Colombo, Development, Politics and Governance

The Big Stink in Sri Lanka


Every day, we fight several battles – from inflation to traffic to our friendly neighborhood cop. Our battles are many, but our defeat in one particular battle stands out, quite spectacularly.  Sign boards saying “Mehi kunu dameema ballanta pamanai” (Only dogs may dump garbage here) are testimony that we did not go down without a fight, that we tried our best.

Whenever I see these signs on people’s walls I’m always intrigued because the garbage issue seems to be problem that never seems to go away, and in true Sri Lankan style, we are always quick to blame the Government or even cite a Western conspiracy. While the blame does partially lie in the hands of the Government, the average Sri Lankan’s attitude towards, or, if you like, solution for, the garbage problem never fails to amaze me.

Dumping your trash in front of another person’s house seems to be the common and recommended solution. Live on the 4th floor and have no time to place your garbage bag in front of your neighbor’s gate? No problem, just throw it from your balcony in the general direction of your target. If the garbage collection service on your road is a myth, it is still always best to keep your garbage bags on the road anyway… just in case.

It IS frustrating, not to have a regular garbage collection service or even a dumping ground nearby. But leaving it outside another person’s house is not the answer. That garbage has to end up somewhere and most often than not, garbage that is gifted to different parts of the city end up in the same place – the gutter.

Since the Government is clearly not giving any solution to this problem, we should keep dumping our garbage anywhere, as we please. And during the torrential rain, we shall watch as they block our drains and flood our streets and keep complaining that while the Government can win the war against the LTTE, they cannot conquer the garbage crisis.

  • Travelling Academic

    Following representations made by a long-serving Tamil minister in the cabinet, a government spokesman promised to replace all these sign boards in both Sinhala and Tamil! “We are a proud nation with our priorities screwed right”, an analyst commented, welcoming the Minister’s timely intervention.

  • Vishnu Gupta

    In our area, the garbage collectors do a fantastic job, they come every other day, but the garbage dumps are still there. How come? Well, it’s the wonderful people, like the one’s who throw their dirt from the 4th floor, they love their garbage they want to display it in front of their neighbor’s houses.

    No wonder Colombo is the 9th worst city in the world!

    Well done Sri Lankans! You do us proud! We made it to the TOP TEN because of YOU and your love for filth.

  • justitia

    In addition to garbage, newborn kittens and puppies are dumped in the night in front of and in the premises of, householders. Many a night I have been awakened by mewling of kittens and yapping of puppies to find these dumped inside the premises I was living in during the eighties and nineties in a crowded part of colombo. I took them by car in a box in the boot and dumped them far away on lonely roads. Occasionally I found carcasses of adult dogs and cats too dumped in this manner. I had to pay the garbage collecter to remove these carcasses. Sri Lanka has millions of stray dogs and cats which procreate fast, and the newborn are got rid of in this manner. Almost daily one sees young and old animals hit by traffic and killed, by the roadside. Our large crow population scavenge these remains. This problem should be addressed by the city garbage department. One day I went to the garbage department down Darley Road and had long chats with persons there, and found that most of the workforce vanish after signing in, in the mornings to work/earn money elsewhere, and return in the evenings, to sign out. The overseers dare not take any action. This is a major problem which plagues the Colombo Municipal Council.
    In Phillipines and Thailand, I saw dogs with front legs broken, hung up for sale in markets. Dog meat is a delicacy in these countries. Should we export our stray dogs there? This will also result in a dramatic decrease in the incidence of rabies!!!

  • T

    I think the problem is less WHERE we dump our rubbish, and more of just HOW MUCH of it there really is. To practically address the issue of garbage on the streets, we need to first address the larger issue of waste management. I think (and I could be wrong) we generate close to 650 tonnes of waste on a daily basis. If it doesn’t end up in front of your neighbour’s house, it still has to end up somewhere, and the mountains of garbage dumps all over colombo are testament to that. We need to start consciously reusing and recycling and just reducing our waste output in general.

    On an aside, the North and East seem to be going the same direction as the urban South-West. What’s being done to limit the pollution caused by the truckloads of ‘visitors’? Soon we’ll have to wade through an ankle-deep layer of garbage to reach the “pristine shores of the East coast”.

  • AW

    a very timely article Iromi

    An addition, which follows on to the comment by T:

    Over the weekend I was in Batticaloa, and passed through Pasikudah. The last time I was there was exactly a year ago. There were only a couple of cops, and some fisherman. The beach was pristine. This time, there were over 100 vehicles and 500 people, and the beach and the approach was flooded with trash. The efforts to leverage Pasikudah (one of the few unique bays we have in SL) as a prime tourism destination with high tourism revenue earning potential will be lost if something is not done about it.

    This is partly the fault of our domestic tourists who pay no attention to throwing garbage responsibly, and leaving the place as clean as when they came. Partly, it is the fault of the authorities. Not ONE SINGLE trash can was visible in that entire area.

    This was the same situation in Sigiriya, there are boards saying do not litter, but n alternative is given – i.e., no trash cans anywhere.

    Even in India, one of the dirtiest countries in the region (sorry to my Indian mates) I have seen more trash bins than in SL. In Mumbai, on colaba causeway (thousands of tourists), at gateway to india (thousands of tourists), at marine drive (thousands of tourists and locals)m there were trash cans. When trash cans are so ubiquitous, they cannot be ignored, and people are compelled to throw their trash in those.

    In England, there are bins every several metres, and you have no difficulty in finding somewhere to dispose the rubbish while on the move.

    Before drawing up glorious tourism plans, we need to fix these minor yet crucial problems.

    Some may call it being too ‘paternal’, but the state has a strong role to play in telling people what is right and wrong, particularly in shaping their behaviour. This applied to garbage disposal, and only with a strong state messaging drive can we see a change of attitude and culture with regarding to being responsible in trash disposal. Maybe we should take a leaf out of Colombia’s presidential candidate and former mayor of the capital Bogota, Antanas Mockus who used innovative tools to change citizen behaviour. He used simple methods, like employing ‘mimes’ on streets to get behavioural messages across. It seems to have been effective –

  • Vishnu Gupta

    Last Sunday’s papers suggested that the war was won with the help of Beijing, and let’s not forget India, Karuna and Douglas… so maybe we must ask them to clean up the mess for us too since we can’t do it ourselves.

  • Feizal Dole

    It’s right in front of my house. The garbage bin is used by an unauthorised structure for concealing their illicit trade while the structure with water connection from the KMC & electricity from the CEB and it’s toilet itself iS built over the public drain running under it, U can imagine where they shit their excreta. Meanwhie, garbage is dumped besides the bin on the roadside exposed to flies,rats & stray dogs ALL courtesy of the KANDY MUNICIPAL COUNCIL.

  • kumudini

    A very apt and thought out article . One of the SL expats commented that she thought SL was a beautiful place only to find the contrary . This will keep tourists away . rather than buiding more hotels it is better to clean up the city of smells and garbage . The canals in Kirrillopone are filthy . This will ease the problem of dengue and related Mosquito infected discases as well . Thise who blame the polticians can always organise voluntary gps to do the cleaning up . The recent clean up of Thailands mess were done by people cleaning up the sreets of litter with buckets brushes and pails of water . Any politcian bashers for volunteers ??

  • Appu

    Lets start at the crux of the problem. Human beings generate waste. Waste needs to be dumped in landfills which are scientically managed dumpsites to limit the damage to the environment. In Sri Lanka even when the garbage is picked up it is not dumped in a proper managed lanfill because no such things exists. Some time ago when attempts were made to create such places they were opposed!

    Next, there needs to be bins to bump trash with one for recyclables and another for all other waste. Every unit, house etc. must have two bins. When private individuals use a bin it gets stolen. Even a proper trash bags gets taken away. So accusing people alone won’t help. Most of these problems can be traced to politicians and their doings. Elect garbage and you get garbage.

  • Suresh

    Having just shifted to a new house, I am at my wit’s end to figure out what to do with the garbage as there seems to be absolutely no collection system in the neighbourhood.

    So my option is either to have a pile of garbage building up in my house or go looking for a pile of garbage along some road and add mine to the collection!

    I wonder how the GOSL plans to make us the ‘Wonder of Asia’ when they can’t even seem to handle the garbage issue of the country??

  • Bardo Flanks

    Ah, very entertaining, especially the Kadavara Deyya’s curse.

    On another point, no one blames a “Western conspiracy” for our garbage problems. Making such absurd and ridiculous accusations will not deter us from blaming the West for their real conspiracy, War and Piece (Peace).

  • Senal

    Hi Iromi,
    I work at a leading newspaper in Sri Lanka and we want to introduce a green feature and I would like to speak to you regarding your article. If you are interested please contact me on [email protected]

    Thank You!