The streets of Colombo are very chic in terms of design and cleanliness, more obvious in the localities that are listed as A-Grade properties and real estate or the crème de la crème of the metropolis, interrupted but briefly in the past month, when handbills of political aspirants were forced into mail boxes, home gardens and commercial buildings, only to be strewn along streets, making somewhat of an ugly interruption to the well laid out landscape. The inner cities and streets of the capital and other areas can hide an overflowing and smelly drain or an unkempt area overgrown with grass and weed. But, these are not common sights.
This speaks of a journey this country has made, over the years. Many of us remember, growing up, the horrible sight of wayside garbage dumps and irresponsible disposal of waste. Despite this, Sri Lanka was considered a clean country in comparison to its neighbours by visitors’ way back in the 1980s and 1990s. Times have changed, as usual, everywhere, Sri Lanka’s too. Her population’s increased consumption resulted in an increase in the volume of waste that we were hardly concerned about, and thought it was the sole duty of local authorities and the State to dispose. Fast forward to the future, the trajectory and the discourse shifted drastically, globally, to address the downfall from climate change. Sri Lanka became a signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2016, and agreed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. This meant that Sri Lanka had to think seriously, among other things, about its garbage disposal mechanisms and look for environmentally friendly options, such as recycling, even though costly. Here we are today, as a people, meticulously separating our garbage, the biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. But all this took time getting used to, at least initially when people found the process cumbersome and were critical of the government for imposing the practice on its citizens. Despite the challenges, the local councils stuck to their guns and refused to take any waste that was not separated and hence, with time, citizens took the initiative seriously.
Any task becomes routine only through disciplined commitment to execute and for that, all the stakeholders must agree to get on board for the mission. So, Sri Lanka has clean streets and landscaped surroundings, and it’s nice to heap praise on such initiatives, but the point is the degree of commitment among all citizens to support and uphold this new way of living and treat the environment as it deserves. Allow me to elaborate on this point. Take a stroll along a main street or even a by-road and make a note of the garbage strewn on the ground, among overgrown weed or in culverts; empty plastic bottles and cartons and cans, polythene and plastic bags, broken glass and other household items are some objects. We have also witnessed people throwing bottles and even small bags of garbage onto the road while walking or passing by in a car, bus or tuk-tuk. This same disregard is seen even at pilgrimage sites; people have no qualms about dropping wrappings and bags on the ground despite bins being placed all over the parking space. It’s fashionable to talk environment and sustainability and cleanliness, which is good, but the basics have to be ingrained in the people’s consciousness, otherwise tossing a small piece of inconvenient non-biodegradable garbage by the wayside will continue. Protecting the environment and keeping it clean is a collective effort that requires everyone to play by the rules. As long as we consider our waste a burden and therefore, look to get rid of it in the easiest possible way, we will continue to relieve our garbage problem along the way, on the street, hoping someone else will pick it up.
This commitment to discipline has to begin at the top. The promise to resort to a campaign free of plastic was a noteworthy gesture in the run-up to the parliamentary election, but that pledge was dishonoured when people assigned to distribute thousands of handbills of pictures and promises of sundry candidates tossed them in every direction, littering the by-roads and the main streets. Needless to say, the country’s newly elected decision makers are certainly committed to the environment and its protection and to the ideals of sustainability and in creating and maintaining a liveable space for all. But is everyone on the same page? No amount of coercion can rein in people to cooperate. Discipline becomes a way of life among those who are willing to accept change and act accordingly. The pundits and the patriots can speak loftily about the nation and its preservation, but it’s good to remember that what sustains a people are good habits and discipline; what good can mere rhetoric do to preserve us, if we think it is okay to pollute the canals and the streets and encourage the spread of diseases through irresponsible behaviour. History has been a good teacher, even though brutally, but lessons are quite often short-lived in memory. Well, if we are a nation with a history to be proud of, then going forward, let’s carve a future that demonstrates maturity and finesse, and not remain an ancient people who spit betel residue in anyplace and dump our dirt in any open space.
As I complete writing this piece, the sound of firecrackers rings in the background in celebration of the swearing-in of the prime minister. Good. But, hope the delighted partakers of this important event are conscious of the litter of firecracker residue and dispose of it responsibly.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane