For the past 10 years, the shanty dwellers of Bloemendhal have lived on the filthiest mountain in the city. Renu Warnasuriya reports
Life stinks!
It stands high, like a mountain range in the heart of the city. Settled around it like flies on a garbage heap are thousands of slum dwellers. They are not here by choice but because their homes were invaded by an unwelcome neighbour who changed their lives forever.

For the residents of the shanties of Bloemendhal, each day is as dirty and stinking as the next. Little piles of garbage scattered along the shabby, narrow lanes pave the way to the garbage dump. The tiny houses situated absurdly close to each other reek of the filth. Living in tiny plank huts, these people are too poor and helpless to leave this filthy life for something better.

Some of the residents who have been living in this area for more than 25 years recalled that the dumping started about 10 years ago."Since then the garbage just kept coming and coming and it never reduces," says P.L. Kanthi who has been living in her home for 25 years.

The smell it produces is simply indescribable. "Sometimes I just can't bear to eat, because of the smell," says 14-year-old Niranjana explaining that though there is a constant repugnant smell in the air, it becomes worse depending on the types of garbage dumped.

When the garbage is dumped, an unbearable stench fills the air and when the garbage catches fire, the smoke takes its place. "Our homes fill up with smoke and we can hardly breathe," says Kanthi, adding that this is particularly bad for the sick and the children especially those who suffer from wheezing.

This, however, is the least of their medical problems as the unhygienic conditions they live in have taken their toll on the people. "There is a lot of sickness among the people," says elderly resident Theresa. Much of it is caused by the countless mosquitoes that come from the dump, which of course is an ideal breeding ground for them. "We get sick so often that we don't even get to go to school regularly," says Niranjana, adding that her friend was recently discharged from hospital after being treated for Dengue.

"Some people came to our school and taught us about Dengue and said that they will stop using this land as a dump," says 14-year-old Vishaka adding however that little was done to improve the situation. She mentioned however that a wall is being put up separating the houses from the dump. “We may not see it because of the wall but we will still get the smell," she says.

The wall may, however, prevent some of the accidents that take place when the dirt burns. “Many times when the dump catches fire, houses have also caught fire," says another resident. This comes as no surprise as many of the houses are made of wood and cadjan.

The dump has actually become an incentive for some of the kids to ‘cut’ school. "Since most of the people here are desperately poor, some of the children prefer to walk around the garbage collecting all kinds of odds and ends which they can sell for a small amount, " says a resident, adding that she has even seen very young children playing hooky to earn an extra buck or two.

The neighbourhood is such that most residents fear to leave their children alone at home. "I have two daughters. Because I won't leave them here alone, I cannot even work on the weekends," says Theresa explaining that the garbage mountain breeds various illegal activities, encouraging all sorts of odd characters to loiter there.

There is also the noise factor. With all the work being done at the dump at all times of the day the residents say that it is quite noisy.

"Sometimes we can't even sleep at night," complains 12-year-old Sangali.
The thousands of people who live in the tiny little shacks have to share seven public taps and bathing spots and two to three public toilets spread out across the area.

During the rainy season these toilets overflow and get clogged. Residents are then forced to take a bus to the nearest public toilet on the main road. A set of toilets was constructed around a year ago by the authorities. Instead of fixing doors to each cubicle, a long wall was built a few feet away from the toilets, to serve as one cover for all. After some time the wall collapsed onto a group of children who were passing. The families explained that most of the children were thrown back into a nearby drain and escaped with minor injuries. But six-year-old Ajith was not so fortunate. This little boy lost his left leg from the knee downwards. " We are trying to get him an artificial leg," says his mother. At the moment she carries little Ajith back and forth to the Dharmajayanthi Daham Pasala, where he attends Montessori school.

The residents recalled a similar accident around ten years ago, when a wall had collapsed onto a 22-year-old girl who had died on the spot. "We have no choice but to suffer like this," confides Kanthi explaining that they have nowhere else to go and no resources to find new homes. Another resident who has been living in the area for more than 32 years lamented that they have been made many promises by the authorities saying they would improve their living conditions. "We have heard these promises from the time we were children. Now we are married and have our own children and they have their own children and still nothing has been done," says the despondent man.

A young resident mentioned that there are several societies among them working to better their situation. "Many people are trying but still nothing has changed," she says, adding, "Nobody realises that we are also people."

Bringing colour to their lives
They have few treats in their lives, but the children of the Bloemendhal shanties were given the chance to take part in an art competition recently. Ironically enough the topic given was "My favourite environment ".

" We wanted to see what they understand about the environment," said the organiser Dr. Ajantha Perera. Comparing their paintings with those done by children growing up in a normal environment, Dr. Perera says there are slight differences between the two. "They have an understanding about the environment but there is a grey area in their work," says Dr. Perera who puts this down to a certain amount of mental stress that the children undergo.

"There were hundreds of children," smiles 14-year-old Vishaka Niroshini. "They told us to draw the environment we like and I drew a picture of a seaside because that's what I like," she said shyly. The children were given pencils, paper and crayons.

Through this small but valuable gesture the organisers hoped to show these children that they are valuable citizens despite where they live. It was also done to make them feel that they too are special. " I only wish more things like this are organised because the children were really happy and it will help them develop," smiled one parent.

The children were given prizes and certificates at a ceremony held on August 9 within the shanty premises. While the ten winners received special prizes, every participant was awarded a certificate.

The mountain must go
" The Bloemendhal dump is being used as a transfer station," says Lalith Wickramaratne, Director (Engineering), Solid Waste Management Division of the Colombo Municipality. He explained that fresh garbage is taken there every day and left for about three weeks after which it is removed and taken to the composting plant at Sedawatte. According to Mr. Wickramaratne there are people and machinery working nearly 24 hours a day dumping the fresh garbage and also collecting the three-week-old garbage to be taken to the plant.

What has built up as a mountain however, is not the fresh garbage which since last year has been regularly transferred to Sedawatte. It is the old garbage that has accumulated as the site has been serving as a garbage dump since around 1995.He admits that it has become a hazard to the people. It sometimes catches fire because of various chemical reactions," says Mr. Wickramaratne.

This being the case the only permanent solution would be to move the entire mountain to another more suitable place. The land which is currently being used as a dump belongs to a private owner and the CMC together with others involved have been looking for appropriate land to transfer the garbage. Discussions are underway to move it to a marshland of about 50 acres in the Peliyagoda area.

Meanwhile the CMC claims it is doing all it can to reduce the amount of garbage produced by the city of Colombo. One such project was initiated a year ago in the Thimbirigasyaya area. With the aim of reducing the amount of garbage through household level separation, the Municipality provided households with three bags in which they could separately collect paper, plastic and glass. Mr. Wickramaratne said the project was expanded to Kirula Road and Narahenpita.

A further step is currently being implemented in the Kirulapone area where a compost bin is being given in addition to the three bags, for food waste. Through such programmes the Municipality says it has been able to reduce the daily amount of garbage collected daily from the Colombo City from 780 tons in 2002 to 620 upto July 2004.

Referring to the problem faced by those living near the dump he said, building the wall is one measure to ease their suffering. "We are hoping that the wall will make it less of a nuisance," says Mr. Wickramaratne. Colombo Mayor Prasanna Gunawardena echoed this view, describing the dump as the " main outstanding environmental issue faced by the Council". I hope we will get the necessary assistance to move this mountain, without which there is no solution," he said.

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