It is time we shelve “Not in my backyard, but somewhere else” attitude on garbage and support the efforts to deal with the issue in a scientific manner, Western Development and Megapolis Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka said. Maintaining that sanitary landfills are the best cost-effective and scientific solution for garbage issue in Sri Lanka, the minister pointed out the Colombo District alone needs three landfills with a capacity of 2,000 tons per day. In an interview with the Daily News the minister also spoke about the ‘garbage mafia,’ and how the Kolonnawa garbage pile had become a treasure trove to some.
Q: The President said he would appoint a commission on the Meethotamulla incident. Appointing commission after commission was the practice of the previous Government. How do you take that this Government is also following the same footsteps?
A: Meethotamulla incident has given rise to various implications, misinterpretations and mudslinging campaigns. I think an impartial inquiry will help to ascertain the truth. The people of this country as well as the political leadership will be able to get a better picture of the situation and this will help to take right decisions to avoid these kinds of tragedies happening again.
Q: Do you accept that Meethotamulla disaster is a man-made disaster that could have been averted?
Q: What do you think the Government should do to tackle the latest situation in the country in the aftermath of Meethotamulla disaster?
A: To take the situation in hand we should declare waste management as an essential service. Not only the CMC, after Meethotamulla disaster, many local bodies such as Kaduwela, Maharagama, Biyagama, Kolonnawa and Kotikawatte have no place to dump their garbage. Many private companies engaged in garbage collection too dumped their garbage to Meethotamulla. Now they are in trouble. The problem is that we do not have a solid legal institution to deal with garbage.
The Government, at this point, has no option, but to dump the garbage somewhere. There is no other solution at hand. People are always up in arms and these agitations cannot be tolerated anymore. ‘Not in my backyard’ attitude of the people should go. The society must be sensitive to this issue and let the issue be dealt in a scientific manner.
Q: What are the major obstacles that stand in the way of resolving garbage issue in Sri Lanka?
A: The garbage problem here in Sri Lanka could not be solved because of three main reasons. They are the social attitude, legal matters and financial restraints.
“Not in my backyard, do it somewhere else” is the kind of attitude people show every time when someone tries to come up with a scientific solution to the garbage issue. From politicians to ordinary people, all are up in arms against such projects. People also tend to neglect the individual responsibility. When Pradeshiya Sabha or Town Council ask the people to segregate waste, they do not do that, but simply complain later over the garbage problem.
The legal issue is because of various institutions are involved in waste management. As per the law, local government bodies are primarily responsible for garbage collecting, disposal and other related matters. Unfortunately, some local authorities like the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) are unable to handle their own waste. In provincial wise, some like the Western Provincial Council have their own Waste Management Authorities. In addition, ‘Pilisaru Project’ of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) also handles garbage. The Provincial Councils and Local Government Ministry too deals with the same subject. Hence, we now need a centralized waste management authority. It must be a comprehensive single arm like the Water Board, Electricity Board or the Urban Development Authority.
Above all, the financial aspect matters. We are talking about waste to energy projects, landfills and incineration, but money matters in all of them. If you are going to adopt a scientific disposal method like incineration or waste to energy project using any other technology, you need to spend Rs 7-10 per kilogram for treatment. People should be prepared to pay.
Generally it is said that one individual generates about one kilogram of garbage daily. If we charge Rs 10 per kilogram, it would be Rs 40 for a family of four. In my experience, I know this proposal will not be taken in the right spirit by many. It may be dubbed as ‘kunu badda’ (garbage tax). For instance, when I was trying to introduce Rs 5,000 fine for garbage dumping on roadsides, I was called a ‘kunu amathi’ (garbage minister.) These kinds of problems are there, but if we are to solve this problem we need money.
Q: In your view what is the best solution for garbage issue in Colombo?
A: Colombo has a population of about 650,000, but over one million people commute to the city daily as it is the capital of Sri Lanka. Over 600 tons of garbage is collected daily within the municipality. There are no lands in and around Colombo to dump them. All available lands are marshy lands. Lands are available only in outstation areas.
In my opinion, sanitary landfills are the best cost-effective and scientific solution for garbage issue. I was instrumental in putting up a scientific landfill in Kirindiwella in Dompe when I was the Environment Minister. Everyone was opposed to me, but I managed to go ahead. I am thankful for my successors for completing it. Now, anybody can visit the area and see whether there is any environmental harm from it as claimed. The Colombo District alone needs three landfills with a capacity of 2,000 tons per day. Gampaha needs at least two landfills with a capacity of 1,500 tons per day and Kalutara needs at least one with a capacity of 1,000 tons per day. Likewise, all main cities such as Galle, Matara, Kandy, Kurunegala etc need scientifically designed sanitary landfills.
City planning is not merely constructing jogging tracks. Having a beautiful living room in a house is of no value if the kitchen and toilets are full of litter. Same applies to Colombo.
If we have the financial capacity, we can also opt for incineration. Incinerators are a tested but high end technology used in waste management.
Q: Despite how much we talk about ‘sustainable development,’ poor attention has been paid to waste management and related matters. The Government allocates little money for the purpose. Do you agree with this claim?
A: Money is one key factor that acts as a restraint, but in my view the main problem is the social attitude. Many politicians are scared to handle this issue because of the political price attached with it. A fine example was how Karu Jayasuriya had to pay a political price for coming forward to initiate Meepe landfill with World Bank funds in 1997 when he was the Mayor of Colombo. There was a protest campaign bearing the slogan “Meepe don’t need Colombo’s garbage”, and in the 1999 Provincial Council elections there was a sinister plan to defeat Karu Jayasuriya, who was the UNP Chief Ministerial candidate. He was defeated by 9,000 votes. The Bloemendhal garbage dump was the ultimate result of that campaign.
Lack of Government allocations is also a problem. Political authorities tend to give more prominence for instant work to show off the people. There must be a strong political will to solve the garbage problem.
Q: It is widely accused that the garbage handling is riddled with corruption and garbage dumps are treasure troves to some. Your views?
A: In fact, stinking Kolonnawa garbage pile equals to ‘a sweet-scented flower bed’ to some. For example the weighing machine at the yard, has always broken down. If they claim to have accepted 900 tons per day from the CMC, the actual weight could have been something around 600 tons. The money for the rest of 300 tons goes elsewhere. Private companies which are involved in garbage collection too dump their garbage in Meethotamulla. All these monies are not recorded.
Some people make a lot of money out of this garbage dump and they are not ready to shift it. When we decided to immediately stop dumping garbage at Meethotamulla in the aftermath of the disaster, there were people against.
In the same way, when the decision that no more garbage should be dumped at Bloemendhal was made when I was the Environment Minister, we were threatened by underworld leaders. We could not send any official. We had to deploy the STF to implement the decision.
This garbage mafia is very powerful and it is a long standing thing. They are earning at least Rs 1 million per day. One lady at a leading company that handles garbage told me that they have to pay at least Rs 300 million per annum to do the business.
Q: What are the waste management plans under the Western Region Megapolis Project?
A: We will not hand over waste generated from the Colombo Port City or any other proposed city such as the ‘tech city’ or ‘service city’ to the CMC. We will build up an incinerator and also a scientific landfill in Muthurajawela to dispose waste generated from these new cities.
Q: Don’t you think it is timely we introduce new regulations pertaining to the use of polythene and plastic and waste disposal?
A: Definitely, it is a must. We need a c
omprehensive and composite programme for that purpose. The ‘3R principle’ (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) should be strictly adopted. Clinical waste and electronic waste must be handled separately. The bio-degradable waste can be converted into compost fertilizer or sent to incinerators. The cost-effective solution is the landfill.
Q: The Joint Opposition claimed the tug-of-war between Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya and you hindered the space to find a solution to garbage issue. Comment?
A: Some people are trying to use the Meethotamulla incident as a political football and try to make character assassinations. That is pathetic.
Towards the end of 2015, the Cabinet asked the UDA to go for international bidding process for waste management in Gampaha and Karadiyana. A total of 122 applications (103 local companies and 19 foreign companies) were received for the paper advertisement that was put up for this purpose. Four companies were selected to carry out the project in Karadiyana and three companies to carry out the project in Gampaha. All the selections were made above board adhering to proper standards. Thereafter the projects were handed over to the Western Provincial Council on March 10.
Talking about the history of Meethotamulla, garbage collected from the CMC was dumped at this yard since 2009. Initially, the CMC received the permission of the court only for six months, but it continued beyond that. The dumping yard which was 2 acres has now stretched to 21 acres. About one million square meters of garbage is there in this marshy land. The highest point of the garbage mount is 48.5 meters. All scientists who studied and inspected the dump site warned of a possible collapse after it exceeded the height of 30 meters. That is why the UDA repeatedly wrote to the CMC asking to stop dumping garbage at that site, but the CMC was unable to find alternative land in the face of stiff opposition of the people.
Q: Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Meethotamulla tragedy could have been prevented had the Government implemented his plans to shift the CMC garbage to Aruwakkalu in Puttalam. What are your thoughts in this regard?
A: We are grateful that the previous administration led by former President Rajapaksa came up with that proposal, but let me also note that it received the Cabinet approval as late as August 2014. The impression given by the former President that the money had been allocated and the project was about to be launched was wrong.
However, that plan was good. That area had many abandoned quarries, from which limestone had been extracted by the Holcim Company to produce cement. The proposal was to put up a landfill there. During the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Wildlife Conservation Department opposed the project on the grounds of environmental concerns because it came within the Wilpattu buffer zone.
Personally, I could not agree with this argument as the environmental damage from that proposed project was minimal compared to Meethotamulla, but still we listened to it. Now we have managed to find another location in Puttalam and the EIA is underway for the project. We assume the responsibility of undertaking this project and it will be completed by two years. I urge everybody not to come up with the slogan “We do not want Colombo’s garbage to Puttalam” because such slogans would only lead to more and more garbage dumps like Meethotamulla.