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Policy frustrations

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Colombo residents were a discontented bunch last week when the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) suspended the collection of garbage. The issue even made it to Parliament and was somewhat resolved through a court order on Friday that blocked legal objections to dumping Colombo’s waste at the Aruwakkalu site till the case is heard completely. But the ongoing problem of garbage disposal showcases the chronic problems in Government decision-making and why people often get frustrated with politicians and the public sector. 

The garbage problem is one that the previous Government is also responsible for. After the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse in which more than 20 people died, the CMC’s degradable and non-recyclable solid waste was disposed in a Kerawalapitiya State land managed by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC). It functions under the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development.

The SLLRDC terminated an arrangement with the CMC to dump waste at Kerawalapitiya from 2 August. The waste issue became the subject of top-level discussions at the Prime Minister’s Office but no settlement was reached.

The CMC accused the Megapolis Ministry of insisting that the council should transport the garbage to Aruwakkalu by road – a task that would cost Rs. 45 million every month. The CMC said that the transfer of 200 metric tonnes daily also posed health hazards, but as no other option was available, the Aruwakkalu site will not be operational for the foreseeable future.

After the Meethotamulla tragedy, greater resources, international expertise and Government attention were poured into the garbage problem. Yet the State still struggles to implement sustainable policies that provide holistic solutions over the long term.

It is this inability to have sustainable policies that has hampered Sri Lanka’s development, arguably more than anything else in the post-war period, and the inability of politicians and public servants to coordinate their efforts and get things done is a frustration that is wearing out public patience fast.

From the public’s perspective, it is discouraging to have to face these situations again and again, and have their appeals and counsel fall on deaf ears. It does not matter to them that the CMC and Megapolis Ministry are battling to shift the blame on each other; they simply want solutions. When countries around the world have dealt successfully with this issue, the Government cannot continue to spew excuses and concentrate only on politics.

Sri Lanka’s population is approximately 21 million, which generates 2.3 million tonnes of garbage annually (6,400 tonnes of solid waste per day according to the Ministry of Environment in 2013). Compared to countries like Australia, Sri Lanka produces a tiny amount of solid waste but is still unable to manage it. Therefore it is essential that the Government gets its act together on this issue and provides coordinated and sustainable solutions.

While the Government has kicked off several waste-to-energy plants, imported state-of-the-art incinerators, and planned new landfills, it has done little to pull these fragmented efforts into an industry, which is how it is handled in other parts of the world. How are these issues dealt with in other countries? Why can there not be strong awareness messages, enforcement of laws, sustainable policies, greater public-private partnerships, and better public engagement? Sustainable solutions are the bedrock of good public service, and governments, irrespective of their hues, are duty-bound to provide them. 

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