All communities unite for a clean Puttalam | Sunday Observer

All communities unite for a clean Puttalam

A multi-religious protest in progress
A multi-religious protest in progress

Wednesday (13), Thursday and Friday were declared ‘Black Days’ in Puttalam. Wearing blackarmbands and headbands, people, including schoolchildren, continued their day to day life protesting quietly in solidarity against the proposed mega-scale sanitary landfill.

Black band protest is the latest initiative by the District Inter-Religious Committee (DIRC) of Puttalam, in its bid to pressurise the authorities concerned, to stop dumping garbage inPuttalam.

Garbage piles up

Garbage - 1,200 tons of it- collected in the Colombo Metro Region, is scheduled to be transported in train carriages to the landfill, daily, after being compressed at a transfer station in Kelaniya adjoining the main railway line and Kandy- Colombo highway. The garbage will fill the large pits left by limestone excavation for cement production in the area.

The Puttalam landfill was initiated by the former government when the garbage dump in Meethotamulla overfilled - (later leading to a fatal explosion that left over 30 dead in 2017).

Following the incident, authorities took measures to transport garbage to a site in the Kerawalapitiya, Wattala. The current government expedited work at the Puttalam Sanitary Landfill when the Kerawalapitiya site also neared its capacity. From its very inception, the project proposal raised many ‘red flags’. Its Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR), contained a number of contradictory statements.

The EIAR states that the human habitats are ‘far away’ (over 2.5 Km away), but activists claim that homes are as near as 180 metres from the site. It states that the area is has sunk due to limestone quarries, while in reality Holcim has taken up a reforesting program that has been active for the past 20 years. The initial site location- Gangewadiya- was where limestone quarries are, but the location was objected to by the Department of Wildlife as well as environmentalists because it was close to the Wilpattu buffer zone.

There are other issues, such as the fact that garbage will be transported through the Anawilundawa Bird Sanctuary, which calls for strict methods to be followed to protect the birds. Scientific data claims that it is in fact undesirable to build a landfill in a limestone area due to the risk of off-site movement of leachate and landfill gas.

No consultations

The residents said they were not consulted when the project was initiated, and they fear contamination of water sources- surface water and ground water.

“If the Puttalam lagoon is polluted the livelihood of the people who rely on fish and prawn farming, salt making and tourism will be badly affected,” Ansar Nazeeha, a mother of two boys, an activist from the area said.

Nazeeha who is also a visiting lecturer in Sociology said the landfill in Puttalam is not the solution for the Meethotamulla disaster, as it will only create another ‘sustainable disaster’.

She said that Puttalam houses a major cement factory and the Lakvijaya Power Station, and the district is also a tourist magnet. “It is already contributing to the economy of the country greatly.

Do we also need a garbage landfill here?”

A report titled “Mercury warns people at Norochcholai and Puttalam” by the Centre for Environment Justice, authored by Hemantha Withanage, Chalani Rubesinghe and Indika Rajapaksa states that ‘residents in Norochcholai, Paniadiya, Narakkalliya and around the Puttalam town area in the vicinity of the lagoon, are exposed to Mercury at dangerous levels’. The report states that the emission of Mercury from the power plant is hazardous.

“We are already burdened with enough problems. We can’t tolerate more injustices,” Nazeeha said. The authorities have turned a deaf ear to their pleas since their first mass protest was held in October 2016.

Key protest activities they organised included - a protest led by the JVP in November 2016, several protests held throughout that year by Serakkuliya and Karaitivu residents, a major awareness program about the Aruwakkalu Sanitary Landfill on the Haj Festival day in 2017, a petition handed over to the President through the Puttalam Government Agent, and a major protest in July 2018 where protesters blocked the project work (four persons including two Christian and Muslim religious leaders were later produced in courts for vandalism), another mass protest held in September 2018, and women took to the streets on October 26 last year- which drew great Media attention (later that day a petition was handed over to the Women and Child Affairs Ministry, and another petition was handed over to the Human Rights Commission), a Satyagraha of over 100 days was held in Colombo Face (in Puttalam), in November and the residents protested by blocking the INSEE Cement or Siam City Cement (Lanka) Limited railway line (four were produced in Court).

The latest movement kick-started on Wednesday (13), through Friday, where people wore black bands, and hoisted black flags in their houses and offices in solidarity with the protesters.

On Thursday Muslim and Christian residents’ took part in a fast, Hindus in Viratham protested, and Buddhist conducted an Upawasa. A large crowd gathered at the Colombo Face to break fast together following religious observances.

Protests

On Friday, a mass protest was held, along with a Harthal. Shops and workplaces were closed, and most students stayed away from schools. President of DIRC Ven.Migittuwatte Sumiththanayake Thera said that they hope to meet the President and explain their plight.

“We have scientific evidence to show that this landfill can cause severe harm to the environment and people, also pollute the lagoon. This landfill is not suitable for Puttalam,” the Thera said.

After the protest Nazeeha said the residents are willing to extend their support to the government to follow a sustainable solution to this issue, because they feel the emotional distress of the Meethotumulla people; however, not at the expense of the Puttalam residents’ right to live in an unpolluted environment. 

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