A NATION AT WAR OVER RUBBISH After Mount Garbage blew its top on Good Friday, blame game for a nation’s shame continues to pile up with no solution in sight Surrounded by an army contingent and a police task force to boot, Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe visits the scene of national carnage wearing a [...]


Avurudu avalanche reveals Lanka’s political graveyard



After Mount Garbage blew its top on Good Friday, blame game for a nation’s shame continues to pile up with no solution in sight

Surrounded by an army contingent and a police task force to boot, Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe visits the scene of national carnage wearing a medical face mask to ward off the stench of piled up garbage and rotting corpses still to be exhumed from the trash crash of Mount Garbage which blew its top and slipped its disk on Aluth Avurudhu day under the sheer weight of a nation’s negligence.
The Prime Minister’s face mask to muffle the raging stink – the scandalous stench the residents of Meethotamulla bore with unbearable suffering and admirable fortitude and the nation apathetically tolerated without a blush for the last seven years – says it all: The dismal failure of political leaders of successive governments to look callously askance at a human tragedy that was crying out loud to be averted and waiting for that inauspicious hour to crash land on the capital’s door step with more than enough rumbling and warning to stir even those most drowsy from their long power intoxicated stupor.

STINK GUARD TO WHERE THE MUCK STOPS: Prime Minister cuts short Viet visit to inspect scene of national disaster and keeps a dignified silence without passing Meethotamulla’s stink bag of blame on to others

If the 152 metre high World Trade Centre tower in the heart of the city centre, touted as evidence of the emerging economic miracle of Lanka, was the nation’s pride, then the 100 metre high mountainous tower of Colombo’s filth, just three miles away, was the iconic symbol of a nation’s shame.

No human foresight could have predicted the terrible Tsunami that hit the nation’s shores on that fateful day after Christmas in the year 2004. But the Meethotamulla Mount Garbage catastrophe that befell the land on Avurudhu Good Friday was manmade. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. And it occurred on a day when one small section of the nation was mourning the death of their Lord Jesus Christ whilst another major group was lighting crackers to herald the Sinhala new year with the entry of the solar king Sun into the constellation of Aries.
Whilst the crackers boomed in celebration and churches were hushed in prayer, Lanka’s mountainous muck came tumbling down upon the unfortunate residents of Meethotamulla to entomb their loved ones in the very debris of society rubbish they had been protesting against for so many years.

When Jesus Christ exclaimed whilst being crucified on the cross that Good Friday 2017 years ago, ‘Father forgive them, for they do not understand,’ perhaps the victims, less religious, whist being buried in the rubble were sighing, ‘ Accursed are those who did not heed our warning call.”

To the Prime Minister’s credit, he cut short his visit in Vietnam to return home to visit the scene of tragedy, not like the guilty returning to the scene of crime but as a statesman, and sympathise with the families of the dead. With his stink guard to stifle the stench, he drew in the scene and made no comment but retained a solemn silence as befitted the grim occasion. This he knew was no time to make cheap comments, nor the occasion to pass the stink bag to his opponents and make hay out of a people’s tragedy. This was a national calamity and what the people wanted was a solution, not a blame game of pass the parcel.

But not so for other politicians, who like vultures hovering upon carrion, soon flocked to descend upon the carcasses of the Meethotamulla dead and make a political meal out of it for their survival. If Pontius Pilate had washed his hands to symbolise his justification for having acquiesced in the rabbles’ demand to crucify Christ, politicians of every rank and political file in Lanka rushed to not only wash their hands at the nearby public lavatory but also to flush the dirt water onto their opponents face.

The Sirisena government ministers were quick off the mark to lay the blame on the past Rajapaksa regime. And neither were they wide off the mark. In the effort to keep posh Colombo clean and sprightly, the Rajapaksa regime did not sweep the citizenry rubbish under the carpet but, in their own chinthana manner of being transparent, made a mountain out of it.

How it all began was when the Colombo Municipality operation of dumping garbage on a private land in Bloemendal Road, Colombo 13, was called to a halt by a Supreme Court order. According to Colombo’s Mayor Muzammil, statement on 10th April 2013, “Since the CMC was left without a place to build on its waste management strategy after that, the Supreme Court called on the UDA to provide the CMC with a land to carry out the city’s waste management efforts. In accordance with a Court order based on that, the UDA gave the Meethotamulla yard to the CMC. The UDA has done its part to solve a problem that was indeed a problem of the CMC. They are not to be held responsible for those problems that have bubbled up from the Meethotamulla garbage dump, whose waste management is our responsibility.”

As the SUNDAY PUNCH commented last year on 18th September, “The Colombo Mayor, for some reason best known to himself, was keenly bent on absolving the UDA from responsibility for the problems that ‘bubbled up’ from the Meethotamulla garbage site. Instead he embraced to his bosom 800 tons of filth and took the sole responsibility for wastage management. But what is the wastage management he did? Instead of dumping it in Bloemendal, he went and landed it in Meethotamulla? Was this the ambit of his expertise on successfully managing solid waste that moved him to take the kudos in having passed the stink bomb from Bloemen to Meethot? “

But whilst this former First Citizen if Colombo is presently basking in Malaysian climes as Lanka’s Excellency the High Commissioner to that country – as a reward no doubt, given by this government, for his excellent diplomatic skills in absolving the Rajapaksa controlled UDA of its responsibilities — never mind Meethotamulla residents’ plight – just two and a half months ago – the Rajapaksa train of response was to quick start its coal powered engines and toot its hoary horn with the same funny but familiar sound that it had the solution but that the public – yes, you and I – prevented its implementation by voting the Rajapaksas out of office two years ago.

DUST TO DUST, ASHES TO ASHES: For this little boy buried in garbage, political negligence for the last seven years proclaimed “garbage thou art, and unto garbage shalt thou return.”

If the Sirisena ministers played the blame game by accusing the Rajapaksa regime of original sin, the Rajapaksa Adam blamed the Lankan people for having succumbed to temptation and, beguiled by Ranil’s and Chandrika’s wiles, eating of Maithripala’s forbidden Yahapalana fruit.
And what was this grand design that had we, the people, steadfast stood and voted for a third and everlasting term of office to this political family dynasty with pretentions to divine rule?

To move the Meethotamulla rubbish to Puttalam. And send it train bound on the midnight express to a town that does not even have a railway station. This Monday, Mahinda Rajapaksa announced: “We had plans ready to solve the garbage issue in Colombo, but unfortunately the UPFA government was toppled and the new government didn’t implement what was planned by the previous government,”
“My government had decided to take the Meethotamulla waste to Puttalam to fill deep pits there. But, my government had been defeated before that project was carried out,”

So it’s our fault. And he is probably right. Not in defeating his regime but in the blind faith we repose in politicians to solve the nation’s woes.
The degree to which Lanka’s political leadership has fallen from its once lofty heights of responsibility; and how the nation’s masters have miserably failed to meet the aspirations of the Lankan people, were starkly laid bare in the political grave yard that emerged in the aftermath of manmade tragedy that gate crashed the nation’s most auspicious Avurudhu feast.

Meethotamulla has been a problem which has confounded Lanka’s leaders and it has exposed their lack of genius – sorry, their bird brain ability – to solve a simple problem like how to get rid of the nation’s capital filth.

Today while a section of this country is still celebrating the avurudhu with Pancha Kalyana beauty contests and Avurudhu Kumaraya bicycle races and another handful are mourning the Meethotamulla dead, there is strife on the streets as the Government struggles to find a solution to the garbage problem. And this rubbish has rubbed on Buddhist monks and the Catholic clergy as well. Where will it stop, for a nation that still does not have the ingenuity to dispose of the waste they so lustily consume sans a burp?

Like Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proposal to shift the rubbish from Meethotamulla to a limestone quarry in Puttalam, freighted by a special dirt train, which would have taken, according to the deputy speaker Sumathipala who told the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera on Thursday, “Nearly 8,000 tons of waste were collected from the Colombo urban areas. One goods wagon in a train could accommodate only 40 tons and one could imagine what a lot of wagons would be needed to transport such a load of garbage daily,” the present government’s solution last year was to remove it to Ja-ela. With the Arch Bishop of Colombo stepping in to the rubbish quagmire and showing his cross of protest against the move, the zany proposal was abandoned.

Now the only solution the Government has produced so far is to remove the rubbish from town to town, in the proverbial manner people seek relief changing the pillow to rid the headache. Despite a magisterial order obtained by the Colombo Municipal Council on Tuesday to dispose Colombo’s garbage in Karadiyana, Piliyandala, the garbage trucks were turned away by the residents. The same happened when an attempt was made to dump it in Kotikawatte on Tuesday.

Wattala residents followed suit that same day when a group of officials attempted to visit a site thereat as a possible dump. On Wednesday the protest continued when the authorities armed with the court order dumped the garbage. That same day protests began in Dompe over the suggestion that this town just twenty two miles away from Malwana, famed for its Rambutans, was an idyllic spot to dump the bristled skin and the seedy nut the city spits out each day.

On Thursday, protests were held in Pamunugama, in Wattala. On Thursday, protests were held in Kirindiwela against bringing garbage to Dompe. And, if there were not enough tears wept over the Meethotamulla tragedy, the police used teargas to quell the protest and disperse the crowd. They were only asking not to dump the waste on their doorstep. And to the Government’s credit, no military might was used – as had been employed by the previous regime to squash Rathupaswala citizens’ demand for nothing more than a cup of chemical free clean water.
Instead On Thursday night the President signed an extraordinary gazette which declared waste disposal as an essential service. It reads as follows:

“All services, work or labour of any description whatsoever, necessary or required to be done in connection with any undertaking performed or maintained by any local authority or for and on behalf of any such local authority, for the clearance, collection, transportation, temporary storage, processing, separation, treatment, disposal and sale of street refuse house refuse or other similar matters”

Only one small problem. Whilst this kind of executive order may have been appropriate to deal with the publicly educated and publicly paid for GMOA doctors going on strike after strike over SAITM and holding the self same poor who have financed their education and still pays theirs salaries to ransom, no dustman is threatening to shirk his duty. The problem is that whilst the workforce is ready and willin’ like Charles Dickens’s Barkis, Miss Peggotty, alas, hasn’t the apple pastries of land to cater to his betrothal hopes.

The question thus arises: Though armed with gazetted power is the Government willing to run the gauntlet of public opinion? If there is defiance on the streets by the people against Government efforts to dump rubbish on their doorstep, will the government use armed force to persuade them to accept, with officialdom’s best wishes, the Government’s Avurudhu hamper of Colombo’s muck?

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Lanka is a nation at war, with people justifiably taking to the streets not in protest over an issue concerning the nation’s sovereignty, not in protest over the Indo-Sino domination of the land, not in protest – and the list is endless- even of the cost of living but over the nation’s rubbish.

If not handled carefully, tenderly, delicately, sensitively, this could well be the rise of Lanka’s own Avurudhu spring. A time when the people rise from the garbage of forlorn hopes and broken promises to make a bold statement that enough is enough. It should give all politicians, of all hues, nourishing food for thought. One not to be consumed as another liberal serving of unadulterated rubbish destined to remain indigested. And, most certainly, not one to be disposed of with a queasy cursory puff of political flatulence which stinks to high heavens.

Scant solace: A lakh to bury the dead already buried in apathy’s garbage `
The Government has announced it will pay Rs 100,000 to the families of the Meethotamulla dead, Thirty two dead so far. That makes the total bill Rs. 3. 2 million. The government has okayed other Rs 2.5 million as the maximum compensation payable to the owners of houses damages. Perhaps to some, there is money in muck.But for those who suffered the full horror of Good Friday’s Avurudhu tragedy, no filthy lucre to bury their dead can recompense the loss of their loved ones buried under the debris of successive government apathy.

Especially when the government gives a thumping Rs. 40 million odd bonus in the form of a duty free vehicle permit to be sold overnight, in addition to their salaries and their new incentive bonus of Rs 100,000 a month, to each and every MP as reward for being the people’s representative.

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