It is ironic that people should die from a collapse of a garbage mound in the financial city of their country. While the military which is engaged in the rescue and recovery of bodies have been advised to wear masks and boots at all times, not to consume food at the location, use mosquito repellent and seek medical attention for possible dizziness, headache or fever, the people of Meetotamulla have been breathing this air for many years, sans all these precautions, living among the vectors and various diseases.
It begs the question whether the residents of Meetotamulla weren’t considered human.
Over 1200 tons of waste is dumped here every single day by some 250 trucks and the Meetotamulla dump site is already 23 acres in extent, nineteen of which is already overwhelmed with garbage. Nearly 5000 households are directly affected by the Meetotamulla dump site.
The People’s Movement Against Meetotamulla Garbage Mound, Convener, Keerthirathne Perera is one of those whose whole family, sans him and his 13-year-old grandson, was wiped out in the collapse of the garbage mound. It is ironic that Keerthirathne who was one of six people injured in the clash that ensued the protest staged last year against the expansion of the garbage dump lost his wife, daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law. “We are forced to cook the Mala Batha (almsgiving) every day, because every day a body is dug up from the rubble,” said one of the girls as she cut up a cucumber.
It’s no secret that although it took several hours for rescue operations to get underway, the riot squad was put on stand-by at Meetotamulla just minutes after the calamity struck.
“She was pinned under a concrete slab, but very much alive and implored me to call for a backhoe to get her out,” said Keerthirathne. His 12-year-old granddaughter was alive under the pileup for three hours.
“It happened around 2.30 pm and when they were taken out it was around 9.30 pm. My wife was under the rubble for seven hours,” said Keerthirathne.
His wife was conscious when she was rescued but passed away in hospital. Many lives could have been saved had it not been for the delay in launching rescue operations.
Victims of the disaster were doubly victimized as they had to wait several hours more for the bodies of their loved ones to be released after a post mortem. “By the time they released the bodies they started to stink and the caskets were sent to us sealed. How were we to conduct the funeral rites?” questioned Keerthirathne haplessly.
History of environmental abuse
“It used to be all paddy fields and marsh back in the 70s. It was called the Pothuwila Kumbura about 72 acres in extent,” recalled Gunasena Kure, an original land owner of the areas who has since moved to Nawala. “We got the land on a 99-year lease.”
Cooray ran a diary farm in the area and when he ventured to the marsh to cut grass for the cows he had to submerge himself about three feet in the swamp like the rest.
Kure said that the area was referred to as Pas Pattiya. “The earth to build the new bridge was cut from the hilly area that this place used to be. Then the land was auctioned off,” said Kure. There were others who illegally encroached on the state land.
Legalized waste dumping at Meetotamulla started in 2009 under the direction of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) following the closure of the Bloemendhal dump site. The mound had grown over 300 feet since 2009. Illegal waste dumping at the site started in 1991 in order to fill the wetland for a housing complex.
“This is where our ancestral homes were. We moved here in 1980. We did not come and settle near a garbage dump. The dump gradually grew and it found us,” Keerthiratne said in an interview with the Nation, last year. He rebuked the government for not including them in any of the discussions.
No compensation offered
“None of the original residents were offered compensation,” said Nuwan Bopage, organizer of the People’s Movement Against Meetotamulla Garbage Mound. “Compensation of 1.5 million rupees was offered to squatters in 101 Watta and 23 Watta. But we are residents with deeds and we were not offered anything, nor have we been accepted.” Bopage said that some of the legal residents have been living there since the 1950s.
According to Kolonnawa Divisional Secretary, Sugath Sisirakumara they warned 10 residents by letter about the impending danger a week prior to the disaster. But Keerthiratne said it was a lie. “We never received any such warning”, he said.
DMC passes ball to CMC
When queried why the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) had failed to warn the people of Meetotamulla of the impending peril in advance, Deputy Director (Early Warning) of the Emergency Operation Centre of the DMC, KADPK Kodippili explained that the incident at the location was not a natural disaster. He said that the Centre was not a technical agency which issued early warnings of doom.
He advised the Nation to speak to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) as according to him the CMC was the body with the authority in relation to dealing with the garbage dump and it was the CMC that had advised the residents to leave the area and relocate by offering money to the people.
“If a technical agency like the National Building Research Organization informs the Centre (as they had done during the tsunami), we then conduct awareness in the area and carry out post-disaster efforts and take measures in this regard,” Kodippili pointed out.
Director of the Preparedness Planning Division of the Centre, J.M.S. Jayaweera declined to comment while Director General of the Centre, G.L.S. Senadeera, Additional Director General of the Centre, R.P. Samarakkody and Director of the Emergency Operation Centre of the DMC, Rear Admiral A.A.P. Liyanage were unavailable for a comment.
Equipment to tackle disaster insufficient – CMC firefighters
Meanwhile, Colombo’s firefighters while comparing the unprecedented disaster to an earthquake said that they did not possess all the equipment required to tackle a disaster of such magnitude.
Chief Fire Officer of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), P.N.R. Fernando confirmed that though they were the first to respond to the tragedy for the purpose of carrying out rescue efforts, there had however been no fire in the garbage mound.
“What took place which was akin to an earthquake was unexpected. We were the first to arrive at the scene. There was no police. There was no fire. The people were drunk owing to the festive season at the time the disaster happened. When they saw that we were from the CMC, even though we only wanted to help, they set fire to a backhoe and attempted to assault our personnel on site. It was with much difficulty that this was averted,” Fernando explained.
Relief efforts in total disarray
Most of the aid such as water bottles, dry food stuffs, clothes and bedding was directed to the camp at Terrence N. de Silva College, Kolonnawa. The whole staff of Terrence N. de Silva College sprang to voluntary action led by the principal and vice principal. Chamal Akalanka Polwaththage, an active member of Facebook group SL Disaster Relief launched to help those affected by the 2016 floods, revealed that they received no help or guidance from the DMC.
“The food was provided by the Divisional Secretariat and medical supplies were provided by the Ministry of Health,” said Chamal. But he revealed that there was only one doctor at the camp. “On April 16 a kid was diagnosed with dengue,” said Chamal reiterating the importance of having more medical staff.
Chamal explained that there are certain logistical difficulties at organizing the relief efforts of a disaster of such magnitude and pointed out that some of the people who have been registered at the camp were not those who had been directly affected by the disaster. “There are some people who are still at the site of the disaster who have not been registered in either of the camps, who don’t want to leave the site because they are still digging up bodies of their loved ones,” said Chamal who added that they have no way of getting the necessary supplies as the volunteers do not know who these people are. “There is none to step in and coordinate relief measures,” he rued.
Dengue could spread
Vector control activities such as fogging are being conducted in the area as dengue could raise its head, according to Dr Herath who said that environment control in the form of garbage removal is being done by the relevant Pradeshiya Sabhas and the urban councils.
“Displaced people with high blood pressure, diabetes or mental health illnesses, should get continuous services including medication in the form of regular medical drugs. They may also have minor ailments which must be attended to. The work at the centre of the school is of a practical nature. With regard to the temporary shift to the warehouse, different authorities are involved. The Medical Officers of Health (MOHs) provide basic health facilities such as immunizing children and conducting anti-natal clinics. Public Health Inspectors and field health workers such as midwives look into the provision of the water supply and its quality and sanitation. MOHs provide reports to us. We facilitate, monitor and control the situation. The directions and instructions are given by the Regional (Colombo) Director of Health Services and the Director General of Health Services”, said Dr Herath.
CMC can be sued for negligence
In the wake of the tragedy environmental lawyers say that legal action over negligence and the breach of responsibility in attending to matters on the part of Government agencies such as the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) could be instituted.
The same action could be taken if a private company was in charge of the disposal of the garbage.
An Attorney-at-Law-cum author of one of the chapters in the Judges and Environmental Law: A Handbook for the Sri Lankan Judiciary on the subject of environmental challenges and basic legal principles said that a public law remedy could be brought seeking the imposition of civil and criminal liability against government agencies.
“Taking individuals to task by way of a writ petition or fundamental rights petition could be more effective than seeking the imposition of civil and criminal liability against State agencies,” he said.
Environmental lawyers point out that the national environmental laws were sufficient with regard to addressing the issue of the removal of garbage, non-implementation and the lack of a mechanism for implementation, compounded by the fact that there was a lack of political will on the part of politicians and the relevant agencies to redress the matter. They say the prevalent issues are what is hampering the process.
On the question of whether courts not imposing a timeframe on governmental, State or private agencies for the removal of garbage exacerbated the current situation, he said: “This is a very difficult task. Courts lack the expertise and therefore courts rely on the agencies that possess the expertise. Courts have oversight up to a point. However, courts find it very difficult to say do this or do that. This is why there are time lapses or parties not keeping to the time. This is a virtually difficult task to accomplish. There is a limit to which the courts can get involved. Courts can only direct government parties. Courts shouldn’t undertake the tedious function of imposing a timeframe and monitoring. Such a big burden shouldn’t be imposed on the courts.”
Courts then can only hope that the relevant agencies will fulfill their task.
Unless a government, State or private party is held in contempt, there is nothing the courts can do. Courts can on their own motion, if the matter pertains to an ex-facie violation, on its own, hold a relevant party in contempt. This happens rarely and it can be raised by another party. However, it must be noted that punishing an officer doesn’t fullfil the task of getting municipal councils to remove garbage.
“There is however a huge lapse on the part of the authorities. For whatever the reason, financial or simply inefficiency, they don’t do their jobs properly. Courts are hamstrung as a result. Unless the system is efficient, courts cannot monitor the agencies and see what they are up to. In previous cases akin to the one in Meetotamulla, where the magnitude of the problem is immense, giving a timeframe of six months is futile and impractical and ultimately results in the courts being made to look foolish. Courts may summon the relevant agencies and query how much more time they would need and the agencies would say that they needed more on time. In reality, agencies procrastinate. Courts have to once again rely on the agencies. When it comes to implementing timelines, nothing happens without the support from the agencies. When a crisis like this occurs, measures taken are short term. These are useless in the long run,” he further explained.
Legal Officer of the CMC, Attorney-at-Law PI Perera was unavailable for comment.
Displaced to be taken to PMB warehouse
The Disaster Preparedness and Response Unit of the Ministry of Health said that the less than 200 persons presently housed at the Terrence N. de Silva College Kolonnawa will soon be relocated to a warehouse belonging to the Paddy Marketing Board.
Presently, the lone doctor at the school premises is a volunteer arranged by the Colombo East Base Hospital. He was not picked by the Hospital’s Director and the general procedure is that the Unit requests for a volunteer. During next week too, the hospital will be providing a doctor. Along with the doctor, nurses and medicines too are being provided. According to the Unit, even though different places such as the Sri Rahula Maha Vidyalaya in Mulleriyawa New Town had been selected, it is at the Terrence N. de Silva College Kolonnawa in which those affected are residing.
National Coordinator of the Unit, Dr. Hemantha Herath explained that basically during this kind of a disaster situation, they had to make sure that there is no outbreak of diseases and that there is no excess burden on the health services due to communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases and mental health related issues. According to Dr. Herath, the Unit worked more towards prevention than the treatment of diseases. Addressing the reason why figures for the actual number of those affected varied and didn’t tally, he noted that many of those who were affected and displaced are currently living with relatives, next of kin and at alternate places.
“The warehouse must have the basic facilities, such as toilets and bathing facilities, electricity and water as the victims are to be evacuated there. The facilities provided at the warehouse must be better and not worse than those at the Vidyalaya,” Dr Herath emphasized.
Meanwhile, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) emphasized that while there was ample evidence at the moment of public nuisance owing to the presence of the garbage mountain at Meetotamulla, they would meet the affected community including victims to consider the possibility of filing cases of public interest litigation and look into whether they could even go to the extent of filing cases against relevant State and government agencies charging them over causing death by negligence.
Section 98 of the Code of Criminal Procedure deals with a Magistrate making a conditional order for the removal of a nuisance. The disposal of garbage and waste at Meetotamulla constitutes an unlawful obstruction and nuisance in a public place which could cause conflagration or an explosion and is dangerous and injurious to the health and physical comfort of the community living in the area or carrying out business in the neighbourhood or merely passing by.
Section 298 of the Penal Code deals with causing of death by negligence by way of the commission of a rash act or omission of duty, the latter which amounts to the authorities purposefully neglecting matters and in doing so causing certain repercussions which in turn is tantamount to a breach of responsibility.
By the end of this week or the beginning of next week, once the people are settled in the locations they have been temporarily relocated to and have finished the process of finding their loved ones and are ready to search for what they lost, the private bar will go and meet them and conduct legal aid clinics and get their suggestions. If the need for necessary certification arises on the part of the residents, the unofficial bar will get help for them by going with them and representatives of the relevant government offices such as the Department for Registration of Persons, the Department of the Registrar General (Land Registries) and the Department of Pensions and provide solution to the victims.
President of the BASL, Udaya Rohan de Silva elaborated that they would also consider filing necessary motions in the Supreme Court in order to expedite the matters pending before the Court pertaining to the Meetotamulla garbage issue. According to de Silva, the said cases had been called and dates had been given in order to settle the matter (the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have given time for the parties to reach a settlement), the issues were being prolonged as the authorities unfortunately had not done anything in this regard and have obtained further dates for their own convenience.
“This is a massacre. Public nuisance involves a criminal action. If the government through the relevant authorities such as the municipal authorities is not taking serious action, we can go to a Magistrate’s Court and get a Magistrate’s order in this regard. If there is continuous dumping of garbage, we can seek a writ of mandamus or certiorari from the Court of Appeal prohibiting the authorities from doing so. If they are unsatisfied with the compensation and they deem the amounts to be paid by the government as unreasonable, then separate actions can be filed claiming damages. The latter will take time as details pertaining to the injuries are needed. We will do the cases pro bono with the help of senior counsel and President’s Counsel. We have heard that a chemical had been introduced to the garbage disregarding objections from the residents. Here too, negligence comes into operation. The question of negligence can be put to the Attorney General to decide. Also, if there is concrete evidence to show that the relevant authorities did not take cognizance of evidence, we can intervene and record it if we receive a public petition in this regard. If the victims can’t do anything on their own, for whatever the reason (lack of money or legal knowledge), we will help,” de Silva further explained.
Pics by Sassanda Liyanarachchi and Mayantha Perera