2nd September 2001

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Filth and muck a-blowing in the wind

Residents down Buthgamuwa Road, Rajagiriya, hold their noses in silent desolation while the garbage dump of two years goes up in smoke. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports

A desolate wasteland. A smoky haze ris- ing from a vast area. Acrid smoke caus ing bouts of exhaustive coughing. Visions of a nuclear dump in a scene from a movie. Is it the re-enactment of the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of World War II?

No. It is just part of the garden city of Colombo. It's right down Buthgamuwa Road, off the Rajagiriya junction. This massive garbage dump, once known as a bird paradise, with heaps and heaps of polythene bags full of rubbish, has been smouldering for about two weeks. The beautiful birds have flown, only crows, pigeons, mangy dogs, scraggy cats and emaciated cattle scavenge among the muck and filth.

The people in the big homes across the road are reluctant to give their names. They will speak on condition of anonymity. But Upul Perera, 42, who lives right on the edge of the dump has no such problems. 

"Maha Nagara Sabhawen thama patan gaththe kunu danna," (It was the Municipal Council which began to dump the garbage here) he laments from his tiny shack. His wife nods in agreement while his two little daughters swing to and fro on makeshift swings hung from the roof of the hut. The children are relishing dripping ripe mangoes, but not alone. The mangoes are covered with flies. Not a few flies, but hordes and hordes. They settle on anything and everything, including the eyes, the hair, the face and the legs.

The garbage dumping allegedly by the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte Municipal Council started about two years ago. Everyday 10 or more municipal trucks would line up and tip over the stinking contents. And the rubbish was varied. There was offal, heads of cattle, tails and horns. There were fish entrails. There were also loads of rotten food from hotels giving out a 'pilunu' odour.

Gradually the tree line moved from Buthgamuwa Road, opening up a vast expanse of land for the dump. The people objected, some even assaulted the municipal workers and stoned the trucks. 

The more affluent, of which there are many, petitioned the Municipal Council. They even attempted to institute legal action. But nothing happened. Now even passers-by in posh cars fling their rubbish onto the dump.

The municipal trucks have not come for about two weeks. But who has set the dump aflame, causing the polythene to burn and fill the air with smoke, which is wafted in different directions with the wind? No one knows.

Jobless Upul who had been earning a living by tending a 'kankun kotuwa' alongside the marshy area, which is now the dump, has lost his livelihood in addition to the other health problems besetting his family. 

For the municipal trucks have gone over the kotuwa and destroyed it. Now he cuts the grass at the edge of the dump and sells it in Rajagiriya town.

His children are always sick, he says, while his wife, Padmini, explains the 'ritual' of rushing one child or the other to the hospital in the night, almost daily. Breathing problems, stomach problems, rashes, bouts of coughing, headaches and many more assail this family.

"As evening falls, the mosquitoes come in waves," she cries and dengue comes to mind.

From Upul's home we can see the rear of the Chandra Silva playground. "The municipal bowsers were all over there spraying some perfume to prevent the stench from being carried over there," says Upul. But nothing is done on this side.

Across the road from the dump or "kunu bakkiya" as people call it, the residents are desperate. "You should have come during the rains. Then it turns into stinking slush and because it is on higher ground, the filth flows down to our homes. Even now you can see the polythene bags and rubbish blown into gardens by the wind. The animals too bring the muck over here," one resident said.

"For the first time in many years, I had to cancel my child's birthday party. How can you invite people here to this place though it is in the heart of Colombo? When people visit us, they cover their noses and mouths with their hands and ask us whether they can sit in the kitchen, because it is at the rear of the house," another resident explains.

While the whole country awaits the rains, the residents down Buthgamuwa Road are dreading the days ahead. "We will be flooded out of our homes, not only by the water but also by the muck which will float from there," another person said.

"A temporary answer would be to at least cut a drain by the side of the dump to let the water from there drain into the canal," she says.

Like the landscape, a sense of desolation has gripped the people living in the area that there is no point in talking or fighting about it because nothing will be done. 

A board by the roadside prohibits garbage dumping there, on the order of the Municipal Commissioner. But who cares? Certainly not the Municipal Council.

We leave the dump behind and guess who accompanies us back to office - many flies which have got in while the van was parked near the dump.

The Mayor said

"We have stopped dumping garbage down Buthgamuwa Road," assures Mayor Chandra Silva. When told that the dump had been set on fire, he said he hadn't heard about that but would take action soon.

"Garbage has been a real problem, a continuing one like the North-East conflict. Since the time of President R. Premadasa we have been discussing the problem of garbage disposal in the Colombo district, but there has been no answer. We can collect the garbage, but where do we dispose of it? We don't have much land in the Kotte area," he said.

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