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The New Year day tragedy at Meethotamulla Garbage Mountain is certainly a black mark on contemporary Sri Lankan politics. No one can underestimate the gravity of the issue as just another miss by the politicians who have been running this country. In a sense, it is more of a systemic failure of the political machinery currently and previously in operation, irrespective of the location, be it Meethotamulla, Bloemandhal Road or even Gohagoda in Kandy, to name a few locations.

It is easy to pass the buck here or there, but the blame should be squarely apportioned among all those who have been governing this country during the last few decades. The inability of our democratic institutions, both at local and national level, to focus on the real issues of the people has become quite obvious with this incident, more so because the danger has been known for some time.

The garbage problem is an old issue. We in Sri Lanka have been talking about modern ways of disposing garbage such as recycling for a long time for which many proposals have been made in the past. There are several institutions directly and indirectly responsible for these matters – Colombo Municipal Council, The Western Provincial Council, Ministry of Megapolis, UDA, and Ministry of Environment and so on.
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We are not sure how the responsibilities were shared among these institutions in the matter of this particular garbage dump. The only thing we know for sure is that despite protests by the residents nothing has been done in this regard and the disaster of the kind we have just seen is the end result.

There have also been allegations of local politicians and municipal officials making money out of the garbage dump – some by hiring backhoes to work at the site and others by accommodating waste matter from private institutions and even garbage from other areas. Some people with political connections have been illegally settling people in the adjacent area.

During the past few decades we as a country have on numerous occasions got involved in bigger and challenging projects costing more energy and money. There are occasions where governments have prioritized projects depending on their urgency, but it’s unfortunate that nothing of that sort were done in this matter despite many promises around election times.

There seem to be some friction between the Ministry of Megapolis and the Western Provincial Council over this issue. It has now been accepted that such tug of war between institutions and each one thinking that the other would do it also has contributed to this tragedy.

Then, another popular story is that each time there was a proposal to relocate the garbage dump public protests around the new location contributed to this issue in no uncertain terms. But others argue that governments are there to overcome all such problems and to find answers to grave issues impacting the people and thus excuses are not acceptable.

Despite the damage, it is never too late to learn and it is time for all to stop blaming each other and to come to some compromise and to implement a sustainable modern system of disposing garbage. As we know the subject of garbage disposal has been included in the Megapolis programme. However, one cannot wait till the Megapolis takes off to resolve this urgent issue and that is where prioritizing is needed.

The slogan Kolamba Kunu Apita Epa (We don’t want Colombo’s garbage)adopted by protesters in many areas have also been cited by some politicians as a reason which made things worse. They point out much of this garbage is literally brought into the city by those who come there to work and it is wrong to refer to them as Colombo’s garbage. Nearly a million people are believed to come to the city daily while there are only 650,000 permanent residents there.

The problem now is that even those arguments will not hold anymore as people have completely lost faith in the political system where this matter is concerned. Many of the city’s biggest garbage dumps have been started as temporary measures sometimes with court permission to store a limited amount of garbage, but in all these cases limits have been disregarded until they grew mountain high.

Now the latest issue is there is mounting opposition even from the residents of some of the new areas outside the city which have been identified as temporary locations to dump city’s garbage following the Meetotamulla disaster. Thus, daily collection of the city’s garbage is accumulating at some of the vital places in the city and this kind of loss of public faith seems to be making the resolution of the issue even more difficult.

Major Japanese support

The incident occurred while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was on an official tour to Japan prompting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to issue a statement condoling with the victims and promising assistance to resolve some of the associated issues. Japan as a country with first world infrastructure will be able to give us the necessary technological and financial support to develop a sustainable modern garbage disposal system for the western province.

As they have already come forward to participate in developing urban transport under the Megapolis and Western Development programme, additional support in the area of garbage disposal is quite feasible.Japan has a highly organised garbage disposal system which places much emphasis on household recycling. With limited space for landfills they are supposed to be very keen on recycling with each city having a different garbage disposal system.

Wickremesinghe’s visit to Japan is significant to both Sri Lanka and Japan as it happened in an important period. On one side Japan has already shown interest in participating in some of the infrastructure development programmes in Sri Lanka while she has considerable interest in trade and shipping in Indo Pacific region in which Sri Lanka is an important hub.

Despite close historical ties with Japan, we failed to receive considerable Japanese assistance in the immediate post separatist conflict period. Now with the change of Japan has begun to give economic and financial assistance particularly in the area of infrastructure development.

In this context, the visit of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would have really bolstered the developing economic and trade relations between Sri Lanka and Japan.   Wickremesinghe’s high level bilateral talks with Prime Minister Abe and several other members of the Japanese Cabinet mainly focussed on economic, trade and investment relations between the two countries and science and cultural fields.

Two leaders also discussed ways and means of accelerating the long-delayed Japanese funded project to introduce digital broadcasting to Sri Lanka. Funded through JICA, the project was to be launched in the Western Province and the Northern Province in 2011.
They also discussed the issue of maritime security while Japan was assured that Sri Lanka wouldn’t in anyway support military activity in the region. It was also announced that Japan would be appointing Dr. Hiroto Izumi as Special Representative for Sri Lanka to address development matters.The two leaders issued a joint statement that called for further cooperation in the maritime field,

Port facilities open to all

The statement also called for strengthening exchanges between defense officials of the two nations. Japan will also provide one billion yen ($9 million) for the construction of port facilities in northeastern Sri Lanka. In a joint news conference after the meeting, Abe said: “In order to establish free and open Indian-Pacific waters, it is indispensable that Sri Lanka serve as a hub with port facilities open to all.”

China has been heavily involved in constructing and repairing port facilities along coastlines from Pakistan to Sri Lanka and Myanmar that provide passage to the Indian Ocean. That strategy has been described as China’s “pearl necklace” because a string of seaports are being developed around India.

One such seaport in Gwadar, Pakistan, is managed by a Chinese company. Ashahi Shimbun newspaper quoted a high-ranking Japanese Foreign Ministry official saying: “Sri Lankan ports should not be turned into something like the one at Gwadar (that is difficult for other nations to use).”

By sharing the principle of an open and free Indian-Pacific waters strategy with Sri Lanka, Abe is hoping to stem the growing influence of China in those waters. While Japan has thus made their security concerns clearer it is already known that the US and India also have same fears and concerns over growing Chinese influence in the area.The concept of free shipping in the Indian Ocean so promoted by Japan is backed by all these countries that have similar security concerns.

Balancing these factors properly is vital for the future of our country and it could be a good opportunity as well as a challenge for Sri Lanka. While Ranil Wickremesinghe is much involved in this futuristic development, Maithri – Ranil government is best positioned to take advantage of this situation despite differences among the two parties which has to be understood as natural in a marriage of two factions with historically different ideologies.

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