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Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa lspoke to our sister paper Sunday Rivira about the macro plans launched by him during the previous regime to tackle Colombo’s garbage managemment issues and the interventions readied to tackle the problem scientifically.

Q: Politicians allege that you and the previous government are responsible for the tragedy involving the deadly Meetotamulla garbage mountain. What do you have to say about this?

Two years after forming a government, we ended the war completely. Yet these people even after two and a half years in governance are not able to solve even the issue pertaining to garbage and are still blaming us. Unlike these people we did not blame President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of the previous government. We did the job properly.

Q: You were the Defence Secretary of the previous government. Why are these people making allegations against you?

The main aspect is that the garbage issue wasn’t my responsibility. I was neither the Minister of Environment nor the Secretary – Ministry of Environment. Yet, when I was getting the Urban Development Authority (UDA) to do the programme involving the beautification of Colombo, I understood the seriousness of the garbage issue in Colombo. At a time when the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) was unable to handle this, I took this on. In the end, to beautify Colombo it was like me heaping some garbage from somewhere else upon myself.

Q: How did you implement this?

We didn’t just start the project of removing Colombo’s garbage. We had a macro-plan. We started it with the World Bank. The World Bank studied the  issues and spent money on it. That is how we planned to take the garbage mountain in Colombo to Puttalam. We cannot just go and dump the garbage mountain in Puttalam. After conducting several rounds of discussions with the Department of Railways, it was decided that a rail track should be constructed in Meetotamulla.

Q: What happened afterwards?

It was in 2013 that we started this project along with the World Bank. It took about one and a half years to completely plan this. This is not like just dumping garbage into a pit. It is according to a proper system that we must dispose of garbage at the chosen landfill in Puttalam. Subsequently, we put the entire plan to the Cabinet and obtained approval. From the 2014 Budget, money was allocated for this. It was in 2015 when the garbage disposal project was to be started that the change of government took place.

Q: What you are saying is that it was when  everything had been planned that this  process came to a halt?

Yes. It was when we were to launch the complete project that the government was toppled. Yet, even the honest officers I had appointed for the project too were suddenly transferred. In the end, the project stopped halfway.

Q:How did the World Bank project come to a halt?

I appointed Rohan Seneviratne, who was then a Deputy General Manager at the Ceylon Electricity Board as an Additional Secretary – Ministry of Defence, solely for the purpose of the Colombo development project. He was to be the person in charge of the Metro Colombo development project. It was because he was a talented and honest officer that this project was entrusted to him. The Colombo development project was to be implemented under a five year plan done with the World Bank. We studied the taskfor three years. It was under that project we studied the project of managing Colombo’s waste and transporting it to Puttalam. In the end, with the change of government, the programme of developing Colombo too came to a halt midway. Even though the World Bank project wasn’t completed, we discussed and provided solutions to problems faced by the people in the surrounding areas. We collected the garbage from the dump in a proper manner. We deployed the army and cut drains around it and made sure that water flowed freely. Because we did everything in a planned manner, there was no risk to the people in the adjacent areas.

Q: What you are saying is that officials of the current government ignored this?

These people have not done any management. They just brought and dumped the garbage. If the disposal of garbage was properly managed, none of these issues would have arisen. When I was the Defence Secretary I went to the garbage mountain and checked whether things were taking place properly. Garbage was temporarily dumped here prior to taking it to Puttalam.

Q: During that period, didn’t you realize that there was a risk to those around?

After studying all of this we relocated people nearest to the garbage mountain and gave them houses. I provided 300 houses of the UDA to the CMC. Out of these, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself went to Kolonnawa and officially handed over 150. You have to ask the Colombo Municipal Council what happened to the balance houses.

Q: Today, no one talks about the work done in managing waste properly and planning to take it to Puttalam and providing the people of Meetotamulla residences.

According to the proper plan, we organized projects. Before we could finish the rest, the change of government occurred. If that didn’t happen, the garbage problem would have been solved by now. Without continuing the projects that we started, they (present government) are blaming us. There is no talk about the work we did. When they came to know of an emergency situation, they could have relocated the dwellers nearby to safe places. During my time work on some of the UDA’s housing projects in those areas was being completed and is still being completed now. The people could at least have been settled in those houses.

Q: If they request for your help in solving this issue, will you give it?

I will definitely. This is because it is a challenge we must overcome. This is a problem of the people. Each day tons of garbage gets accumulated in Colombo. At least now, attention must be paid to managing waste properly and solving the garbage problem.

(thissaravindra@gmail.com)