SANJA DE SILVA JAYATILLEKA
The dreadful tragedy of Meethotamulla has shocked even those who usually go about minding their own business, to spin around and look back at what could possibly have led to such needless waste of human lives. In a country that faced frequent terrorist violence in its main streets for decades and yet was resilient, Meethotamulla struck like a sharp knife in the collective gut of the country’s conscience. It’s a wound that’s refusing to heal until each of us finds answers.
Conversations with cab drivers, social media posts, speak to this need. Today, my cabbie told me that several thousand people come in to Colombo each day, and if they could bring their lunch in their own lunch box like he did, rather than wrapped in paper, tens of thousands of plastic papers could be eliminated from the city’s dustbins. Many people are trying to find ways of helping with the problem of garbage, taking individual responsibility for this enormous tragedy and resolving to do whatever they can to prevent a recurrence.
This incident however, apart from inflicting a stab of conscience, has also shone a light on the conditions that some of our citizens have been condemned to live under. My husband and I were living in Washington DC when Hurricane Katrina hit the US. People there were shocked out of their complacence when they saw the devastation that was visited on the residents of Louisiana. The Washington Post, I think it was, ran a story with a caption which read “America has just discovered a new species. The poor.” Their plight became known to the rest of the country only when a natural disaster laid bare the extreme neglect of those parts of the United States.
What was laid bare in Meethotamulla last week was no natural disaster.
Sri Lanka certainly discovered that while most of us don’t live under ideal conditions, some of us have been forced to live next to ‘extreme garbage’ of unconscionable proportions. Reminiscent of 19th century London where Cholera spread through the city, killing its poor due to contaminated water, 21st century Sri Lanka, a country that reached middle income status, saw its city dwellers buried under a pile of garbage as big as a mountain, in a disaster waiting to happen. A man-made disaster, if ever there was one. Shirani Kaushalya, a friend, wrote angrily on my Facebook that “the country has gone to the dumpster”. I thought I couldn’t have put it better.
While it is admirable that we examine our own responsibility in contributing to this disaster, I was compelled to look for a systemic reason. How could a sitting government let this happen? I have heard all the arguments on television. It was the previous government, it was a 30 year problem, it was implementation, it was corruption, and even that it was the people of Meethotamulla who were to blame for their own deaths.
Through this screeching cacophony of blame, guilt and regret, I saw a huge gap appear like a black hole, where the silence was deafening. I asked myself, where is the voice of the official Opposition, the TNA?
It may be a regional party with just 16 seats but the President, Prime Minister and the Speaker in their collective wisdom had appointed or recognized the TNA as the Parliamentary Opposition, to be the ones to take care of our interests and to hold the Government to account. Not a peep out of them thus far, in the face of this tragedy. I wondered if they would be quite as silent if such a disaster took place in the region that they represent. I don’t think so.
This behavior which would be glaringly anomalous in any decent democracy, indicates to me where at least one facet of the problem lies. It is an open secret that the TNA is not in fact in opposition to the Government, but is a partner. Appointing it the Opposition was a politically expedient act at the expense of the people, who in a parliamentary democracy, have the right to expect serious, adequate and legitimate representation on both sides of the House.
This week, the TNA proved that they are not interested in the rest of the country, outside of the region they represent, and don’t have the decency, even for appearances sake, to voice the distress of the people at the enormous failure of the Government. By appointing a small regional party as the main Opposition with its resultant privileges in Parliament such as speaking time and of media coverage, the President and Prime Minister have defrauded the people. For this cynical act of self-interest, the people have paid with their lives.
The Government has closed off the vital feedback loop which any organization, any system, needs as a means of initiating corrective action, to sound the alarm, to question and challenge the decisions of the Government. When the various Local Government elections were postponed time and again, did the official Opposition represent our fears that when normal services provided by those bodies come to a grinding halt, it would pose a danger to the residents of those areas?
Every type of ’flu seems to be spreading across the country. Obviously, garbage is a problem in more than one area. Who would take responsibility? When the Municipal Councils and Pradesheeya Sabhas don’t perform their duties, who ensures they are taken to task? Where are the health and safety inspectors? Are there any?
I see a pattern developing in the working of this Government. The President steps in, after disaster has struck. He uses his executive power to order officials not to continue their misdeeds, such as no more dumping garbage in Meethotamulla. What prevents him from acting before lives are lost? He was elected President with executive powers to engage them fully and robustly, to serve the people, not to use them sparingly like herbs in mild curry.
I suggest it is at least in part because there is no proper Opposition to bring the issues to light and to put pressure on the Government as a whole, the President, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers and the government MPs. The only dissenting voices we hear loudly are from those in the Joint Opposition. Yet, since the 51 of them are not recognized as the official Opposition, they don’t get enough time in Parliament to represent our dissent effectively.
I predict one, two, many more disasters in the future. The system is deeply flawed and skewed against the people. The “Unity” Government and the 16 member Opposition was paraded across the world as a new, innovative experiment in “good governance”, and Meethotamulla just proved that it was a spectacular failure. It has been shown up for the fraud it always was.
Since our voices are pretty much silenced in Parliament, it is only the media that mercifully acts as the guardians of our interest. Voicing my frustration through it, I offer my suggestion that the Government stop fooling the people with their newfangled structures of governance, and restore ‘normal’ democracy with its safeguards for the citizens. Recognize and appoint an Opposition and an Opposition Leader who care enough to represent the views of the people of the full length and breadth of this country, who will warn you when you are going wrong and challenge you to defend your policies.
Also, please get on with the local government elections before more “Unity” Government-made disasters bury more lives.