14 November, 2018

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The “Garbage Slide” In Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Emil van der Poorten

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?

#Meethotamulla

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Emil van der Poorten:

    current regime or the past regime all in your mind. Because, politicians play musical chairs and they change the govts. Last regime had UNP parliamentarians who just crossed the sides because, it is the rumour, they wanted to escape the prosecution for their criminal doings. Similarly, this govt is a soup of everyparty. One major party is not capable of getting most of ther votes, so they gave a name to it because they can not say it is another alibaba and forty thieves.

    People voted for this regime because the previous regime did not work for the people. Can you prove it otherwise. Some how , why did this this regime neglect it for two years ?

    This regime is blaming everything for the prevuious regime. That includes the Central Bank robbery. Screwing up in UNHCR, getting loans from every where possible and finally this debacle to which politicians from so many levels of govts and authorities are accused for taking bribes, commis and finally neglecting. There is the Indian Owned company is also accused for giving bribes to politicians and doing nothing.

    Even now they are talking about scientific method of getting rid of garbage. People say tractors full of garbage are driving every where looking for a place to throw garbage “in that scientific way”. Only scientific way possible is find a conveyor belt and separate what is recyclable and what is not. Compost what cancompost. They have run all over the world to find it.

    You people enjoy bashing some politicians while thrashing some others. What ever it is how do you prove it is three figures when you don’t have any figures to prove it. It is simply a game. It is party politics by everybody.

    Why don’t you be happy saying it is all what the almighty wanted.

    • 2
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      jimsofty:
      As usual, it is impossible to understand where you are coming from leave alone where you are going!

      • 1
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        Really Emil

        You are not the most concise and to the point writer; you ramble along with digressions into personalities and personal history.

        There are others too who write in a similar manner.

        Interesting writers to some (me)

  • 3
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    Well said, Emil.

    And the summing up, “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?”, says it all!

    In the meantime, the Environment Ministry and its Minister are blissfully ‘going about their business’ of doing sweet nothing about the dangers of ignoring the warnings of Environmentalists about impending future disasters if actions are not taken to avoid more such horrors!!

    New luxury vehicles for the overblown members of Parliament should be cancelled immediately and the funds spent on resettling those who were affected by the garbage tsunami, don’t you think?

  • 3
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    In our beloved Sri Lanka the word ‘justice’ is not in the dictionary. The ‘Mountain of Garbage’ might have consumed a few scores of lives, so what, when, in our land, human life itself is garbage to the powers that be.

    The only segment that received my attention is, ‘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 … .’.

    Your benign assault on those currently with their hands on the levers of power should have been one of full thrust, not the oblique, ‘is there an “entente cordiale” between Sri Lanka’s governments current and past’.

    My inclination to comment is not because Meethotamulla is synonymous with garbage but justice in Sri Lanka is itself synonymous with garbage!

  • 2
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    For more than half-a –century, every crossing of the bridges of North Colombo into the city of Colombo has been accompanied by an olfactory alarm reminding me of the daily detritus that was piled upon those hapless citizens.

    Every politician who should have been concerned, and knew what was happening, turned a blind eye because some powerful people were involved in keeping busy bodies at bay, and contracts alive. Everybody knew something ‘bad’ was happening, but nobody ever expected what eventually did happen.

    All over our blessed island, someone is piling shit upon someone else, usually lower down the social order. Nimby’ism as very alive, and well and dumping.

    Just yesterday it was Meethotamulla, but at least another half-dozen are slowly ripening away. The truth is that here in SL we do not treat waste disposal with the seriousness it demands. Those involved, with no qualifications to undertake this service, have contented themselves with easy money in return for expedient devil-may-care practices.

    This has been going on for so long that a small army should stand trial. But, relax, nobody is going to be held responsible, and no charges will be brought (as is usual). Instead there has been a flurry of ‘guilty’ parties covering their backsides.

    I have heard the touting of the Muthurajawela marshes as a possibly dumping ground – STOP! That will give rise to an even bigger disaster!!!

    • 5
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      Looks like garbage circulation has begun again, after a break that gave relief to CT readers for a while.

      Comments by jim softly, spring koha and a few other pseudonyms will be saying the same thing, causing more boredom.

      Hum Bug.

      • 2
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        Galagedera Undaya:
        You can change your pseudonym as often as you wish. However, it cannot conceal the simplistic stupid malice of content.

    • 0
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      As the thro away society grows, garbage becomes an insoluble (yes many meanings) problem.

      Can burn it, then what happens to the toxic incinerator ash.
      Ship it to a poor neighborhood, possibly in Africa.?

      There really is no solution, contrary to what Emil says.

      Trash has been a since history began. Middens of ancient times are now archaeological sites.

      https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/27/new-york-rubbish-all-that-trash-city-waste-in-numbers

      http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/13/nyregion/seeking-the-truth-in-refuse.htm

  • 3
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    As long ago as in June 2006, an article captioned “A Practical look at garbage disposal” was published in certain English language newspapers. This article dealt comprehensively with the various aspects of garbage disposal in Colombo. It was contributed by the Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance.

    Perhaps it might have saved a few lives if the parties responsible for dealing with the garbage issue had read this article and given a hoot about it.

  • 2
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    Emil sums it up: “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)”.

    Few years back the dump used to be the marine drive Colombo 4,5,6. Then one day the dump disappeared after some speculators started buying up the real estates.

    This beautification of Colombo has not worked and never will. Beautify (not gentrify) the other parts and look for the flow-on effect.

  • 0
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    Emil van der Poorten:

    The point that I wanted make was don’t blame just one group of politicians. They all are there to manipulate and exploit the system. Instead blame everybody. Everybody accepts, gotabaya Rajapakse did something good in comparison to all other politicians. the problem is everybody forgets that he was just a Ministry Secretary, what ever the powers he had because the brother was the president, and was not a politician.

    It is a fact that you can not prove otherwise, that is People vioted this govt because the previous govt did not do it amidst all the strategies played by Mahinda Rajapakse. So, he just blames Indian and the west but not him and his cronies. similarly, Ranil blames the previous govt because Ranil has not done anything yet except screwing up every where he can.

    • 1
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      jimsofty:
      More gobbledegook.
      Can’t you understand the fact that some parties have contributed more than others to the unholy mess that is waste disposal in Sri Lanka? Your hero/buddy Gota, assisted by a TOTAL LACK OF QUALIFICATION TO DO SO, arrogated unto himself the authority to “gentrify” Colombo, probably not even knowing what that term meant.
      Isn’t he MORE THAN ANYONE culpable for this criminal mess?

      • 0
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        Emil van der Poorten:

        Man… you grumpy old, very arrogant.

        How about your Ranil he is a lawyer what does he knows. He has only screwed up during these two years.

        Any achievements for Ranil during these two years except blaming every thing on the previous govt.

        How do you say if the previous govt did everything fantastic why Mahinda Rajapakse lsot and gave a chance to a loser like Ranil ?

  • 0
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    Divide each sector of Colombo and other places into 1/2 sq. mile body-corporate schemes……area getting smaller with higher population density.

    Quarterly mandated fees payable(taxes) for garbage handling, per body corporate. Central area created for garbage collection, with non-decomposable items separated from decomposable.

    Each body-corporate to pay appropriately for the recycling of their amounts of non-decomposable garbage. Same situation for hotels.

    Nothing to do with Gotabaya – the slide happened after the 2-half year watch of Ranil!

    • 0
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      ramona therese fernando:
      Do you have to keep re-inventing the wheel of 2500 years of Sinhala Buddhist civilization even unto coming up with some hare-brained scheme for “garbage disposal.” You obviously have access to the internet and it would cost you nothing to explore what MANY countries have done FOR YEARS in the matter of recycling etc. Ah, but then you’d have less excuse for exercising your “erudition.”
      $64,000 question: DID OR DID NOT GOTABHAYA RAJAPAKSA, WITH THE CONNIVANCE OF THE MAYOR OF COLOMBO, EMBARK ON THE “GENTRIFICATION OF COLOMBO” WITH THE INEVITABLE ACCELERATION OF THE PROBLEM?

      • 0
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        EVDP,

        Wow!…..You mean other places on the internet have this scheme? Western places seem to have city centralized recycling plants and incinerators and things.

        Oh boy…..i was thinking of Sri Lanka 10 years ago and before. Rubbish was piled high by area housing and no one even noticed it. Flies and mosquitoes abounded, and so did dengue. But still they were small mounds of rubbish (as per area), as compared to Meethotamulla’s mountain. Within the last 2 years, much more non-disposable industrial material got thrown in also (with the UNP consumer drive).

        So I asked people why they just did not build a huge well and place their rubbish in it. They used to do that before in the 60’s and 70’s that I can remember as a child. Then they used to set it alight every few months.

        Since our government never has money to do decent garbage disposal for the public (and instead spend country money on Benzes for each other), it’s best that this becomes a mandatory effort per 1/2 mile community.

  • 0
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    Dear Emil Van der Pootin

    I can remember to have read an article from you regards to Garbage problem at your home front.

    How has it got solved or is it awaiting to swallow one of your dear neighbours and cause another Garbage Dump Disaster?

    cheers

    Levi

    • 0
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      Lvei:
      You are right and we have never ceased agitating to have that ILLEGAL operation removed, without success with either of the groups of politicians who live off the fat of the land (while the rest of us have to consume…garbage!)

      • 0
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        Emil

        Just wondering.. where is Canadian garbage dumped ? Do they not have dumps there ?

        Perhaps we can learn from them ?

  • 0
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    shape it mentality to blame

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