Burning issue

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am

Given Hong Kong's ageing population, the number of deaths in the city has put a lot of pressure on columbariums. Not only does the government face an uphill battle to create more facilities due to strong public resistance, it also has to regulate commercial operators to enhance consumer protection, and identify suitable sites to develop these facilities.

In July, the government released a paper to review its columbarium policy and collect public views. Consultation will end in less than two weeks and the Legislative Council panel on food safety and environmental hygiene will hold a special meeting with operators and concern groups on Monday.

The policy review wants to address a number of areas. First, to increase the supply of urn niches to meet public demand. Second, to change the public's mindset to accept a more environmentally friendly and sustainable means for handling cremated remains. It also wants to help people make informed choices and regulate commercial facilities.

The government has proposed 12 sites in seven districts to build more niches. But many residents and politicians oppose the plan, taking a 'not in my backyard' attitude; they say such facilities are an environmental concern because the burning of incense and paper offerings generates air pollution.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen criticised this selfish attitude, saying the community at large could not afford to ignore its social responsibilities. He urged all district council chairmen to help the government win support from residents.

He is right. We have to promote the concept that funeral and burial arrangements should be handled with sensitivity and dignity. The government should try to dispel the fear of death and superstitious thinking. Our densely populated city has very limited space for urn niches so those who are reluctant to accept the development of these facilities in their areas have not only failed to show tolerance and broadmindedness, they have failed to fulfil the obligation of filial piety. Another contentious point is the proliferation of unauthorised facilities, some of which may have breached the terms of government land lease.

A case in point is the dispute between a company and a group of monks and nuns on Lantau. The company, Hong Kong Yin Hing Monastery, which converted a temple into a columbarium, has been accused of selling urn places for profit without authorisation. The monks and nuns complained that the company had not only breached the land lease, it had also ruined the religious location of Luk Wu. The government must enforce the law and introduce a licensing regime to regulate privately managed facilities.

The drafting of the law is expected to take at least three years. To enhance consumer protection, the proposed licensing scheme will categorise companies into two lists, based on whether they meet land lease and planning regulations.

But this is confusing: while companies that satisfy the lease and planning requirements may fail to meet other criteria and not be granted a licence in the end, those in the other list may still be given a temporary exemption to continue operating.

According to the consultation paper, there will be a shortage of 280,000 urn spaces in the next decade. If the majority of existing facilities are given a temporary exemption to continue operation but are ruled illegal in the end, it would provoke massive public anger, and cause more damage to the government's reputation than did the Lehman Brothers minibond debacle.

The government needs new thinking and flexibility in handling this complicated issue. For example, it could borrow the concept of our agricultural land exchange entitlement to offer a mechanism for those niches placed with unauthorised operators to be transferred to licensed ones in future.

We shouldn't underestimate the significance of the columbarium issue. It affects every Hongkonger and we must handle this with sensitivity and care.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator