With the tragic disaster Meethotamulla remaining the focus of public interest in the country, there are signs of it giving rise to new political developments that seek to hide the realities that caused this disaster, and prevent moving to a modern and scientific approach towards solving the garbage issue in the country.
The numbers killed in this calamity, 31 known so far and a figure certain to rise, the damage to people’s property, and the fact that all this took place on the fringe of the commercial capital Colombo, and bordering the political capital of Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, make this a situation easily manoeuvrable by those interested in using it for immediate political gains. The trend of politics that has prevailed in the country prior to this disaster, with oft repeated threats to overturn the government within two full moons, and the not so concealed differences between the two parties of the ruling coalition of unity governance, makes this a situation of strong political gunpowder that can be used by those waiting for an explosive situation, but so far lacking the substances for a good political explosion.
The immediate response of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to this situation gives a clue as to how it attempted to put all the blame for Meethotamulla on the present government. He saw in the tragedy the failure of the present government to carry on with his government’s plans to transport the Meethotamulla garbage to Puttalam. He tried to give the impression that this tragedy could have been avoided if the Puttalam plan was carried out. We also read that all too frequent voice of the JO, Udaya Gammanpila, say how the best solution was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s plan to take the garbage to Puttalam and use it to fill the abandoned limestone quarries there, due to cement production.
The fact is that the plan to dump the garbage at Puttalam district, in an area bordering the Wilpattu National Park, was abandoned due to adverse environmental impact. There were also major questions raised about the practicality of the garbage in special trains with 26 sealed containers in two trips a day. The Rajapaksa regime had also not paid sufficient attention to the damage this would cause to the wildlife in the Wilpattu National Park, which was stated by those who objected to it. They may have thought of letting the Wilpattu issue to be resolved the same way as the now questionable transport of one community to parts of the forest reserve, which has been stopped by a recent Gazette notification by the President, who is also Minister for the Environment.
The tragedy at Meethotamulla must certainly have given cause for worry to those who have of late been promoting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the next Rajapaksa leader of the SLFP, and the Sinhala majority, with their showing his leadership qualities by how he improved the image of Colombo, making it a more pleasant city with much of the construction work he did, while being Secretary, Ministry of Defence and also being in charge of the Urban Development Authority. The fact that has to be noted is that while Colombo did become a place of more beauty, bringing back some of its old world charm, there was the other reality that much of this was possible by increased dumping of city garbage at Meethotamulla. Taking this and the failed proposal to transport Meethotamulla garage to Puttalam, it is seen that the Rajapaksa Regime was a major contributor to building that mountain of garbage that caused the present tragedy.
However, all blame for the current tragedy cannot be placed on the former government alone. It is certainly due to the politics of corruption that has prevailed in the country, for several decades, and the decline of the attention of politicians to the needs of the people, in the planning and conduct of public policy. The situation that needs study and resolution is how the politics in the country could be taken back to one that pays more importance to the needs of the people and society, rather than the success of political slogans or the individual success of politicians.
The public responses to the new developments in the handling of urban garbage shows that once again the involvement of politicians with their own agendas are at play, going contrary to the actual needs of the people. The public in areas such as Karadiyana, Veyangoda, Attidiya and other places could well be concerned about the moves to dump garbage in their areas, after what did happen at Meethotamulla. The task of politicians in each area is to make a good study on how and why the garbage is brought to these places, how long such dumping will take place, and especially see how best a court order on the matter could be carried out. What we see happen instead is that politicians, including ministers of the former Rajapaksa Regime who did contribute to the Meethotamulla disaster, support protesting people, instead of trying to give them a proper civic leadership on this the current crisis, and how it could be faced and suitably resolved.
It will also be useful if the local authorities and other state institutions involved in the moving and handling of garbage seeks to inform the public or civic leaders in a community, before applications are made to court for the necessary orders, and try to place rival arguments also before the Court, before making such an order. It is certainly the duty of all politicians to respect the court orders and take every measure they can to see that there are no politically motivated and manoeuvred protests against the necessary orders for the functioning of society. This does place a huge burden on politicians who are not used to bearing such burdens in this country. This applies both to government and opposition politicians, and it is certainly time, in the midst of peace, and more than a decade after the war with the LTTE, for politicians of all hues and opinions to move towards the service of the people and society, in day-to-day activity, and carry on their political battles at elections, certainly the sooner they are held.
The Presidential order making garbage disposal in the areas of local government institutions an essential service seems to make the task one that will have to be carried out, facing up to any public protests that may arise, and also any political motivations behind such protests. The garbage in our cities and towns has to be disposed of. It should be done with speed, and certainly with the proper scientific and all necessary precautions to ensure that it will not adversely affect the people in their day-to-day life, and also not cause any repeat of what has taken place at Meethotamulla.
Politicians in government must also realize that this is not a situation for political rivalry or in-fighting that may suit personal or any party needs. There is the need for a better understanding of the people’s anger at what has taken place, which is also due to their not being informed of the policies and political trends within government. It seems strange for a minister to say that no garbage will be dumped in any land of the UDA. What is the purpose behind this? Should UDA land not be used to bring garbage and then convert it to fertilizer and electricity? Will that not serve the people? The expansion of such projects will certainly reduce the larger burden on garbage in this small country, which certainly has a manageable volume of garbage, which requires proper handling.
Sri Lanka has experts in the field of garbage management as well as the transfer of garbage to socially beneficial products such as power and fertilizer. The country has youth who can be trained in the handling of material produced by the scientific handling and transformation of garbage, giving them good employment opportunities. Very importantly, there is also the need to revive the project that was once introduced, to encourage households to handle their own solid waste management by the use of compost bins provided by the local authorities. This could lead to an entirely new area of economic activity, which may not gain the publicity of a Port City, but will have very real benefits to the people.
The necessity is to transform the developing politics of garbage rivalry, into one of educating the public and good social mobilization to make best use of this garbage related tragedy to one that will lead to politics beneficial to society, and away from the politics of hatred and anti-social rivalry.