Monday, May 8, 2017

Adios Meetotamulla: May Day crowds hear garbage, leave garbage

Meetotamulla – now a bad memory
by Rajan Philips- 

With Meetotamulla politically conveniently fading into bad memory, May Day took poetic, rather garbage, revenge on the political class. After weathering verbal garbage from political platforms all afternoon, May Day left Colombo with tons of litter on the ground. In the wake of Meetotamulla, May Day this year could have been the ideal occasion for political organizers and leadersto set a national example for collectively dealing with litter at large public events. Different bins should have been set up, not by CMC workers (it was their Day not to work) but by Party volunteers, for disposable and recyclable waste. Every speech, that was otherwise so full political garbage, should have mentioned the garbage crisis and pleaded with the crowds not to litter the grounds but use the appropriate bins. Party volunteers could have been positioned among the crowds to help fill the bins and avoid litter. No, nothing of the kind was planned or done.

In the end, and at the end of their working-class day-off, CMC workers had to come back to work to clear the rubbish left behind after May Day rhetoric. Only JVP organizers were reported to have done the clearing themselves at the BRC grounds where the JVP held its rally. And a UNP state minister was also seen helping the CMC workers at Campbell Park. Good for them. The rest of the top bunch talked the grand language that made garbage sense, and were driven off by their chauffeurs, while normal people left real garbage on the ground and scrambled to their buses to head home.

May Day generated garbage politics, but politicians can ignore the politics of garbage only at their peril. It is up to the people to make sure of that. Colombo’s citizens must hold the country’s leaders garbage-accountable on a daily basis. If political and administration leaders cannot deliver on managing garbage, they are not capable of delivering on anything. What Colombo needs is not a hartal, but a home for its garbage. Hartal will only bring more garbage and resolve nothing. Hartal by government doctors and bus drivers – come on! And hartal over SAITM and private medical education – how disgraceful!

It would be great if the media, print and TV, could start a daily front page (or screen) box to show the day-count (number of days after Meetotamulla), the waste tonnage that is accumulating daily in Colombo, and an update on the government’s action/inaction on the garbage front. Let the people see what the government is doing, or not doing, daily. And let there be outrage if nothing happens – 30 days after Meetotamulla, 60 days and 100 days after, and so on, until something worthwhile is done.

A strategy for garbage, not a

‘garbage strategy’

What the country needs is a strategy to deal with garbage, and not a strategy that is garbage. The government’s strategy reportedly presented by the Megapolis Minister and approved by the cabinet is not quite garbage, but rather disappointing. The strategy, as reported in the press, includes the following (with my comments in brackets):

a) Stabilize the Meetotamulla mountain (as recommended by the Japanese Engineers) in five months, and turn it into an urban forest (don’t hold your breath to a see a City Sinharaja, for a haphazard dump is not amenable to creative conversions like a properly engineered landfill)

b) The Western Megapolis in full bloom, in 2030, will add 1,300 metric tons of garbage daily (i.e. about doubling the current garbage generation in Colombo and the Western Province), and the Minister is proposing to enable the Central Environment Authority to give environmental approvals. (Approvals for what? Doesn’t the CEA already have enough authority to ‘approve’? Except as some political worthy suggested CEA approval is not needed for a landfill if it is a government undertaking. If approval is meant for landfills, transfer stations, processing stations etc., who is going to propose/undertake these facilities, and where?)

c) The Minister proposes other steps: encourage the public to segregate waste; only transport segregate waste to designated centres; build waste disposal/processing centres owned by Local Authorities in areas with over 50,000 families. (This is, regrettably, a load of motherhood and amateurish hotchpotch).

d) Generate electricity from waste (Not viable according to many experts given the waste composition, with high organic content, in Sri Lanka. Composting, bio-gas generation and recycling are more realistic options).

e) Solicit project proposals from other countries for the Aruwakkalu site in Puttalam (How will the natural environmental concerns, that torpedoed this enterprise earlier, be now addressed?).

f) Transfer land in Kelaniya between two ministries for the future construction of transfer station. (Strategy should be about building something, not transferring land).

Garbage is not the field where an ambitious politician or professional would like to make or leave his mark. It is not a grand or glamorous field – like the Mahaweli or the Megapolis. But garbage is a fact of life, and after Meetotamulla no government can afford another mishap and tragedy. Yet, the present government does not give the impression that it is in command of the garbage problem, or, for that matter, any of the myriads of other problems that it is struggling with.

The solution is not in the return of the Rajapaksas either. Those who long for their return want it just for the sake of political bravado and for their own material sake. Solving garbage or any of the country’s problems is not on their mind. Oh, yes, Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will come along, elected or unelected, it matters not, just wave the magic military wand, and garbage trains will start rolling from Colombo to Puttalam. Solid Waste will have the perfect public transport in the country. The people will be left to wonder if only they could have such express service.

The solution is in collective and co-ordinated effort by all levels of government. Ideally, the national government could set policies and standards and provide for public education promoting garbage reduction, reuse and recycling. In a cabinet of over hundred ministers, it is not clear as to who has the file on garbage. There should be a single Minister specifically assigned to deal with garbage, and work with other levels of government. Landfills and transfer stations are best left to Provincial administration, and collection and disposal of waste left to Local bodies. The private sector, not the current garbage mafia, will find market opportunities in recycling and providing composting and bio-gas generation services.

The main problem is in Colombo and its immediate problem is finding landfills. Rather than looking for a single silver landfill, the focus should be on trying to use all the locations that have been identified so far, and quite a few of them have been identified in the Western Province and adjacent districts outside the province, to set up manageable sanitary, or engineered, landfills. As I have written earlier, multiple landfills will minimize impacts, reduce haulage distance, and maximize catchment areas including other communities besides Colombo. Tourism and industrial sectors should be targeted to pull their weight in reducing their solid waste, recycling, and contributing to landfills that will serve them and the surrounding communities. Liquid industrial effluents are a different and potentially more serious matter, and one that is on the country’s long list of neglected priorities. On that, let us spare this wholly beleaguered government for now.