Meetotamulla – a tragedy that was waiting to happen
Posted on April 23rd, 2017

Editorial The Sunday Island

Meetotamulla was a tragedy that was waiting to happen. With over 30 people, including children killed, millions of rupees worth of property damage caused, dozens whose houses were buried and at risk of further rubbish slides and methane gas explosions forced to evacuate their homes, the concerned authorities have been forced to open their eyes. The Rip Van Winkles who have now awakened are making what amends they can – not out of their own pockets or the millions made by selling their duty free vehicle permits, but out of the public exchequer. The people have been treated to the sight of various functionaries handing new homes and compensation over the evening television newscasts. But as one undoubtedly grateful recipient said, there are others waiting for relief – kattiya innawa to use her own words.

President Maithripala Sirisena went on public record last week that there was an extortion racket that has been long going on where trucks bringing garbage had to pay thousand or thousand five hundred each to drive into the dump and so much to leave. If this was so, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, why was this racket allowed to continue? The cleaning companies or the contractors they hired for the job of transporting the rubbish to the dump obviously did not pay this kappan out of their own pockets – all that was surely factored into their bid-prices for the rubbish clearing contracts. So the ever-suffering public had as always to pick up the tab. Why was this racket allowed to flourish all these years? The police no doubt would say there were no complaints for them to investigate. The ubiquitous underworld, well patronized by the local and national political Mafia, obviously used their muscle to good effect.

The reams that continue to be written about the tragedy that should never have been allowed to happen carry a welter of allegations against various responsible authorities. Garbage disposal or solid waste management, to use a term now in common currency, is not rocket science. There have been news reports during the past many years of composting the biodegradable rubbish for use as fertilizer and the generation of electricity. Possibilities of recycling plastic waste have been bruited around for as long as most can remember. Various proposals have been made over the years to getting a move on in coming to grips with the problem but nothing happened. Public pressure halted further dumping at the Bloemendhal site where fires were common. The scene then moved to Meetotamulla. The anguished cry of the victims is that “we were there, sometimes for generations, before the area was made a dumping site.” Their lament is only now being heard after the New Year’s Day tragedy.

Predictably the blame game has been stridently played and fingers pointed in all directions. Nobody will quarrel with the prime minister’s exhortation that it is time that this stopped and there is a united effort to resolve the problem. But whether that can or will happen, given what has already taken place and the jockeying for preference votes in populous Kolonnawa where Meetotamulla is located, is the question. The fact is that both the Rajapaksa and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administrations were in office while the problem festered before it exploded. The UNP has been running the Colombo Municipal Council for many years and President Sirisena has been Minister of Environment. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a gratuitous comment that he was en route to resolving the problem by transporting garbage by rail for landfills at limestone quarries in the Puttalam area when he was defeated. Thereafter nothing happened, he said. He should know better than make this kind of remark. Whether such a scheme was viable and feasible and whether people in those areas would have allowed it is a moot point.

Given what happened at Meetotamulla, nobody will be surprised that people in possible alternative dumping sites are protesting loudly and preventing their use. Nobody wants somebody else’s rubbish dumped on their doorsteps. So much so that the government had to invoke provisions of the Public Security Ordinance and declare garbage clearance and disposal an essential service. The harsh reality is that garbage that is collected must be disposed. Protests against such action will sometimes be spontaneous; but there will always be an under-current of vested interests, for political or venal reasons, adding fuel to the flames. Such elements will favor not just water cannons or teargas to disperse protesting mobs. If live bullets are fired and people are killed and injured, as happened at Rathupaswala under the previous dispensation, so much the better for such elements. While the invoking of Emergency laws to do a job that must be done is unavoidable, there must be no heavy handed over-reaction as happened when protestors brought traffic on the Kandy Road to a halt over the alleged pollution of their wells by a neighboring factory.

A long festering problem such as garbage in greater Colombo and other urban centers obviously cannot be fixed overnight. Meetotamulla has provided the incentive to come to grips with it and there is evidence that the wheels are now turning. Vultures who fed on the garbage, such as the kappan Mafia and political and bureaucratic elements looking for a buck out of any possible recycling solution are not going to creep into their holes because of what has been said post-disaster. Now that the resolution of the problem has become more urgent, there will be those who see richer pickings now licking their lips in anticipation of greater returns. The lessons of the tragedy must be quickly learned: we cannot let time bombs keep clicking until they explode. The politicians and bureaucrats are not the sole culprits. All of us who failed to generate the public opinion that might have shaken the decision makers out of their lethargy must also share the blame.

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