Welcome to Colombo; hold your nose!
Mahatma Gandhi once said the best way to judge a nation was how its animals were treated. One may argue that a nation could also be judged by the way it handles its garbage. If that yardstick were to be adopted by any chance, where would Sri Lanka rank as a nation? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind sweeping the streets of Colombo.
Colombo has earned notoriety for its noisome stench. Garbage has a ubiquitous spread adding to its squalor. In some places like the Pettah private bus station, roads have been turned into public urinals. Drains are veritable mosquito and rat farms. The first thing that greets a foreigner coming to the city from KIA is the garbage mountain at Bloemendhal. And Sri Lanka is trying her best to market herself as a tourist destination! We must thank foreign tourists for not running back to the airport and taking the next flight out of the country!
The situation has certainly taken a turn for the worse during the past few days. The city is awash with garbage piled at every conceivable place as a recent court ruling banned garbage dumping at the regular sites. Two new sites are reported to have been named and the garbage disposal is expected to resume shortly.
The real problem is not geographical location where garbage is dumped but the fact that it is not properly managed. All these years the CMC has been shifting the problem here and there without trying to find a lasting solution. The garbage mount at Bloemendhal is a monument to callousness and inefficiency of the city stepfathers under successive political dispensations. They have let the grass grow under their lazy feet all these years. And they will be more than willing to create several more Himalayas of garbage at other places instead of solving the problem. Garbage collected daily from the city weighs over 700 tons and this amount is enough to bury a small village.
People in several suburbs are already on the warpath, unable to bear the ill-effects of others' garbage unloaded at their doorstep day in day out. They cannot use their wells as ground water is highly contaminated because of the toxic seepage from garbage heaps which in most cases include even waste matter from hospitals and factories. The plight of people at Karadiyana, Werahera is a case in point. That once serene hamlet hugging a picturesque waterway has today become a hellhole. Thugs are controlling the garbage dumping operations there and the voiceless people have to suffer in silence in this Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka! The same goes for the Bloemendhal dump in the hands of the scum of the earth thriving on others' agony. "Where there's muck," they say, "there's brass"-for thugs with political backing.
What is required, we repeat, is not the relocation of the stinking problem of unplanned garbage disposal but the formulation of an action plan to solve it once and for all. In fact, the real problem is that the CMC has turned a blind eye to the solution which is being successfully implemented in some areas like Bandaragama, where garbage has ceased to be a problem as such thanks to the innovative thinking of the Pradeshiya Sabha there, which is turning waste matter into fertiliser. If a small local government body could tackle the problem so effectively, there is no reason why the CMC with a great deal of funds at its disposal should fail to do so.
Yesterday, a former state official pointed out that a plan to generate electricity with garbage had been shelved. Some years ago, there was a much publicised proposal to manufacture fertiliser with the Bloemandhal garbage heap. It was said that the dump was sufficient for producing fertiliser for years on end. But, as is the way with the policy makers and politicians nothing came of that proposal and the garbage mount continued to grow until it became a volcano of sorts with gases formed underneath.
This newspaper alerted the CMC and the environmental authorities, on August 29, 2008, to the possibility of the Bloemendhal dump exploding but to no avail. On March 08, the 'volcano' erupted destroying as it did several shanties in the vicinity. Although no lives were lost and a major disaster was averted by the fire fighters and the public who doused the flames immediately, experts believe the worst is yet to happen. Given the sheer volume of gas forming waste, the day may not be far off when we have a second and bigger explosion. But, the environmental pundits of the present regime and the CMC bigwigs continue their slumber only to be shaken awake by a court order or a public protest from time to time.
The city stepfathers and the environmental nincompoops whose forte is making all sorts of noises must not be allowed to get away with their dereliction of duty by attempting piecemeal solutions. They must be made to tell the public how they are going to solve the problem and do as they say. The government and the CMC together could turn garbage into a goldmine, if they adopt the right approach as the lesser councils have already done. The public, too, cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. They are totally devoid of any concern for the environment in disposing of garbage. Tons and tons of polythene are released every month into the underground drains, blocking them and causing floods even during light showers. They seldom sort out waste matter.
While people are educated on the importance of reducing and reusing as well as sorting out trash, the CMC ought to give priority to recycling and not to shifting the problem. In the short term, the CMC may adopt some desperate remedy to clean the city fast and make it livable. But it must not lose sight of the need to evolve a durable solution. There are no short cuts.