By Shamindra Ferdinando
Attorney-at-law Nuwan Bopage of civil society group representing the interests of Meethotamulla residents yesterday told The Island that many lives could have been saved had rescue operations got underway within a couple of hours after a section of the garbage dump collapsed on adjoining houses at about 1.30 pm on New Year day (April 14).
Police reported 26 deaths by Sunday afternoon in the wake of a woman receiving treatment at the National Hospital succumbing to her injuries yesterday morning. Bopage said that there could be more bodies under the rubble and the on-going clearing operation was proving extremely difficult.Bopage said the rescue mission had been launched at about 2.00 am the following day. The lawyer alleged that the army hadn’t been prepared to undertake the rescue mission though a contingent of troops moved to nearby Rahula school by 5.00 pm on Friday.
The government lacked even a basic emergency plan, Bopage said. Pointing out that the army had been sent there without heavy machinery to shift debris efficiently, Bopage said that troops stepped in response to people’s appeals. Bopage quoted a senior officer at the scene as having said that they intended to bring in heavy machinery the following morning.
Responding to accusations, military spokesman Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne said that the army had been rushed to the scene by 5.00 pm with required machinery and the rescue mission got underway by 5.30 pm. Brig. Seneviratne said that heavy machinery couldn’t be deployed without making what he called a ground assessment.
The government had no idea of the magnitude of the tragedy, Bopage said, adding that both Colombo Municipal Council and Kolonnawa Municipal Council failed to respond swiftly.
Bopage said those who had declared on Saturday that garbage wouldn’t be moved to Meethotamulla in the wake tragedy should be ashamed of themselves.
There had been a series of protests beginning January 4, 2012 demanding an immediate halt to garbage dumping at Meethotamulla, Bopage said, adding that both the Rajapaksa administration and yahapalana government had simply ignored their protests. According to Bopage, there had been 15 protests since January 2012 to pressure successive governments to tackle the crisis. Bopage admitted that all their efforts were in vain.
He said that those who had perished at Meethotamulla were all poor people.
Bopage said that the residents would seek the intervention of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Recalling that the residents had made representations to the HRCSL some time back, Bopage said that they would again seek its intervention.
Under Bopage’s leadership a group of Meethotamulla residents on Saturday addressed the media at the scene where they blamed both Rajapaksa and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe governments for ignoring their plight. The group flayed former Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzammil for his failure to address the issue. Residents also lambasted UNP members of parliament Hirunika Premachandra and S.M. Marrikar for shamelessly taking advantage of the Meethotamulla crisis to secure preferential votes at the last parliamentary polls in Aug 2015. Residents threatened to set fire to trucks bringing in garbage to Meethotamulla.
IGP Pujith Jayasundera, who had visited the scene of the tragedy, was reminded that how law enforcement officers had assaulted Meethotamulla residents protesting against the garbage dump on more than one occasion. “We are glad now police are here to clear debris”, one shouted as the police chief tried to pacify irate residents. When residents pointed out the failure on the part of the local authorities to send at least tractors to remove debris, IGP Jayasundera immediately called a person and offered STF drivers if he could provide the required vehicles.
At one point, the IGP told the person receiving his call that tractors were required immediately and not later.
Of that ‘garbageslide’
The Meethotamulla garbage mountain collapsed on the New Year day, burying many people alive. About 26 bodies had been recovered at the time of going to press. According to initial reports the garbage-slide has destroyed around 200 houses.
How civilized a nation is can be judged by the way it disposes of its garbage; if countries were to be ranked according to a scaling system based on municipal waste disposal, Sri Lanka is sure to be bracketed with the ten worst nations. The Meethotamulla disaster has occurred within one month of a massive garbage dump collapse which claimed 46 lives near Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, last month.
Unfair as it may be for the present government alone to be blamed for the Meethotamulla landfill tragedy it had nearly two and a half years to ensure the safety of people living around the site; it, too, chose to let the grass grow under its feet and waited until disaster struck to swing into action.
It had been patently clear that disaster was waiting to happen at Meethotamulla. There had been quite a few early warnings. The media had also sounded several warnings, but to no avail. The garbage mountain continued to grow under successive governments which conveniently shifted Colombo’s waste problem to Meethotamulla. The previous administration received praise for keeping urban areas, especially the Colombo City, clean, but the fact remains that it did so at the expense of the people of Meethotamulla and their counterparts elsewhere.
Unable to bear it anymore the Meethotamulla residents took to the streets a few moons ago to stop the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) from transporting garbage to the site. The matter finally ended up in courts. The CMC’s efforts to shift its waste to Wattala as an alternative also ran into stiff resistance.
Politicians are now playing Sri Lanka’s national sport—the blame game. The government is blaming its predecessors for the Meethotamulla garbage dump and vice versa. Their collective failure has lent credence to the claim being made in some quarters that Sri Lanka is a failed state.
Where there’s muck, there’s brass, as they say. Garbage ceases to be a problem if properly managed. The yahapalana government ought to learn from Singapore how to handle municipal waste. There are also other nations which dispose of their waste in an eco-friendly manner.
No sooner had the present government come to power in 2015 than it unveiled a grandiose scheme for creating a Megapolis, of all things. Having undertaken to scrap the Colombo Port City project it made a U-turn by agreeing to increase the extent of land to be reclaimed. Regrettably, it hasn’t paid any heed to make-or-break factors such as power, water and garbage disposal as regards the new project. The mega city to be built is bound to lead to a massive increase in demand for electricity and water at a time the Ceylon Electricity Board as well as the National Water Supply and Drainage Board are struggling to meet the existing demand. The CMC has already caused about 26 people to perish in its efforts to keep Colombo clean. How many more people will have to die in the event of the Port City coming into being with the CMC having to removing its waste as well is anybody’s guess.
Japan has sent a condolence message and offered to help deal with the Meethotamulla garbage dump. We have political leaders who wrap themselves in the flag and bellow patriotic rhetoric. But, they cannot at least solve the country’s garbage problem with or without foreign assistance. It behoves them to compensate the families of the Meethotamulla victims adequately and take steps to solve the garbage problem once and for all.
Police take into custody those who dump garbage irresponsibly. But, no mayor or a municipal official has ever been arrested for dumping garbage in suburbs and causing health and environmental problems. We have had several environment ministers and Colombo mayors since the dumping of garbage at Meethotamulla commenced about 30 years ago. All of them must be held responsible for the loss of lives at Meethotamulla. They are lucky that the country is without laws to make them face a firing squad!