Kussi Amma Sera (KAS) is back from the long Avurudu holidays, after spending time in the village with her children and, as usual, grumbling about the weather, cost of living and other household chores. I was punching the keys of the old home desktop preparing to write about the weather, climate change and the economic [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

It’s the ‘Kunu’, stupid


Kussi Amma Sera (KAS) is back from the long Avurudu holidays, after spending time in the village with her children and, as usual, grumbling about the weather, cost of living and other household chores.

I was punching the keys of the old home desktop preparing to write about the weather, climate change and the economic realities in an environment where sustainable development would be the key to Planet Earth’s future.

But No! KAS’s furious ramblings from the kitchen while scraping coconut and her repeated ranting of “Mama quewaa neda (I told you so)”, put the brakes on the planned column idea.

“Mokkade?” I shout back. “Ayo Mahattayo, mama hamadama kiyanawa kuna prashnaya visandana kramayak (I have always spoken of a garbage-disposal solution). Eka kare nam, meka wenna neha (If it was done, this would not have happened, the problem would have been solved),” she says, walking around the house with an “I told you so” attitude.

She was referring to the Meethotamulla garbage disaster and joining the chorus (and bandwagon) of voices – politicians, journalists, human rights activists, disaster management experts and the rest – in not only offering solutions but also “I told you so” claims.

The ‘Mama quewaa neda’ cacophony of voices stirred by the Meethotamulla garbage tragedy reminded me of singer Sunil Perera’s classic ‘Lankawe – I don’t know why’ song which ridicules other countries for ‘hora chande’, ‘corrupt politicians’ or ‘eternal protests’ and that it doesn’t happen in ‘Lankawe’.

So Sunil (if you are listening or reading this piece), here’s another twist to your song with a new title ‘I told you so. Mama quewaa neda’ with the first lines running like ‘Ape kattiya hamathenama kuna danne neha. Eka wenna Engalanthe, Engalanthe’.

Like everyone else, here’s my cent worth and KAS’s 2 cents worth of advice on how to rid the country of its rubbish, joining the debate like the well-known saying “the dogs will bark but the caravan moves on” (meaning people will make a big fuss but the situation remains the same).

An even more pithy saying in this context is “Perahere yana ali innawa, kotang adina ali innawa (there are the ‘show’ elephants who dress up and appear everywhere, while the others have to do the hard work).

Everyone is pitching into the debate offering their solutions on the rubbish dump or how to get rid of tonnes of the city garbage, leaving out the fact or conveniently forgetting that we are all responsible for our own actions including the garbage issue.

Also rather than finding solutions to garbage or waste management – with many good examples from across the world – the blame game (a typical Sri Lankan past-time) has begun. The ‘they did it, we didn’t do it’ or ‘we proposed and they disposed’ kind of talk is dominating the newspapers, radio and television.

Respected monk, the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter also alluded to this, being quoted in newspapers as saying that rather than find a solution, finger-pointing is take precedence.

What should be more appropriate is for the government to put a stop to this ‘rubbishy debate’, who is responsible, etc, magnanimously take the bull by the horns (even sit with the opposition) and resolve the issue.

Instead, we have some comments bordering on absurdity. One of the most outrageous suggestions from a politician is to stop workers, living outside the city, bringing lunch into the city wrapped in lunch paper and disposable plastic. So will the government provide a free lunch or will the politico, sitting in his grand mansion, subsidise the cost of buying a costly lunch? Then there was a CMC official who had said garbage is not a problem. It is unclear whether his comments were taken out of context and published (a common problem) or whether he actually said it!

A simple fact is that no one wants garbage in their backyard, with mounting protests by residents in areas where the CMC is trying to use as a dumping ground. Consider this: Would the President or the Prime Minister like garbage being dumped in their backyard (or nearby garden)? Would the Minister of Disaster Management like garbage dumped in a property near his residence? Would a disaster management expert (suddenly many have sprung up over the Meethotamulla tragedy) like the entry to his lane shrouded with flies from a pile of garbage? Getting courts to decide on garbage dumping locations and flashing a court order at protesting residents (similar to court orders barring protest demonstrations that ‘inconvenience the public’) is not only unfair but an act of injustice. Why should the garbage of a resident, for example, in Colombo 5 be dumped in the backyard of a resident, 30 km away?

In today’s day and age there are many ways not only to dispose of smelly and disease-generating garbage in a non-smelly manner but also make money in the process.

All over the world, there are ‘kunu mudalalis’, entrepreneurs who have minted money from garbage. In fact, Sri Lanka has its own set of ‘kunu mudalalis’ – municipal workers who separate stacks of cardboard, plastic-ware including plastic bottles, tins etc from the common rubbish and take it to the bottleman’s ‘kade’ and earn anything between Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 a day. At Rs. 30,000 or Rs. 60,000 per person per month, that’s handy business from throwaways.

There seems to be an affinity to seek foreign assistance for any burning issue in Sri Lanka, the latest being garbage. A team from Japan is due to arrive to examine the Meethotamulla garbage dump and offer solutions.

Trust this too won’t end up in the ‘garbage dump of ideas’ that the country has had over the years to resolve the garbage crisis.

So now we’ll have a Japanese solution for garbage (that country has its own share of natural disasters like earthquakes); a Harvard solution for economic management; a Singapore solution for mass transportation; an Indian solution for peace and overcoming the labour shortage; a Chinese solution to wipe out debt, a US solution on how not to interfere and even an Oxford formula on how to handle economic interviews and promote the country.

Don’t we have our own expertise to tackle these issues or are we still living with a colonial mentality? Maybe so, because how do politicians and government officials react when tragedy strikes (and one that could have been prevented): Simply defending their positions! There is little or no acknowledgement of failure (simply said, the Government failed in the Meethotamulla tragedy) and moving on to find a solution.

A letter from a Kussi Amma Sera fan says it all: “There would have been many experts who passed by the Meethotamulla dump but cared less. Maybe the Sri Lankan environment is not conducive for motivation or motivational thinking or innovation. Just do your job and go home.”

Mahattaya, foreign kattiya nathuwa, ape CMC karayo dannawa kohomada kunu walin hambukaranne kiyala (Rather than seeking foreign expertise in dealing with ‘kunu’, ask our own CMC workers how to earn money from it),” shouts KAS from the kitchen.

She’s right. Why not ask CMC workers who must be having great ideas on how to transform mountains of garbage into mountains of cash.

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