Photograph courtesy SBS Australia
“A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself”.
Avraham Burg (IHT – 6.9.2003)
The first omens of the Meetotamulla tragedy appeared in 2011, when several houses became compromised. In January 2013, part of the dump collapsed onto the Sri Rahula Primary school, a presage of the coming disaster.
The first protest against the waste dump took place in 2011. It lasted four days with residents preventing garbage trucks from entering the dump. “The then rulers used the army, police and the STF to chase us away,” Hemamali Abeyrantne, an activist-resident, recalled. “Our people were beaten and hospitalised.”[i] The final protest happened barely a month before the tragedy, on March 7th, 2017. By that time political power had changed hands but attitudes remained unchanged. It took an unprecedented tragedy of colossal proportions for the voices of the residents to be heard.
So the tragedy didn’t come without warming. And it was preventable. Ways and means to resolve the issue could have been found, but there was no political will to make the effort. The political class simply didn’t care.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa claims he couldn’t attend to Meetoamulla because of the war,[ii] he is lying. The dumping began the same year the war was won, in 2009. The statement, though preposterous in its mendacity, is very much in character. After all, this was the president who claimed he knew nothing about the impeachment of the Chief Justice until the impeachment motion was presented in parliament.
When Gotabhaya Rajapaksa puts himself forward as the only man who can fix Meetotamulla, he is spreading delusion. The dump grew exponentially, in tandem with his programme to beautify Colombo. His much-hyped clean-up programme didn’t pay any attention to Colombo’s two biggest clean-up problems – garbage disposal and sewage disposal. No effort was made to build a plant to treat sewage during the time he was the de facto overlord of Colombo. Raw sewage was released to the sea from Wellawatte and Modera – a dangerous practice which continues to this day.
Though the Rajapaksas cannot be absolved from culpability for the April 14th tragedy, they are by no means the sole culprits. Meetomulla is both symbol and result of the failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to honour its signature pledge of good governance.
Familial rule and dynastic succession were the raison d’ȇtre of Rajapaksa rule. They wanted to turn Sri Lanka into a neo-patrimonial state, and pursued that goal with single-minded determination. They failed not because they were weak or vacillating; they failed when the gap between economic promises and economic realities grew too wide for the facade of Sinhala-Buddhist maximalism.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration lacks any sort of motivating idea, a unified goal or a common project. It is committed to nothing, not even its own survival. It is more democratic and less racist than its predecessor, but ‘we are not as bad as the Rajapaksas’ is neither a cohesive strategy nor an inspiring slogan. Its flip-flops indicate an absence of vision and commitment. Instead of standing up for the principles which forms the basis of its mandate, the government tends to embrace the path of least resistance.
This craven attitude is obvious in its approach to everything from constitution-making to ensuring justice to Rajapaksa-victims, from fighting corruption to working for progressive social reforms, from reducing economic injustice to enhancing democracy and devolution. There is no official racism, but there is no official anti-racism either. The government doesn’t use religious extremism as a political weapon, but it lacks the political will to resist religious extremism either, be it of the Buddhist or Muslim variety. Instead of fighting for the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable, it gives into special interest groups. It stands for nothing and fights for no one, and consequently is headed nowhere.
The sum total is a form of governance which is myopic, indifferent to its own enlightened self-interest and unintelligent to the point of self-harm. The tragedy in Meetotamulla is the outcome of that governance.
Environmental Injustice: Garbage as Poor Man’s Burden
Pothuwil Kumbura is what the Meethotamulla garbage dump is called in legal documents. That title is the sole indication that the site was once home to lush paddy fields and a stream of clean water, before it was transformed, without the consent of the original inhabitants, into the final resting place for the detritus of other lives. As Nuwan Bopage, a lawyer-activist who had been at the forefront of the Meetotamulla residents struggle against the garbage dump, points out, “It’s not that we decided to house ourselves near a garbage dump, but it was they who decided to dump garbage near our houses.”[iii]
The unwillingness of successive governments to deal with the garbage mountain in Bloemendhal came to a head in 2009 when several residents sought relief from the courts. A panel of judges, headed by Chief Justice Sarath N Silva, ordered the CMC to stop dumping garbage in Bloemendhal. The CMC proposed Meethotamulla as the alternative site. The proposal was approved by the court, as a temporary measure. The UDA provided the necessary land.
Politicians of all hues use the argument of necessity as a way of escaping responsibility for Meethotamulla. This argument has only a limited validity. However necessary or desperate, it is impossible to imagine the CMC creating a garbage dump in Colombo’s more residential areas, ranging from Colombo 1 to 8, even if the land was available.
In 1983, in a major study, United States General Accounting Office confirmed that race and class were factors in locating hazardous and toxic facilities.[iv] The study confirmed a global reality. Discrimination on the basis of class and race are often ingrained in development policies. Governments, including democratically elected ones, consistently favour the rich and the powerful in making spending decision, including Sri Lanka. Though finding a lasting solution to the garbage problem is far more important than building port cities or new airports or veining this small island with costly highways, successive governments ignored the need, because open dumps affect only low-income communities.
The tragedy in Meethotamulla is both proof and result of class-based environmental discrimination in Sri Lanka.
The court order allowing the CMC to dump its garbage in Meethotamulla decreed that the extent of the dump should not exceed 2 acres. This was ignored. The largest expansion of the dump happened during the time Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was turning Colombo into a garden city. Socio-economic and environmental injustice was deeply ingrained in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s beautification project which existed only for those areas of Colombo which were occupied or used predominantly by the wealthy and the middle classes. His notions of beautification entailed the socio-economic homogenising of Colombo by evicting the city’s poor (the plan was to evict 70,000 to 135,000 families, which could have amounted to the forced relocation of 280,000 to 500,000 people[v]). Though done under the guise of slum clearance and the removal of unauthorised structures, the victims were often long-time legal residents. The best case in point was the eviction of Mews Street residents in a military-style operation, in gross violation of a court order. There was even a plan to amend the UDA Act to ban residents from seeking legal redress against arbitrary evictions.
The only ‘solution’ the Rajapaksa regime had for Meetotamulla was to turn dump into a collection-site and to transport the garbage to landfills in Puttlam. That plan had to be abandoned when wild life authorities pointed out that the landfills were located within the one mile buffer zone of Wilpattu and in close proximity to Kala Oya, an important water source in the area.
The residents of Meetotamulla probably hoped that their luck would change with the defeat of the Rajapaksas and the forming of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s project of class cleansing did come to a halt, but nothing was done to resolve the garbage issue. Promises were made only to be broken. When the people protested, they were attacked and arrested. Like their predecessors, the new rulers too had only one solution to the mounting crisis in Meethotamulla – set up a new garbage dump somewhere else. A court order prevented the CMC from dumping its garbage in Karadiyana, Piliyandala. Public protests prevented the setting up of a new dump in Ekala. Instead of looking for long lasting solutions, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration allowed the problem to fester.
In the 1980’s the California Waste Management Board commissioned the lobbying firm Cerrell Associates to conduct a study on possible locations for a plant to convert waste into energy. The firm in its report stated that given the environmentally hazardous nature of the project, the locations with least political fallout would be low-income communities, communities of colour, rural and less educated communities. That was what happened in Bloemendhal and Meetotamulla. That is what is happening in the present government’s attempts to sweep the garbage crisis out of sight by creating new garbage mountains in Dompe and Karadiyana.
Business as Usual
When the Bloemendhal dump was abandoned due to judicial intervention, the Rajapaksa regime promised to turn it into a garden. The decision was announced after a meeting attended by Ministers Dinesh Gunawardane, Champika Ranawaka and Janaka Bandara Tennakoon[vi]. Five years later, the dump caught fire, a reminder that the promised garden exists only in the Land of Broken Pledges. Now promises are being made to create a garden in Meetotamulla. Can there be any doubt about the ultimate resting place of that promise?
The government’s declarations about finding a solution to the garbage problem will probably be forgotten once Meetoamulla ceases be ‘the News’. Even as the search for the dead and the disappeared continued in Meethotamulla, Minister Champika Ranawaka laid the foundation stone for a new skyscraper, which at 75 floors is taller than Basil Rajapaksa’s Nelum Kuluna. The warped developmental priorities which created the Meethotamulla dump and caused its deadly collapse continue unabated. Port cities and skyscrapers are being built in a city which has no place to dump its garbage, and is making-do with a sewage system created for 100,000 residents by the British colonial rulers more than a century ago. An ageing sewage system and a population bursting at the seams can create the next point of combustion. Unlike in Meethotamulla, even the city’s rich and the powerful will not be immune to that disaster.
The garbage problem is not limited to Colombo. Across the country, garbage continues to fester in dumps, contaminate waterways and pollute forests. Though the main culprits for this crisis are the Lankan political class, a share of responsibility also falls on us, the citizens. It is our duty to pressurise the political class to seek a serious solution to the garbage problem and to make our own little contribution to that solution in our homes and lives.
In 1977, Sidney Howe, an American conservationist and environmentalist pointed out that the poor were exposed to more pollution while the biggest polluters live in least polluted areas. This too is a global truth, applicable to Sri Lanka as well. For those of us living in Colombo and suburbs, ‘garbage problem’ means a delay in garbage collection. But for those poor communities living cheek-by-jowl with other peoples’ waste, garbage problem is a matter of life and death. And when death comes to those people in singly, as an illness, or on a large scale, as a landslide or explosion, (a potential danger present in Bloemendhal and Meetotamulla) some of the moral responsibility is ours as well.
[iii][iii][iii] Daily Mirror – 17.4.2017
[iv] Siting Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities
[vi] Lanka Page – 28.3.2009