Last week, just a few hours after the nation had celebrated the dawn of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, tragedy struck. The garbage dump at Meetotamulla on the outskirts of Colombo which had attained humungous proportions collapsed, killing dozens.
The death toll, at the time of writing, has been estimated at around 31 but is still rising as clearing operations are underway and more bodies are unearthed. The country’s new year euphoria took and about turn to the grim reality of the unfolding disaster. Many were shocked and horrified at the images that captured the incident, showing dead bodies being unearthed from amidst tonnes and tonnes of toxic garbage.
Days later, debris from the disaster is still being cleared. Now though, a different game is being played out, the blame game.
The government initially announced a series of measures in the aftermath of the disaster. It declared that no more garbage would be dumped at Meetotamulla. President Maithripala Sirisena ordered officials of the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) to conduct an immediate assessment of the tragedy. Enhanced compensation for the victims was also authorised.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was on an overseas visit to Vietnam, announced he would be returning to Colombo earlier than scheduled in the wake of the disaster. Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake visited the site of the disaster. Hurried arrangements were put in place to house those displaced.
Despite these measures, lingering questions came to the fore. This was not a tragedy that occurred overnight. Nor was it a natural disaster. This was an incident that was born out of continuous inept governments and political expediency, over the garbage issue spanning several political adminstratations.
This was borne out by the fact that residents of the area had protested not once but several times against the dumping of garbage at Meetotamulla. The issue had gone as far as the Supreme Court. The matter had been canvassed by politicians of all hues. Nevertheless, decisive action was not taken.
As these facts came to be discussed in the public domain, the blame game began. Now it is being played out in earnest with both sides of the political divide anxious to shift the blame to their opponents.
Sections of the government allege that the garbage dump was shifted to Meetotamulla only because the previous administration – wanted Colombo cleaned up and kept beautified. As a result, the garbage dump at Bloemendhal Road at Kotahena was removed. New garbage from Colombo was re-directed to Meetotamulla.
Critics of the previous regime are eager to point out that, if not for this decision, there would not be a garbage dump at Meetotamulla today and the tragedy would not have occurred. However, Rajapaksa loyalists are quick to counter this argument saying that the former Defence Secretary had a plan to transport Colombo’s garbage to Puttalam by train – but this plan never saw the light of the day after the previous government was defeated at the 2015 elections.
Critics of the government also say that two United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians who represent the area, Hirunuka Premachandra and S. M. Marikkar campaigned during the August 2015 general election, promising to stop the dumping of garbage at Meetotamulla. Almost two years later, they have done precious little to honour their pledge, these critics point out.
Politicians of different hues have been out in force to express their point of view. While they have contributed to the debate that currently rages about Meetotamulla, they haven’t necessarily found an answer to the crisis.
Megapolis and Western Development Minister Champika Ranawaka had ordered that no more garbage should be dumped on lands belonging to the UDA. His erstwhile colleague, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila has proposed that the government adopt Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s solution of dumping garbage at Puttalam forthwith, instead of worrying about who would get credit for this idea. Even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa waded into the debate saying that the government should take responsibility for the disaster.
From what has transpired until now, two facts emerge. Firstly, it was indeed the decision to dump garbage at Meetotamulla without the solution to its conversion to fertilizer or energy, without allowing it to pile ton over ton that led to the present tragedy. Secondly, it is also equally clear that the present government, now in office for two years, did little or nothing to heed to the protests and warnings of the residents of the area – hence they too are equally responsible. They too did nothing about processing garbage to mitigate the humungous volume
What is alarming is that politicians of both sides are more worried about who should get the blame or the credit than about solving the issue at hand which is, first and foremost providing adequate relief for those affected and then, finding a viable and lasting solution to the issue of dumping Colombo’s garbage in the future. For politicians, the priority appears to be absolving themselves from any blame, rather than attending to the crisis at hand.
Temporary arrangements have been made to dump garbage at Karadiyana in Piliyandala after residents at Meetotamulla threatened to set fire to any more garbage trucks that arrive in the area. However, this is obviously not a permanent solution. The government should call on experts in waste management, instead of relying on the know-how of self-appointed political pundits, to advise on what should be done next and the best way of doing it.
Meanwhile though, we have seen politics at its worst. Rather than close ranks at a time of what must be one of the worst ever disasters of its kind, political leaders have chosen the option of taking sides and are pointing fingers at each other. Of course, this strategy of trying to score brownie points with the electorate will get them nowhere. One has to only listen to the choice words emanating from the residents of Meetotamulla to realise how disgusted they are with politicians from all parties.
The tragedy of Meetotamulla is now history. Nothing can undo what has occurred. What can be done is to learn from the tragedy and ensure that it will not be repeated again. Then at least, those who perished there would not have died in vain.
But, the big question is, do our politicians have the courage of their convictions to do so?