“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” Mahatma Gandhi

Walking Paths

I live in the vicinity of the Attidiya-Bellanwila wetlands. This wetland was home to several species of aquatic birds, many varieties of endemic fish and a host of amphibious creatures ranging from frogs to crocodiles. An important feature of this natural reserve was the mangrove forest that gave sustenance to this biodiversity rich ecosystem. This vast wetland extended on the one side from the Bellanwilla temple to the Pillawa temple close to the Boralesgamuwa Junction, and on the other, from near the Bellanwila Temple to the Attidiya-Kawdana precincts.

Recently this ecologically beautiful landscape in Bellanwila and its environs came under the rapacious beautification drive of the Urban Development Authority. The metal monsters – excavators, backhoes and front loaders, of various types and sizes – surrounded this ecological niche in their numbers and razed through this jungle of mangrove shrubs in a frenzy of activity. (In fact prior to this beautification launch there were boards to the effect that this was a sanctuary and that those found trespassing would be prosecuted!).

Within a couple of weeks the verdant mangroves were turned into a mass of mud pulp. The electrical  lines  along the roads that bordered this  project  site were dotted with  birds who watched forlornly as their habitat was destroyed by these rampaging humans and their destructive machines. The fate of the flightless birds such as the Purple Moorhens, the Pheasant Tailed Jacanas are not known. I haven’t seen them since. For sometime the terrapins (small turtles) and various reptiles were seen traversing the road and roadside drains, even entering home gardens. Some animals ended up as road kill and I even saw a rare Sand Boa (a short tailed species of python) fall victim to human fear because it resembled a Russel’s viper,.

Next came the dredgers and turned the wetland marshes into a lake with a few patches of marshland left to create an artificial landscape.  Thereafter the lake was ringed with almost 3 km of carpeted bicycle track and a jogging track alongside with solar light masts every 100 m to provide lighting for night time riding, walking and jogging. One section of the lake has been encircled by a specially made gravelled track with undulating mounds for mountain biking! Finally as in the case of all these walkways (eg.Waters Edge, Independence Square etc,) the franchise kiosks, fruit juice stalls etc., were opened in the ambience of a lakeside promenade, not without the ceremonial unveiling of a plaque by the President, the Defence Secretary amidst the incantations of the Chief Incumbent of the Bellannwila Rajamaha Viharaya and a firworks display.

Overnight the place became popular and people of all walks of life thronged the place, awe struck and in wonderment of this piece of human enterprise that was a blend of two mindsets: post modern creations (walkways and mountain bike tracks) on the one hand and a re-creation of a feudal past (weva near a dagoba) on the other.

The work was carried out by government related departments (RDA, Land Reclamation Board) private contractors, underpinned by personnel from different security force contingents, including the Navy, given the aquatic nature of the project. The work was executed in regimented fashion, giving a spit and polish, militarized touch to the final product – straight lines, turfed bunds, and of course the paving stones.

In fact during the first few days of its opening, security guards at the entrance ensured that bikers and joggers all walked in the same direction! Thankfully, that urge for militaristic precision has since been curtailed.

I am also a patron of these walkways, but not without a pang of guilt and a feeling of learned helplessness every time I do so. There are several reasons for feeling this way, which I will come to later, but first let me get to the main purpose of this essay.

Floating Fish

A few weeks ago, when I was doing my morning walk on the jogging path, I saw several dead fish sloshing against the banks of the walkway bund. I would have seen nearly a hundred fish floating belly up. Being an environmentalist, a deep sadness welled inside me and I thought to write about this in order to bring attention to this tragedy. However I couldn’t do it for reasons of time (and misplaced urgency – dead fish come low down in our scale of human priority). When I came for my walk two days later I saw more rotting dead fish unceremoniously hugging  the edge of the lake and many more floating towards the edge. I realized at that moment that all the fish in the lake were falling victim to some unexplained catastrophe. In the past, the wetland was made up of different isolated parts and therefore, even if something were to happen in one part, the problem was limited to that section and hence was to some extent contained. With the opening of the marshland under this project, and its integration via newly built ducts, any contamination that entered any part of the lake engulfed the whole lake.

A week later when I went for my walk, a stench emanating from the dead fish filled the air. The crows too were beginning to crowd around the fish. Humans and probably other species of animals, including birds when faced with a catastrophe are able to communicate their distress, but fish are not capable of doing so. Alas, one could surmise that the collective stench in death, is one way that fish could cry out to their human co- habitants for help in the face of a disaster My conscience was again jogged to heed that call to write this article, but again the effort of penning these lines were so demanding that I put off the task for a while.

Finally two days ago when I went for my walk I was shocked to find that there was a dead fish on the walking path right before my eyes, probably dropped by a crow that couldn’t get a good hold of it.  This was the last straw and I decided firmly that I was going to write this post over the weekend and I feel so relieved that I finally did so.

The recent rains may have by now obliterated the problem from the public view, Therefore I hope the pictures that are part of this article will substantiate what I have been saying. My appeal is for some authority or expert body or agency (Central Environment Authority, Wild Life Department, NARA, IUCN, Centre for Environmental Justice) to conduct an investigation into what caused the death of these fish in the hundreds, if not thousands, and recommend immediate action to contain the problem (probably too late for that now) or at least ensure it does not happen again. I could be fertilizer or pesticide leakage from a chena or paddy field located in the middle of the wetland or the effluents from the service stations in and around the area adjoining the marshland. It is not just the fish but the other organisms in the lake that could be affected. There is also the problem of the food chain effect. In addition to the crows, I also saw other birds including a painted stork feeding on the dead fish. I have  not to date seen any dead bird lying around, possibly because of the in-built resistance in their different metabolic systems. There could however be other hidden consequences, such as impacts on their reproductive systems.

I would like to now come to back to the reasons for my feelings of guilt and despondency in  using the walk-way.

Firstly, I feel guilty that I remained silent when this lake project was commenced. I should have written to the relevant authorities and environmental organizations to call for a proper environmental impact study to be carried out to prevent such a sensitive biodiversity rich ecological space being so wantonly destroyed.

Secondly I feel guilty that I did not advocate that this project be carried out with a proper environmental management plan involving all stakeholders. The wetland could have been retained intact so that the biodiversity wouldn’t have been disturbed, allowing at the same time people to enjoy the wonders of nature. The wetland project developed under an environmental management plan in Talangama many years ago, is an example of such a sustainable initiative. The mangroves have been left undisturbed and this reserve has become a popular bird watching site. One could maneuver one’s way through the mangroves and enjoy observing the reptile and bird life inside it. As an amateur birdwatcher myself, I have done this on two occasions.

A third reason for my guilt is the fact that, as a citizen, I have not questioned from where the funds for this project has been sourced and what processes of transparency and accountability are in place for the spending of these funds e.g. How were contractors chosen, equipment hired, materials procured and labour deployed?

Fourthly, from a national planning perspective, I feel guilty for not asking a question if this was a proper allocation of resources based on identified development priorities. While people ride on a carpeted bike track and jog on a solar lit jogging track, a child in a remote village in Hanguranketha dangerously crosses a river over a fallen tree to get to school. Sometimes the school has no roof and the children share chairs and desks because of the lack of basic facilities.

I feel sad that in their fetishistic eagerness to imbibe of this modern amenity, people have failed to see the value of what was destroyed. I say fetishistic because the veil of non-inclusive, misguided development has blinded people to the reality behind that development. The people do not see that the capital that went into that development had come from the indirect taxes poor people have paid in the transformation of the value of their labour to purchase the basic commodities of sugar, milk, kerosene etc., needed to keep body and soul together. Billions have been spent on these projects and is equivalent to several years of such taxes paid say by the entirety of farmer families in a remote village like Karuwalagasweva. Yet these villagers have had no say in ensuring that these taxes be allocated to the fulfilment of their basic infrastructure needs. Instead the mandarins in power are reallocating these resources, accumulated through dispossession, to create more wealth for themselves and their cronies, in the beautification of the cities. Blinded by this glitter of appearances the people have allowed their right to a more equitable form of development, to be usurped.

Finally and most importantly I feel guilty that I have not cared enough about the fellow creatures that were my neighbours for over 50 years being evicted from their habitat. I have been walking these natural paths in the past, enjoying the beauty of the Purple Moorhens, the, Pheasant Tailed Jacanas, the Asian Open Bills, and the many other species of fauna and flora that were part of this habitat. But today they have been displaced, probably irretrievably. That will be a guilt I will carry for the rest of my life.

It is also here that my learned helplessness creeps in. What we are facing is a systemic issue much larger than what can be handled by me as an individual. The safeguards at the institutional level have been dismantled. The regulatory bodies have been captured. A quick look at the sycophantic, if not corrupt, Ministers under whose purview these environmental bodies come, will confirm the current state of affairs. There is still hope though, for those of us who consider ourselves citizens and not subjects. We still have the right to resist, to protest, to write to talk and above all vote.

I remember in January 2009 being part of a funeral procession that culminated in a symbolic dashing of coconuts to bring curses on those responsible for the brutal murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Dead and floating fish cannot mobilize such collective outrage. We need to do it for them. In writing this article, belated and feeble as it may be, I have attempted to do just that.