“Which is the true nightmare, the horrific dream that you have in your sleep or the dissatisfied reality that awaits you when you awake?”
- Justin Alcala
The pile of garbage was as tall as a 14-storey building. Its collapse was crushing, no pun intended. Two weeks ago the death toll stood at 32 and 30 odd still missing. ‘The Meethotamulla garbage dump is likely to crash again if heavy rains occur within the next few weeks or days’, according to R. M. S. Bandara, Director of Landslides Research and Disaster Management Division of the National Building Research Organization (NBRO). The waste dumped by human beings in Colombo and the surrounding suburbs had come to extract its ‘pound of waste’
The sheer magnitude of this human tragedy caused by human folly was further emphasized by Bandara, the harbinger of this New Year’s ominous omen: “This is the first time we have seen a disaster of this magnitude. Under the sheer weight of the massive garbage pile, a lower layer of earth gave way causing the slide. The authorities have stopped dumping garbage at the site. But, more crashes are likely to happen if the area receives heavy rains within the next few days. So, we have already called for the evacuation of people living near the garbage dump.We have identified about 130 houses which are vulnerable”. Authorities are closing the barn gate after the horses have bolted with the kitchen sink. Shame on you, Mr. Minister…shame on you Mr. Mayor or Mr. Municipal Commissioner. Have you no shame to pass the ‘blame-ball’ from one institution to another without caring for the misery heaped upon the most helpless segment in our country?
All in all, 981 individuals belonging to 228 families had been displaced. A tragedy unleashing itself on a day when everyone was waiting to welcome the dawn of a new beginning, would have rushed many a devotee of many a God to their Temples and Kovils to invoke his blessings. Apparently Gods have gone to deep slumber, in better comforts. They are as helpless as the humans who have chosen to throw their garbage to a dumping yard. As helpless as those lifeless bodies still being searched for. Meethotamulla’s‘crash of the trash’ was a tragedy waiting to happen. This obscene occurrence could have been averted. But the authorities did not see it coming, and that is a shameful indictment on their competency. But if they knew that this could happen, then they were guilty of an unprecedented crime; a crime as dastardly as the massacres of some villagers during the so-called ‘second revolution’ of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the 1987-’89 era.
In the absence of a scientific and strategic approach to the issue of large-scale waste disposal, the country is definitely heading for a dumping of a different kind, a kind that might lead to a sudden and unexpected rehashing of the very composition of the incumbent coalition government. Wherever one looks, the smell is not sweet. When our politicians realize that the stench invading their insensitive nostrils is uncomfortable to bear, it might be too late. Therefore, the President and the Prime Minister, act now, not tomorrow or next week, right now. Show some guts and spine to hold your culprits accountable, whoever it is. Don’t ask the journalists to find a solution or to keep them quiet either. Tug-of-war among govt departments would eventually result in the stretching of the fragile cord that connects them. It would burst asunder.
The garbage that they are trying to heap on state-owned lands would bury the politicians for good, and they deserve it if they keep haggling about a recurring issue whether it is garbage, corruption, nepotism or any other. The most astonishing aspect of this garbage-crisis is, that a govt, that came into being on a platform free of such foul practices of passing the buck etc., cannot find a martyr who would come forward and own the responsibility for the trash that crashed in Meethotamulla. Or is it too much to ask for, from amongst a heap of politicians who pretend to be do-gooders? People at large, always, almost without exception, expect such honesty and fairness from their leaders. At the same time they seem to accommodate any mistakes, honest oversights and erroneous judgments etc., provided such oversights and judgements are devoid of evil intention and made in good faith. When the electors are so patient and understanding, politicians take that patience and understanding for granted. That is shameful and it’s even more than shameful, it’s criminal. For, it’s the electors who place these politicians on an altar and choose to worship them. It is true in the case of an uneducated rural peasant or an urban labourer; and it’s true in the case of the educated and sophisticated English-speaking, whiskey-drinking pukka sahibs in Colombo. In the case of the peasant and the labourer one can, if not forgive, empathize with them, but never the pukka sahibs.
In a crash like the one that befell the helpless denizens of Meethotamulla, it’s always the most destitute that suffer the most; it’s always the poorest of the poor who stand to lose - not only their homes and property - but their underwear too! Against such an ominous and bizarre backdrop, how can a nation attempt to make a move forward? No country progresses if it wishes to rot away in a comfort zone. Comfort zones are created for those who fear change; comfort zones are created for those dare not step out to the open and challenge, come what may; comfort zones are created for and by those who are inherently lethargic and dependent. That comfort zone is killing our society today; it’s exhausting the very spirit of our existence and leaving us at the mercy of our own politicians and bureaucrats. Who came first? Whether the comfort zone or the politician; is a million-dollar question, but trying to find an answer to that is of no consequence today. The Meethotamulla ‘crash of trash’ has accounted for the growing uneasiness pervading our society today. The JVP and other Opposition parties may thunder from their political platforms; they may ask for the blood of those who are responsible. They themselves are as responsible for this cruel tragedy that has gripped our collective mind as the current and the previous governments that ruled the trash of our
"When the electors are so patient and understanding, politicians take that patience and understanding for granted. That is shameful and it’s even more than shameful, it’s criminal"
The Meethotamulla tragedy is, but a minor tissue in the body that has been overpowered by a malignant disease. That malignancy has many facets and faces. It has many mothers but no father. Whether it’s the UDA or the MC, whether it’s this Ministry or that department, pointing the finger at a non-accounting entity is of no use. When everyone disowns a mistake or a wilful act of negligence, the consequential tragedy is unimaginable. Unless and until we find those who are accountable and punish them with no mercy, with no deferment and with no prejudice; we will continue to be crushed by the trash of our politicians and bureaucrats.
When the majority of a people choose to be apathetic about their own destitution, when they find excuses for their leaders instead of holding them accountable, when their priorities get mixed up with those of greedy politicians who would not hesitate to trample them when it suits them, then the majority is beyond help. It is not astonishing to find an elder generation succumbing to such cruel pathos of everyday life. But they cannot and should not be allowed to lead our younger generation along the same miserable path. In each of the families that suffered the ignoble fortune of residing adjacent to the Meethotamulla trash-mountain, are little children who went to school with the dawn of each day, smelling the nauseating stench of the pile at the mountain top. Each day, while their more fortunate brethren in other neighbourhoods were clad in whiter cleaner clothes, these children wore the same clothes day in and day out for their parents could not afford anything different. These are the hapless children of a lost and lonely generation. When they hit the hay at day’s end, they too dream the same dreams of other children; they too envision a grandiose future for them and their life companions. Human misery might manifest itself in another form somewhere else, but politicians cannot end such miseries unless they own them first. In search of a dream, each Meethotamulla denizen wakes up in the morning and gets about his/her own daily life. What that life holds for them is as uncertain as the physical state of the pile of garbage that buried their dreams and meagre aspirations, a few weeks ago. Have we no shame to put up with this kind of despair?
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org