By Emil van der Poorten –
As I write this the “Woe is me” brigade is in full cry with the “Woulda, shoulda, coulda” one not far behind, following the single worst disaster of its kind in the entire history of Sri Lanka.
To say that it was only a matter of time before what was, literally, a hill of garbage would collapse on those unfortunate enough to be in the path of such a collapse is to state the obvious. That the death toll directly attributed to this event could well exceed three figures is become increasingly apparent.
What surprises me in the last (cynical) years of my life, though, is the unprecedented HYPOCRISY of a variety of “commentators,” with pretended expertise, in trying to downplay the enormity of the problem. This has taken several forms one of which has been laying the entire blame on the current regime for the calamity, its causes and its exponential growth. Most of this is through displays of affected erudition on one hand and touting the “I told you so” line on the other. The latter seemed to have emerged from their sycophancy of the previous regime and subsequent hibernation to a pretended objectivity and outrage, cynically seeking to cover up the established malfeasance of the last government with a plethora of excuses for their until-recent benefactors. I even saw a full page in one of the English dailies (owned and operated by the current government, no less) carrying a blatant set of half-truths in defence of the Rajapaksa Regime by a man whom I once knew before he “Sinhalised” his name from one that was clearly Portuguese in origin and which effort didn’t succeed in imbuing him with so much as a smidgen of decency and morality, though!
What “tipped the scale” if I might labour the (sick) metaphor was the attempted gentrification of Colombo welcomed with hosannas of praise by its (largely English-speaking) professional class. All they didn’t do was forward Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name to the Vatican for a canonization candidacy for “cleaning up the streets of Colombo.”
This man, Gotabaya, who, in many circles is seen as the most powerful (and ruthless) of the Rajapaksa clan has neither experience nor academic qualification in the matter of urban development. His “beautification” of Colombo was “gentrification” at its crassest, with the active connivance of the then-Mayor of Colombo, Muzzamil, since rewarded for his efforts with the post of High Commissioner in Malaysia (by the current regime!). Those Canadian readers familiar with the landmark work in Toronto of transplanted New Yorker, the iconic (late) Jane Jacobs, can speak far more eloquently to this travesty of “city planning” than I ever could.
What was done was simply to take the waste generated, primarily by the middle-class of Colombo and dump it in one of that city’s poorest (and most helpless) neighbourhoods). Of course, those rewarded with paved walkways where uneven “pavement” had existed couldn’t contain their glee over this turn of events, particularly since they could embark on an attempted avoidance of obesity to which the poor generally aren’t subject.
I understand that a veneer of respectability was provided this initiative by having some established firm of architects (or one of its subsidiaries) formulate a plan of some description for this (pre-determined) exercise – after the fact.
However, as Robbie Burns once said, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft ….” The kicker in this has been the fact that all there has been, basically, from the media is copious hand-wringing accompanied by the usual crocodile tears. There has been scant allocation of responsibility to those who, in one fell swoop, killed so many poor people.
Mind you, there was a precedent for this in the matter of the (ethnic) cleansing of Slave Island which had been conducted, willy-nilly booting out people who had lived generations in homes on land for which they had inalienable title. This too was done in the name of progress, that “progress” being the deals made between members of the government of the time and huge Indian conglomerates who proceeded to build commercial structures which promised to generate income far in excess of what might accrue from the rents of those who were moved, whole families at a time, to the usual concrete-block apartments used to dump such human debris in such circumstances.
The obvious question that some Sri Lankans, at least, are asking is whether there is an “entente cordiale” between Sri Lanka’s governments current and past in the matter of exposing those who should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and those currently with their hands on the levers of power.
Why, otherwise in a country with a tradition of pointing the finger of blame in circumstances far less dramatic, have there been little but mealy-mouthed platitudes greeting this disaster of international proportions?
This appears to constitute yet another “coincidence” on a par with whole sections out of daily diaries maintained by the (previous) Presidential Guard being ripped out and “disappeared” when such documents were of critical importance in the matter of the investigation of the torture and burning, alive, of a rugby star of a few years ago because of his bad choice of “social associates” if gossip in rugby circles is to be believed.
Efforts to resist the movement of garbage from the present (collapsed) “mountain” have been met with Court Injunctions to prevent any such protests. Talk about shooting the messenger(s) not to mention the fact that this is so obviously of a piece with what happened some years ago when unarmed civilians were shot dead for protesting the poisoning of their drinking water by a chemical company headed by a major supporter of the previous government. Not only has that man and his company NEVER been called to account, leave alone prosecuted, for that crime, he continues to maintain his status, as befits someone who once figured on the cover of Fortune magazine, as one of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in Sri Lanka, presumably continuing to add to his selection of “collectors cars.” Apart from his position in commercial enterprise, he served in the highest echelon of the government service of the day, an arrangement without precedent up to that time. I hope that, with the change of government, he has at least been “relieved” of that encumbrance.
Why is all of this being permitted by an administration the primary commitment of which was to provide Sri Lanka’s citizenry with “Yahapalanaya” (“Good Governance”)?
The only explanation I can find for the current monument to obscenity hypocrisy and cant is that “somebody owes somebody” and if it takes a few (poor) dead bodies to pay that price, so what?