The state must explain why it is taking so long to complete the investigations. It looks very bad on the state government. Justice delayed is justice denied.
C4 believes that such incidents could have been avoided if the local council had a proper mechanism in place to monitor and take action on issues related to non-compliance. Hillside development in Penang and its related problems have come to a serious level so much so we seem to be losing control over its effects.
C4 would like to raise the following questions and points regarding the Bukit Kukus tragedy:
1. Was there an environmental impact assessment study conducted on the 5km Paya Terubong bypass road. If so, was the risk of landslides raised in the report?
2. What mitigating actions were taken by the council and developers to address concerns of a landslide? Was the developer in any way trying to cut costs in the project by not carrying out certain mitigation work or using cheap quality material?
3. Zairil Khir Johari, the state executive council member responsible for works, utilities and flood mitigation, in a press meeting on 23 October 2018, made it clear that many irregularities had been found on inspection at Bukut Kukus on 8 October 2018, including the absence of geotextile sheets which are used to reinforce and protect cut slopes. C4 is shocked, that despite these irregularities, no immediate stop work order was issued. The lack of seriousness and improper action taken by the council has now caused the loss of at least nine lives.
4. Many of the victims in the landslide incident are undocumented foreign workers. This was why the authorities were unable to confirm how many victims are buried under the sand initially. It is a shame that the state government and council is working with a contractor that hires undocumented workers. The state government cannot claim ignorance on this. A proper mechanism should have been in place to ensure all workers working in a government project are documented and covered by medical insurance. The government should now conduct an investigation into all other government projects and check if the workers in those projects are documented and covered by insurance.
5. The employer is now denying that the dead victims were working for them. It seems that the employer is trying to avoid admitting that these workers were indeed theirs. The site is not a residential area but a work site. There is no reason for someone not working for the contractor to stay in such conditions at a work site. The dead victims found in the cabin were of many nationalities. The fact that those dead were from many countries and living at the site suggests that these were workers involved in the project. Criminal action should be taken on the contractor for hiring and harboring undocumented workers, if indeed this was the case. The labour department should also conduct an investigation if the rights of these workers were violated. The incident also raises the issue of living conditions for migrant workers. Why were these workers housed in such a dangerous location? The employer should be held responsible for this and the local council for failing to monitor safety issues at the site.
6. The state must respond to the claims made by disaster mitigation and land erosion management expert Prof Habibah Lateh from Universiti Sains Malaysia that the soil used at the construction was not suitable and friable. She also claimed that the type of rock which was found was said to be granite, which tends to crumble. There seems to be expert evidence here that points to bad decisions being made and cost- cutting measures implemented at the expense of risk and compliance. The project should be put on hold until these issues are addressed, or we might risk an even bigger disaster. What if the entire stretch were to collapsed after being open to the public? These claims should not be taken lightly. The contractor should be suspended and disallowed from carrying out any projects pending a complete investigation into the cause of the incident. Further action should be taken on the contractor if indeed these claims were found to be true.
7. In the light of multiple disasters hitting Penang the last few years, C4 calls upon the state government to put on hold and conduct an independent review of the Penang transport masterplan project, particularly the part where it involves hill drilling and blasting. This incident has proved that the council and state authorities are not competent and able to monitor or ensure that the project could be carried out without any incident or tragedy. If the state could not be trusted to ensure such a project of a smaller scale was incident-free, how would it ensure the safety of a mega project such as the transport masterplan, especially when many concerns including landslides the care of explosive materials, and the construction which is close to a dam and crosses fault lines have been raised. With the current council’s lack of competence, we urge that independent reviews of the Penang transport masterplan be done urgently. It would be a catastrophic disaster if the mega project is allowed to be carried out, without proper safeguards, reviews and studies. The Bukit Kukus incident affirms the consequences of bad management practices both by the council and contractor and lack of independent consultation. We should not allow this to be repeated in the Penang transport masterplan project.
8. There is no doubt that this incident proves a failure on the part of the council. Urgent action must be taken to address the incompetency of the local council. Civil society representatives, field experts and government agencies should be roped in to review existing procedures and laws to address the issues affecting the council. This review should cover various aspects from budget allocations, training of staff, level of expertise and the enforcement mechanism. We cannot allow our council to continue its operation based on the status quo. Drastic measures must be taken immediately.
The state should come clean on the tragedy and be transparent. There should be no cover up and those responsible, including contractors, council staff and engineering officials who failed to carry out their duties, should be held accountable. The state should also ensure proper compensation is awarded to the victims and their families, especially for those without documentation and insurance. These workers had died due to human failure and not Mother Nature.
With modern and great engineering capabilities in the world today, it is a shame that such incidents still occur.
The incident is also a wake-up call for us to reconsider hillside development projects, even if they are for the benefit of the public.
Justice must be served in this incident, and no stone must be left unturned.
Cynthia Gabriel is executive director and Sudhagaran Stanley northern region coordinator of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism.