Rathupaswela riot and the hostage-taking syndrome



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Many reports have been written about how unjustifiable force was used to disperse protestors in Rathupaswela in the Gampaha district who were protesting the contamination of the ground water in their area. The cause of the protest undoubtedly had merit. Residents in about ten villagers in the Gampaha district had noted a sudden increase in the acidity in the ground water in the area which they thought was due to industrial effluents being released into the environment by a latex rubber glove manufacturing company (Dipped Products subsidiary Venigros) in the vicinity. Every now and then we hear stories about villagers rising up in protest against environmental pollution caused by industrial establishments. As such, there is the possibility that the suspicions of the villagers were well founded.


But then there are parts of this story that do not tally. The Rathupaswela water acidity problem came out of the blues and has no history. Usually, if a factory was polluting the environment, we would be hearing about it for months, if not years and our provincial correspondents would have reported the matter.  Provincial correspondents of newspapers are usually the first persons to hear about such things. But strangely, nobody had even heard of Rathupaswela until this issue suddenly burst upon the scene. Dr M. Ranasoma of Dipped Products Ltd, said that there was never any problem in the past about the factory causing contamination of the ground water in the area.


JVP parliamentarian Vijitha  Herath more or less confirmed this story in a statement he made to the newspapers. What he said was that this problem had emerged for the first time just two weeks ago when villagers had fallen ill with skin rashes and the like and when some of them privately checked the well water in the area, it was found to have a very low pH value and was not fit for drinking.


The Dipped Products factory had been functioning in the area for many years and according to Dr  Ranasoma, all industrial effluents of the factory are treated and they re-use 30% of the treated water which cannot be done if the water was not cleaned. Anything that is released to the environment always has a pH value of 6.5 according to him so that cannot be the reason for the drop in the pH value of the water table in the area. A pH value of 7 indicates neutrality. Anything lower indicates acidity and anything higher than 7 indicates alkalinity. Usually ground water would be in the range of 6 to 8.5. Dr Ranasoma also said that their environmental standards conform to the specifications of the various government agencies and that their factory is checked by the Board of Investment once in three months. The water table in the area could not have been contaminated so widely, without the pollution taking place over a number of years and it could not have happened suddenly over the past few weeks.


But the villagers do have a problem irrespective of its duration. The well water is unsuitable for consumption. On the other hand, Dipped products Ltd is a part of a blue chip company and some credence has to be given to their side of the story as well because no government agency appears to have detected any problem . They could not have been releasing harmful effluents into the environment without anybody being aware of it until just a couple of weeks ago. While both sides have their own story to tell, the truth will soon be revealed by the ongoing investigation. This brings us to the question of the manner in which the protest was conducted and the manner in which it was dispersed.


This writer has always advocated an iron fisted approach to any protest that disrupts public life. We believe this present trend of disruptive protests began last year when a splinter of the JVP got the students of the Sri Jayawardenepura University to march right up to Temple Trees on the frivolous allegation that some minor damage (not amounting to anything more than Rs 2,000) had been done to a concrete memorial in the university premises. On that day, the entire city of Colombo came to a standstill due to the gridlock on the roads. A political party that depends on the votes of the people will never dream of doing something like that because they fear public resentment.


After that, another protest by students of the Sabaragamuwa University a couple of months ago, blocked the Colombo-Badulla highway for nearly six hours. That was over the suspension of four students. The anguish of the long distance travelers stuck on the road for such a long time can only be imagined. After that incident, there were a whole spate of protests with people blocking roads and railway tracks as a way of drawing instantaneous attention to their protests.


There is much cause for suspicion with regard to the latest such incident in Rathupaswela.  The blocking of the Colombo-Kandy had taken place just as a conference was taking place with representatives of the protestors in the defence ministry with a view to settling the issue. It was decided at this meeting that the factory should be closed until the waste disposal system in the factory was checked and in the meantime, drinking water would be supplied to the affected villages by water bowsers and expeditious steps would be taken to supply pipe borne water to those villages. It was while this meeting was in progress that protestors blocked the Colombo-Kandy road. Very clearly somebody wanted a confrontation before a settlement could be effected.


This time, there was an alarming escalation of the disruption as well, with not only the Colombo-Kandy  main highway being blocked, but petrol bombs used against the police and army – a thing which has no precedent in this country.  This government has been far too soft on disruptive elements over the past one year or more which is why we see this dangerous escalation today.  When a protest takes place the first duty of the government is not to the protestors, but to the people inconvenienced by the protest, especially if the number inconvenienced outnumbers the protestors.


Why do we say that the government should be receptive to the demands of protestors? It’s because protestors are deemed to have a grievance. If such is the case, what happens if the actions of the aggrieved protestors cause grievance to a much large number of people? Who is going to look into THAT grievance? The government should make its decision on the basis of the number of people involved and a judgment of whose grievance can be solved faster. Hence if protestors asking for clean water are blocking the Colombo Kandy road, the first issue to solve is that of the hundreds of thousands stuck on the road rather than a few hundred protestors.  Furthermore, to solve the problem of the hundreds of thousands on the road, all the police have to do is to remove the protestors, whereas the grievances of the protestors would take much longer to solve.


Besides, it is necessary to wean protestors away from the view that it is quite okay to hold other people ‘hostage’ until the government gives them what they want.  The dictionary meaning of the word hostage, is "a person seized or held as security for the fulfillment of a condition." So when protestors block the road and hold people against their will until the government grants their demands, what is that other than a hostage-taking? When there is a protest and a ‘hostage-taking’ at the same time, the government’s duty is to release the hostages first and talk to the protestors later. If the protestors have to be beaten mercilessly before the release of the hostages can be secured, then so be it. At last Thursday’s protest in the Gampaha district, the demonstrators allowed only ambulances and school vans to pass. This in itself is an act of sheer arrogance. The protestors were trying to claim the moral upper ground by showing that they held only able bodies adults hostage, while invalids and schoolchildren were allowed to go their way - an ethical hostage taking as it were! This is not a situation that should be allowed to continue. Very clearly, there are professional agitators with vested interests spread throughout the country whose task it is to turn minor issues into major ones, and major issues into even bigger issues.


Protestors blocking roads for whatever reason, should be removed using minimum force and if that fails, with merciless beatings and the ring leaders of such protestors should be identified and locked up in Boossa under the PTA. The PTA itself should be renamed the Internal Security Act so that it can be used to meet such situations. If the government is unable to stop this hostage taking by protestors, they should do what the UNP government did in the late 1980s and tell the people to look after their own welfare and tell motorists to clear the road themselves and proceed on their journey. When people are traveling on the roads, they are not UNP or SLFP or pro-government or anti-government. They are just ordinary people wanting to reach their destination as soon as possible.


What the majority of the people of this country want is a life without disruption and those with grievances should employ non-disruptive means of getting their grievances attended to. Above all this abominable practice of holding hostages who have nothing to do with the issue concerned should be brought to a halt, even if live ammunition has to be used to achieve that objective.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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