By Jehan Perera –
The tragedy at Meethotamulla, in the outskirts of Colombo, where a massive garbage dump came crashing down on people living on its perimeter, has generated an outpouring of support for the victims and frustration about the failure of successive governments to deal with the problem. About 40 persons are confirmed dead and several more remain unaccounted for giving rise to speculation that the actual death toll may be even higher. Unfortunately, this was a tragedy that could be seen to be coming. Those living in the vicinity of the garbage dump had been agitating for many years about the dangers posed to them by the prospect of disease and also by the stench but to no avail. In the meantime the mountain of garbage simply grew and grew and grew.
In societies such as Sri Lanka where systems of good governance are still not in place, even if aspired to, the priority of governments are not necessarily in order of importance or urgency. When systems are not strong it is those individuals who are in positions of power, and who are self-interested about their use of power, who have their way. Even today when there is a government in office that has a stated policy of being committed to good governance, priorities can be seen to be warped. The budgetary allocation for vehicles of parliamentarians and other officials who serve them seems unduly large when the country is said to be facing an economic crisis due to past profligate spending on the part of the previous government.
The problem of dealing with the garbage issue has been the absence of a system to prioritise the problem and solve it. It is also the absence of individual champions of garbage disposal in the ranks of those who have been and are power holders who were prepared to work for the national interest even at the expense of their own. As a result there was no political will to push the solutions that were proposed to their conclusion. The problem was not the dearth of possible solutions. Many creative solutions were proposed, some of which are being proposed again today. This is no dissimilar to the much larger and still unresolved problem of the ethnic conflict and minority rights where systems of good governance have yet to be put in place.
In the aftermath of the tragedy there have been many contributions made to the victims by the general public. There have also been many contributions made to the newspapers and media giving possible solutions. The interest that the intelligentsia of the country is indicative of the large reservoir of untapped problem solving skills that can be drawn upon to resolve not only this but other major problems as well. Another notable feature of the post-disaster activism has been the generous support of the international community. Japan immediately sent humanitarian relief and a team of its experts in the field to visit the disaster site and to make recommendations. China has offered to set up a new garbage disposal system.
Another positive feature of the post-disaster situation is the limited scale of the political one-upmanship than might have been expected. Both government and opposition politicians have blamed each other for what happened, but underlying their criticisms is a sense that all have been at fault. The more significant part of their engagement has been their constructive suggestions with regard to providing the victims with adequate compensation, both in monetary terms and in the provision of housing. The government started by offering Rs 100,000 for funeral expenses, but soon that has been supplemented by the grant of houses and much greater financial assistance. The media too has given prominence to efforts to assist the victims and to making a critique of past actions and publicity to proposed solutions.
The humanitarian relief effort has been victim centered. This is the way it should be not only with regard to the garbage crisis but also with regard to other humanitarian crises that the country has faced. There is a need to ascertain the truth of what happened, compensate the victims, and ensure non recurrence of the problem by ensuring accountability and setting up new structures to address the problems that arose in the past. The tendency to seek to move easily to the future, without dealing with the root causes, needs to be guarded against. It is good to remember the forgotten people of past tragedies at this time.
In October 2014, 39 people died and hundreds were displaced by landslides in Koslanda where tea plantations are the main source of livelihood. However, according to media reports, people still continue to live in line rooms near the site of the landslides despite the area being designated as a danger zone. Another example would be Aranayake where 37 people died and another 4000 people were displaced by landslides in May 2016. Most of the affected families continue to remain in temporary shelters. A further 3000 people continue to live in danger zones that are prone to landslides. They are the forgotten people of past tragedies who continue to wait for assistance. They can be forgotten because they are not at the centre of either national politics nor can they disrupt life in the national capital.
By way of contrast, the pressures on the government to deliver a solution to the garbage problem are high. Despite the government’s declaration that garbage disposal is an essential service there is resistance from the general public to garbage from Colombo being dumped in their areas now that the Meetotamulla dumping site is no longer available. As the piles of garbage mount the government risks a political backlash in the national capital itself unless it solves the problem in a way that accords with public sentiment. For this reason as sustainable solution is likely to be found soon. However, in the case of more distant problems, where the political costs of inaction are less, the problem continues to fester.
Today it might seem that the plight of war affected people of the north and east is far away and so it is not a priority to the decision makers in the capital city. The weakness of good governance structures in the country have meant that lesser priority is being given to resolving their problems. The controversial nature of ethnic conflict which is the root cause of the three decade long war also means that there are few political champions who will devote themselves to solving the problem. Without waiting for anger and resentment to build up, as it did in the past, it is necessary that the government to obtain the cooperation of the opposition, who are jointly responsible and address the roots of this problem as well.