The severe shortage of columbariums which meet legal requirements is a problem that requires urgent action. The measures adopted by the government do not go far enough. Officials are moving slowly when they should be acting decisively and swiftly. Rules are weak and poorly enforced and proposed laws remain at a rudimentary stage. With a second public consultation to be held at a yet-to-be-announced date, years could pass before there is an end to the uncertainty. The provision of last resting places is too important a matter to be overlooked.
The 'not-in-my-backyard' syndrome is in part to blame. Residents do not want to live near places where urns containing the ashes of the dead are stored. That has held up government plans to build public niches, opening up the private sector, a sizeable part of which is doing business illegally. With Hong Kong having just 190,000 existing or planned public niches to meet an expected demand of more than 490,000 over the next decade, business, legal and otherwise, is booming.
There is big money to be made - HK$200,000 and more per niche is being asked for by some operators. All manner of deals are on offer. The government in December went a small way to clarifying the situation, issuing two lists, one of legal operators and the other of those suspected of breaching planning rules and land leases or of being unlicensed. Nonetheless, confusion reigned last week during the Ching Ming Festival, with doubts aplenty about which to trust.
The government is well aware of the shortcomings. In outlining what a law should include, officials told lawmakers last week that operators seeking licences should provide standard contracts with clearly stated terms and conditions. That should go without saying and should be a matter of urgency, yet there is more public discussion in the offing. With 57 columbariums having been branded illegal, yet 21 of them still openly operating, this is not acceptable. Meaningful regulation has to be put in place as soon as is sensibly possible.