True cost of beauty

Friday, 11 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Wasting little time on the heels of the Government’s announcement of plans to ‘beautify’ 100 cities across the country, the Opposition was swift in its denunciation of said plan, querying as to why a Rs. 2 billion outlay was approved amidst a pandemic.

To briefly play devil’s advocate, it’s unreasonable to simply expect the Government to completely forego any and all plans they might have had for the country when coming into power. Yes, the pandemic has derailed the economy and stretched the country’s healthcare system to its limits, but this above criticism does reek of an attempt to gain cheap political mileage.

That though is not to say such an outlay is beyond questioning – rather, it depends on the question. Indeed, it would be more pertinent to ask how exactly this beautification drive aims to avoid the pitfalls of the last.

What pitfalls? Glad you asked. It’s easy to forget amidst the current social and economic malaise, that circa April 2017, Sri Lanka suffered a tragedy, which in the present light may not be as severe, but was nevertheless tragic and eminently preventable. A garbage mountain in Meethotamulla collapsed and buried over 100 houses and killed several area residents.

At the time, there was a lot of political blame shifting, but the reality was that the disaster was several governments in the making, and the beautification drive under the post-civil war Rajapaksa regime contributed heavily to growth of the Meethotamulla garbage dump and others like it.

In fact, 700 metric tonnes of garbage generated in the early ’90s in the Colombo metropolitan area has now quadrupled. At the national level, more than 40,000 tonnes of hazardous waste is being produced per annum. Solid and hazardous waste is unloaded into open dumps, causing serious health hazards and burnt in the open air, where they cause land and water pollution. During the last two decades, dumping destroyed almost all the wetlands around Colombo. Animals perished choking on garbage and those who care to protest were given the cold shoulder or hauled away by the police.

Meanwhile, garbage heaps continue to form, mount and be burnt in several locations around the country with environmentalists believing that there are as many as 58 unmanaged dumps in the Western Province alone.

The root cause for this, however, is one that is known to all Sri Lankans: the short-sightedness of our elected officials. Each and every government that comes into power campaigns on the promise of effecting ‘meaningful change’, which the previous government promised but failed to provide. This merry-go-round takes place every couple of years with the same politicians flitting in and out of power. Those who suffer throughout this process though are their constituents.

So, the real question surrounding this latest beautification initiative should be, what’s the real cost – aside from the Rs. 2 billion allocated? Because, until the Government can lay out a concrete plan to dispose of and, where possible, recycle the garbage we already have, adding more to it, and simply leaving ramifications for future governments, is a disaster waiting to happen.

This is not to say though, that beautification shouldn’t be the goal, rather that all avenues must be looked at before we blindly march forward in the name of progress.