Garbage issue will be resolved scientifically - Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa | Sunday Observer

Garbage issue will be resolved scientifically - Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa

FILE PIC: LAKE HOUSE MEDIA LIBRARY
FILE PIC: LAKE HOUSE MEDIA LIBRARY

Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa says, tragedies like Meethotamulla are national catastrophes and as politicians we should never look at it in a narrow political perspective. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said, when we face a natural calamity or catastrophe, like in other countries, we have to get together as true national leaders to find a lasting solution without getting into narrow political tracks. Only then could democracy sustain. Otherwise, people will lose faith in democracy and think of other avenues. If we act together, certainly, we will flourish. If we return to our old theories, merely sitting on our political tracks, democracy will be a total failure in the country.

Excerpts:

Q: Did the authorities have an idea as to how many legal and illegal structures including houses were built around the Meethotamulla garbage dump?

A: This responsibility has been passed on to the Colombo District Secretary. We are now getting all information with the help of Grama Niladaris, Municipal Councils and other relevant authorities. My belief is that some of them are illegal occupants. There are deeds given by the Government. Anyway, irrespective of that, considering the tragedy, the Government has taken a decision to treat everyone alike.

Q: Why didn’t the Government take action, despite many experts warning that the garbage dump could give way at any moment?

A: I really don’t know the reason. For the last so many years, there were many attempts by different Governments and Ministers to solve the issue. Unfortunately, they didn’t materialise because of protests by certain politicians, the clergy and people of the area themselves. Due to the efforts of the Environment Ministry, we have been able to complete one disposal unit in Dompe, with the help of Korean grants. In addition, KOICA has helped us to get five more disposal units. But we have to periodically shift from one place to another due to various issues, and recently, they have found a few places. In Colombo, around 600 to 900 metric tons of garbage is collected daily and dumping has become a big issue. We have to find a scientific solution to this. A few weeks ago, Cabinet approval was granted for a project called, From Waste to Energy. Unfortunately, before launching the project, the tragedy occurred. That entire place is treated as a threatened area now. So we will bear the responsibility.

Q: If there were unauthorised structures why did the Government allow them to remain, was there a program to relocate them to other areas?

A: That is the issue. Even during the recent floods, we saw that people had started living in flood-prone areas, whereas, it should have been reserved for flood planes. Illegal structures are being erected and these people have been helped by different local authorities, which has become a big issue. We have to relocate them in safer areas, which the Government is now considering. But, it cannot be done overnight, you need a big project in Colombo.

The previous Government started building houses causing the shanties to be removed and the people were shifted to other areas, which project is still going on. We need additional houses for such residents. For the Colombo city, we need a very big garbage project, as well as places to relocate residents, both of which have to to go simultaneously.

We have to consider that urban areas generate three to four times more garbage than the rural sector. So they can’t be dumped just anywhere, the responsibility lies with the local authorities. Not only in Colombo, even Kotte, Maharagama, Kotikawatta and Avissawella, are all now highly urbanised areas. So we have to have a thorough system in place, which is costly. Anyway, the recent tragedy tells us that we have to act promptly with determination. So the Government is determined to do so as pledged by the President and the Prime Minister.

Q: What is your comment on the allegation that politicians of all hues were behind the unauthorised structures and the deployment of tippers at the dump site which was apparently a huge business operation?

A: I can’t give you an exact answer as I am not aware of it. But there are allegations, and they don’t come without a reason. My responsibility is not to look into that. But this dumping of garbage is an income generating source for many. Anyway, we have to employ drivers, cleaners and use dump trucks etc. It is an ongoing process. There may be some who benefited out of it. But we must understand that such issues have to be resolved scientifically.

Q: What is the progress of the clearing operation so far? How many people are reported to be missing, by the surviving members of their families?

A: According to the latest information I have, the houses considered damaged are around 246 while the number of affected people has risen to 1,059. In addition, we have recovered 32 bodies and it is believed that almost 8 have gone missing and 11 are injured. Seventy nine houses have been completely damaged, and 17 partly damaged. The Government on Wednesday (April 19) decided to give 98 houses to those who have lost their houses and immediately relocate them. So prompt action has been taken here, while the rest will be given houses in July. Thus, their housing problem is solved. The Urban Development Authority and the Ministry of Defence have now started work to rehabilitate the dump yard.

Q: What is the progress with regard to compensation to the victims?

A: That will be decided by a committee. We will compensate them fully. But before that we have to do a survey. The Valuation Department officials are in the job now. Once they complete we will decide how much to be paid to each. The Government is prepared to find a solution to everyone who has been affected.

Q: There are also allegations that compensation has still not been paid to the victims of the Salawa explosion, and the natural disaster at Aranayaka?

A: I know 1,000 houses damaged in the Salawa explosion have been repaired by the Army and we have paid them over Rs.40 million. The rest were paid fully after the valuation. There are a few areas where the people were not satisfied with the second valuation. So we have called for a third valuation. We have given Rs.25 million to the UDA to build temporary shelter for the affected traders. Even the labourers have been paid. I think more than 98 percent have been paid and only a few remain. Unfortunately, the media is picking up the small number, while forgetting the large number. That is their mistake, not ours. We are paying for the Aranayake victims as well. In Aranayake there were no lands. The Government procured lands from the plantation companies. The Chinese Government and some charity organisations have promised to build houses. We have handed over a few houses. The HABITAT, Rhino have built houses while the Chinese are at work.

In addition, we paid money to the people to buy 20 perch blocs, and most have bought them. Now we are giving them money periodically- stage by stage to build their own houses. I think everything will be complete within three or four months. Unfortunately, the media does not report what we have done.

They only tell us what has to be done. I urge the responsible media organisations who claim to be the third eye of the Government to report what we have done as well.

In the Meethotamulla incident too, 98 houses are ready and would be in occupation within the next few days. We are promptly purchasing houses from the UDA and giving them to the people. We have done our job and will continue to do so.

Q: People allege that none of the politicians from both sides had any idea of helping them, but wanted to profit from the garbage dump. Your comments?

A: It is absolutely false. I don’t know about both sides. As soon as this incident occurred, we went there. Remember, it happened on New Year Day. Colombo is dead on any New Year day. Shops, offices, private places and yards are all closed. Even Municipalities are closed except for emergency purposes. But within a few hours, we had been able to move everything into the area. We recovered 11 bodies. So that allegation is false. From then onwards, we started providing shelter, food and everything.

The private sector and the ordinary people too helped us. It is wrong to say we have not done anything. Unfortunately, many politicians who went there were hooted and a few tried to assault them. That was organised by some political parties. They want to discredit the politicians in the country, the Government and those in power by criticising them through the social media. Even if the previous Government or Governments failed to take action, the present Government has to take the blame, which we have. Now we are trying to compensate and relocate them.

Q: The Joint Opposition is blaming the Government for the disaster saying it stopped the program to take the garbage to Puttalam where they were to be stored in craters. What is the actual situation with regard to this allegation?

A: There was a scheme. What they were trying to do was to compact the garbage and dump it at Aruwakkaru by rail. But no one has seen Aruwakkaru. It is the place where the Puttalam cement has taken the Gypsum and those are big craters. It is a beautiful area and home to lots of birds. So you have to get approval from the Environment Authority. Besides, it is a costly affair but we have not abandoned the idea.

Probably, it would become a reality. Discussions were held, and during the previous as well as the present Government, there have been big opposition from the area residents and politicians. Now they have been settled. In a democratic society, you can’t discard opposition. We have to engage with them, which takes time.

I think it is wrong to blame someone. I don’t blame the previous Government nor the present Government for not doing anything. It is not the way.

In the recent past, when we tried to dump garbage in the Jaela area, a Government MP and a clergy were against it.

Q: What steps have you taken to avoid a repetition of such an event? Have you assessed the danger associated with several other garbage dumps in the country?

A: We have assessed possibilities of another occurrence. We have marked vulnerable areas, and decided to evacuate residents to safer places. All of them will be compensated and given houses. The garbage dump at Bloemendhal has already been rehabilitated, the Karadiyana is ongoing. There aren’t any other big dump yards elsewhere.

Q: Are you satisfied with the response of the Disaster Management Centre and the other Government agencies, following the disaster?

A: Yes. They have done a superb job. Starting from the Army, Navy, Police and our Ministry officials, they immediately reported and from that time onwards, are still working. They are rendering a praiseworthy service to the nation . I salute the officers who have done such a tremendous job.

Q: Are you seeking any foreign assistance to respond to this disaster and avoid a future disaster?

A: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sought Japanese expertise. They have donated some emergency items. They have also sent a team of experts and the Prime Minister wants them to work with the National Building Research Organisation.

They will tell us exactly what we should do. In response to the Premier’s request, Japan is definitely willing to help us. 

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