Dust to dust from dawn to dusk

As truck mafia rules the road, more and more residents of Kiri Oya suffer from respiratory ailments
Leon Berenger reporting from Dambulla

There were no clean flowers to be offered to the Buddha this Vesak Poya for residents of Kiri Oya and beyond in the Dambulla District since most of the fresh blossoms were coated with dust stirred up by convoy of sand lorries that roar down the main road in their hundreds on a daily basis.

But the real story is sadder and more troublesome than this. For, hundreds of men, women and children, the bulk of them farmers, are forced to live day in and day out in a dusty mess. Many of them, especially toddlers and children, have already become sick. But the trucks loaded with sand raked out from the Mahaweli whiz past regardless.

Every object in houses, schools, nursery schools, public offices and dispensaries are covered with dust although the doors and the windows remain closed for most of the time.

Convoy of lorries stirring up a dust storm. Pix by Indika Handuwala and Kanchana Ariyadasa

When there is no rain, the dust is a big problem and when it rains the whole place is turned into a muddy mess, said Upali Wattegedera, principal of a local school in Kiri Oya, which lies 35 south east of Dambulla town on the Matale-Handungamuwa Road.

As a solution to this problem, he suggested that the truckers should be allowed to operate only two days a week. He said this would minimize the inconvenience caused to students, who come to school bathed in dust.

“Most of the trucks are owned by persons with links to politicians and VIPs. The truckers spare little thought to other road users, mainly pedestrians, and this has caused accidents, including 15 fatalities which included three school children and a teacher in the recent past,” Mr. Wattegedera said.

“Road Development Authority (RDA) workers occasionally patch up the large pot holes created by these heavy vehicles, but this does not last long and the dust and mud returns. They do a shoddy job,” he said.
K. A. D. Prathnawardene, a resident of Kiri Oya, endorsed the principal’s claims. He said he had along with other villagers staged many protests but little did change.

“These truckers are like monsters. The flow stops only at night because they fear wild elephants on the road. This problem has been going on for seven years and there is no respite for the people of the area,” Mr. Prathnawardene said.

Children of the area cover their faces to protect against the dust

Another resident, Anusha Hemamali, said she had just returned from the Dambulla Hospital along with her toddler who was suffering from a respiratory problem. She insisted that her child had fallen sick because of the dust.

“It is a long walk to the bus stop but I avoid the main road and instead use alternate paths through the jungle, simply to avoid the cloud of dust which is not good for the baby. I am not alone, there are several young mothers facing the same predicament,” she lamented.

Dambulla Government Hospital officials confirmed that they were treating a high number of patients from this particular area and most of them were suffering from respiratory problems and skin diseases. “Most of the patients are children,” one senior health official said.

While the residents breathe dust-filled air and fall sick, representatives whom they have elected to local bodies and parliament turn a blind eye to their plight. The residents said they voted for the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) at every recent election but neither the government nor the local council had come forward to solve the problem.

Dambulla’s Government Agent K. H. A. Meegasmulla admitted that there was a problem in Kiri Oya but added that sand was also needed for development work. “We have drawn up plans and put aside the required monies to build the roads in the area and this may take some six months to be completed. We understand the difficulty of the people but we urge them to be a bit more patient”, she added.

(Additional reporting by
Dilrukshi Grero)

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