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Pollution in Sri Lanka: Who cares?

Your absolutely brilliant editorial on Saturday, which said corruption had gone the same way as pollution and that everybody talked about it but nobody did anything about it, prompted me to write this article.

Certain countries are outsourcing their polluting industries to this country. This has been facilitated by the establishment of the so-called Export Processing Zones in every corner here. Having been the Secretary-General of the first Board of Investment with the late Upali Wijewardena as Chairman, I can vouch for the fact that no polluting industry was ever approved. In later years unscrupulous Chairmen appear to have gone to town. Our rivers and streams are the most polluted as is the air. We are said to have an incorruptible Minister for the Environment and a similar person as Chairman of the Environment authority now but we the public, have a right to know what they have achieved. Have they ordered the closing down of any so-called BOI approved polluting industries? Loud was the boast of certain BOI Chairmen in the past, who impressed naïve Presidents by winning plaudits from them when they claimed that they had brought millions of dollars worth of investments to this country. This was the value (often estimated) of the machinery fabricated abroad. The naïve politicos were of course impressed. There had been a time when even the working capital was borrowed locally.

When the first Board of Investment, which was named the Greater Colombo Economic Commission, was established in 1978, President Jayawardene, under whom the GCEC functioned, set out the guidelines. He said, "I have three priorities, jobs, more jobs and still more jobs." He wanted labour intensive industries and industries that would use local raw material. He also directed us to go to the West saying, "They have the capital and the know how and that is where markets for our products can be found." And that exactly was what we did; we created 25,000 clean jobs in three years; we were ridiculed by certain politicians who had a problem with the Chairman Upali Wijewardena, stating that that we were setting up a huge tailoring business but their stupid comments born out of hatred and envy did not deter us. Ee followed the President’s instructions and today it is said that almost three hundred thousand (300,000) are directly employed in this industry.

To return to the subject of this essay, there is widespread pollution in this country. The equipment being used in most industries is also very old and outdated. They use polluting technology. It is also a fact that industry does not follow environmental laws and there are also no regular inspections carried out. The waste from polluting factories and toxic chemicals have been released twice or thrice a week in the middle of the night in small quantities into canals and rivers, in the new so-called Export processing zones, and nobody is concerned other than the helpless people who unfortunately live in the vicinity.

We have not been able to develop environment friendly processing industries nor have we upgraded existing industries using new technology. Compounding this problem has been the establishment of polluting industry in the new export zones. Some years ago the residents of Ekala launched a protest when the Union Carbide’s binding gum-producing factory discharged chemicals, including poisonous ethyl acrylate into an open drain in the heavily populated suburb, seriously harming at least 100 people, including 25 children.

The Medical Officer of Health in the area filed a court case against the company some years ago but it continues to be postponed and the company has been allowed to reopen the plant despite the fact that ethyl acrylate is known to be dangerous. According to the environment site EDF Chemical Scorecard (www.scorecard.org), the chemical has been recognised as carcinogenic with suspected impacts on the gastrointestinal system, liver, kidney, the immune system, the brain, respiration, the skin and sensory organs. The decision of court left the residents anxious and furious but helpless; more recently there has been a case of an asbestos factory in a highly residential area in Ratmalana. Asbestos factories are not permitted in residential areas not only in developed countries but also in developing countries. The WHO has also issued a ruling against the establishment of asbestos factories in residential areas but nevertheless the factory has been built. An FR application has been filed and the pace at which our judicial system functions, it may be a few years before the matter comes up. By then many citizens in this residential area of Ratmalana would either have gone to their graves because of lung disease or would be inflicted and suffering with such diseases as cancer.

There has been a number of polluting industries which were required to close down in certain countries but they have relocated here thanks to the BOI approval and the Central Environmental Authority not objecting. Another factor that has permitted their continuance is corrupt politicians who are, no doubt, paid by the owners of these polluting factories to look after their interests.

Does the CEA have teams of inspectors who visit factories and certify that they are maintaining the required standards? If not, why? The Central Pollution Control Board has team of Inspectors who regularly inspect factories in addition to State authorities. Do we have standards for effluent treatment and do the polluting factories have effluent treatment plants of quality?

In India there are seventeen categories of highly polluting industries. I wonder whether we have similarly categorised industries. Here is the Indian list: (1) Caustic Soda (2) Cement (3) Copper Smelting (4) Pesticides (5) Petrochemicals (6 )Distilleries ( 7) Drugs & Pharmaceuticals (8) Pulp & Paper (9) Oil Refineries (10 ) Sugar (11) Thermal Power Plants (12) Zinc Smelter (13) Dyes and Dye Intermediates (14) Fertiliser (15) Integrated Iron & Steel (16) Tanneries (17) Aluminum Smelters.

How many of these highly polluting industries have been established in this country? Are they being inspected regularly? Is it not true that many aluminum smelting plants which were not permitted in another country have been brought over and established here? Who takes responsibility for this?

AIR Pollution and NOISE pollution are two other areas which have been neglected by the authorities. Many cities have meters which indicate air quality but we do not seem to be concerned. As for noise pollution it was finally the former CJ Sarath N. Silva who intervened at least to let those living near temples and mosques to have some peace at night but he did not pronounce on the blaring bus sirens which have caused the hearing of many living close to main roads to be affected. I myself have drawn the attention of the Minister of Environment, the Environmental Authority, the Police, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles and the in sheer desperation, even the attention of the head of Ministry of Justice but to no avail. The wretched bus drivers carry on regardless –perhaps the busses are owned by politicians and we, the public are made to suffer. The VIPs who travel in air conditioned and bullet proof vehicles and live away from main roads are not affected and do not appear to care. Pollution in all its forms and manifestation must be checked. As for the Ministry and the CEA, we, the public, have a right to know what they have done (I do hope that the next government would make the RIGHT TO INFORMATION a statutory right of the people). Transparency is absolutely vital and in the public interest and if our politicians, as they claim to be, are interested in the welfare of the people, then they must introduce legislation to enable us the people to safeguard our interests.

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