Jul 31

There are two broadly different schools of thought regarding the question of whether it would be more effective for the Government of Sri Lanka to deal with the North-East problem by continuing to negotiate with all the parties concerned (bilaterally with each of them, or multilaterally) or battle it to a conclusion with the LTTE first, as some pressure groups demand.

It occurred to the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), as it has struck many others before, that there would be some useful lessons to be learnt from the South African experience, where a potential bloodbath, and immense social and economic chaos, were averted by the enlightened leadership given by Nelson Mandela.  The principles which guided him in leading his country, with minimal trauma, to become a major African power (as opposed to the universally shunned apartheid regime) are to be found in a lecture he delivered in early 2000 on being honoured academically by Trinity College, Dublin.

In his address, Mandela commenced by stating that South Africans were Aconscious of their obligation to do whatever they can to contribute to the advancement of peace, democracy and justice wherever possible.  In order to get a fair indication of his thinking, we give below some brief extracts of the formal lecture he gave.

AWe are urged by our own experience which has shown that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be resolved through talk and negotiation rather than force and violence.

AIt is only the parties engaged in a particular conflict who in the end can fashion lasting peace.

AOur starting point then is that where parties are locked in conflict, peace is to be found through compromises based on the recognition that their common interests are more important than their differences.  In particular the shared benefits of peace and stability far outweigh short-term interests that each may derive from continuing conflict and tension.

ASituations of conflict can also provide fertile ground for forces that flourish in situations of tension and therefore have no interest in peace.  And yet all enduring conflicts, even if they start with right on one or the other side, reach a point at which neither side is wholly right or wrong.

ASuch moments emphasise the fact that negotiation is premised on the making of significant compromises.

AOn the brink of a bloody war that would have scorched the earth of our common land, South Africans recognised that they were one nation with one destiny.

ARather than wait for a destructive war to run its course and only then begin to talk, we chose to talk before our country’s infrastructure was destroyed and before more innocent civilians were slaughtered.

On the basis of the advice given by Mandela, whose statesmanship is universally acknowledged, it would be -

a)     prudent to follow the path of negotiation and not indulge in killing and the wanton destruction of the country’s infrastructure,

b)    sensible to realise that it is best for the parties to the conflict to talk directly to each other,

c)     necessary to concede that the right is not all on one side,

d)    obligatory on both parties not to stick rigidly to predetermined positions but be prepared to compromise because of the mutual benefits that would accrue to them,

e)     wise to endeavour to build unity among the diverse people of this land because, united, we would be much stronger to face the great challenges that threaten us.

Good governance and our self-interest dictate that we heed Mandela’s advice.  It should be understood that there is nothing in his approach to preclude employing the good offices of any institution or countries to look after the logistics of organising and facilitating the negotiations.  However, they should not be made arbitrators, who would end up being blamed by both sides.

Jul 24

24 JULY 2006




Before 1956, children in this country were taught in the language chosen for them by their parents.  If they happened to be in any of the leading schools of the time, or even many smaller ones, the medium of instruction was always English.  Schools which provided instruction in Sinhala or Tamil were located mostly in the rural and less affluent areas.

After 1956, Muslim parents were allowed to choose the medium of instruction for their children whereas Sinhala children had to be taught in Sinhala and Tamil children in Tamil.  Where the parents were mixed, it was generally the sound of the father’s name which presumably decided which language the child should treat as its mother tongue.  More recently, the more affluent have gained the freedom to send their offspring to Ainternational schools where English is the medium of instruction but Sinhala and Tamil, too, are taught compulsorily.

The current position regarding the legal status of the languages is approximately as follows.  Sinhala and Tamil are official languages whilst English is a national/link language.  For convenience, all three will be referred to here as Anational languages.

As any mindful person would observe, the divers provisions of the language laws are presently being implemented in a sporadic, limited and negligent fashion.  The scale of the disregard of this sensitive issue can be gauged when we read reports to the effect that the total yearly budget allocation for the implementation of the Official Languages Act of 1998 is only Rs600,000 or so for a population of 20 Million; that, in Wellawatte, where there is a Tamil population of 55%, the proportion of Tamil-speaking Police Officers is 5%; and, in Jaffna, which is over 95% Tamil, there are only 6 Tamil-speaking officers; and so on.  Repeated calls by Tamils, and even Sinhalese who are not fluent in Sinhala, that all government publications, forms, road names, signboards etc should be produced in all three languages is almost uniformly ignored.  Letters written in Tamil and English are answered in Sinhala, if they are answered at all.  Hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of vacancies for translators are not being filled for reasons best known to those in power.

Some of those who are very concerned about this state of affairs write to the media proposing that every child should learn all three languages from the time it enters school.  They quote the example of Switzerland, where most citizens speak 3-5 languages comfortably, having been taught these from a young age.  However, this is not a very popular proposal with many of our citizens both for historical reasons as well as because of where they live, what they do, and with whom they associate.  They object strongly to having a third language forced down the throats of their children because they are satisfied that their progeny would be able to manage perfectly well with their mother tongue and a little English, subject to the state implementing properly the language provisions presently included in the law regarding government publications, forms, road names, signboards etc.

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has endeavoured to consider the matters referred to above in an unemotional manner and has identified what appear to be the more significant issues and counter-issues.  These are set out very briefly below.

CIMOGG is particularly conscious of the need not to heap additional burdens on our children, who are already heavily encumbered with huge loads of homework and tuition classes.  For many others who have completed their schooling, the acquisition of a second or third language, which they do not really need to use often, represents a formidable hurdle and a substantial waste of time.  Hence, it is important that the state makes suitable provision for those who are fluent only in one of the three national languages to be able to live anywhere within Sri Lanka and transact official business in their chosen language.

The importance of having one’s ethnic and cultural roots preserved and the need to have free access to an international language have also to be taken into account.  For this, school children should learn their mother tongue as well as English, which is accepted even by the proud nation of China as the most useful language of international commerce, science and communication.  Moreover, children should be given at least one hour of conversation and one hour of reading every week in the third language (Tamil or Sinhala, as appropriate) so that they would not find themselves totally Adeaf and dumb in the company of any other of Sri Lankas language groups.  In school, acquiring knowledge of a third language (whether it be Sinhala or Tamil) should be rewarded with some kind of incentive but poor linguistic achievement should not be cause for penalising a child, in whatever form, because that would cause it to hate its teacher, the language itself and those who speak it.

On an urgent basis, however, public servants who have to interact with members of the public or communicate internationally must acquire a reasonable measure of fluency (not necessarily mastery) in the written and spoken forms of all three languages.  Those who are already in service should be given good facilities and generous incentives (higher salaries and quicker promotions) for passing both written and oral examinations in a second and a third language.

Those who wish to enter government service (including corporations, boards, authorities etc) should, say, after the year 2008, be required to reach sufficient prior fluency in the two languages which are not their mother tongue so as to be able to interact with any citizen reasonably comfortably.  The shortage of teachers should be dealt with by using simple audio-visual equipment and lessons prepared by a select group of teachers.  TV, radio, tape recorders, CD, DVD, the printed media and all available resources should be utilised, with extra support given to those who live in rural areas.  Employing modern techniques, it would be perfectly feasible for a Tamil wishing to enter public service to learn to read and speak sufficient official Sinhala or, similarly, for Sinhalese to learn to read and speak sufficient Tamil by following an intensive 6-month course.  Reading and speaking English to the same level of competence would take another 6 months.

As time goes on, public servants should be free to improve their proficiency in any of the national languages and be rewarded appropriately for their efforts.

CIMOGG’s approach is that, other than for public servants, there should be no compulsion on anyone to become proficient in all three languages.  Everyone else should be encouraged to learn other languages rather than be coerced to do so against their inclination, prejudices or lack of talent.  By doing so, avoidable resentments could be minimised.

The state should not treat citizens as if they are stupid and incapable of taking personal decisions properly in the interests of their children.  In particular, the state should not interfere in what parents decide should be the mother tongue of their children, providing it is one of the national languages.

These suggestions are made with a view to reducing conflicts in regard to issues of importance to the country in respect of the learning and use of languages for official purposes.  They would need to be refined to suit special situations but the use of compulsion should be kept at a minimum.  The bonus that would accrue from the sincere and speedy implementation of a scheme based on the above ideas would go a long way to counter the mistrust and ill-feelings which were generated fifty years ago by a less generous approach.

Jul 13

CIMOGG has received numerous representations over the past couple of years asking it to take an active part in trying to find solutions to the problem of disposing of garbage (Municipal Solid Waste) in an environmentally-acceptable manner.  At the same time, various experts, business promoters and ratepayers continue to speak and write a great deal about garbage in the media.  Many of them believe they have reasonably simple answers to the problem of garbage disposal and that it is solely the remissness or mendacity of politicians and officials which prevents a quick solution from being effected.  Whilst there is much justification for such a belief, there are also other factors which militate against a quick fix, the principal one being the shortage of funds.

When one studies the voluminous contributions made on this subject, it becomes clear that one would have to write a substantial book to cover in detail all the aspects which are relevant to this subject.  Although there are undoubtedly many such books already written elsewhere, they are not freely available here and, in any case, we would have to make suitable modifications to meet local constraints. Even without resort to the sophisticated techniques discussed in such books, and even with our limited funds, we believe that a significant impact can be made in dealing with garbage by concentrating initially on what most of us could agree without much debate.

Separation of Degradable and Undegradable Wastes


The most obvious objections to the open dumping of garbage are the powerful stench of decomposing organic waste, the leaching out of aggressive, environmentally hazardous chemicals, and the offensive visual appearance of the dump itself.  Here, as a first step, what is required, and is not difficult to do, is to convert all domestic organic refuse into compost within the householders’ premises itself.  The space required for a compost bin is very small.  No noxious gases are released during composting.  The compost may be used in the householders’ gardens or, alternatively, arrangements can be made for it to be collected for use by horticultural or agricultural end users.  The collection could be done by small-time, self-employed contractors.

As for the dry components of household garbage, there are two options.  The less satisfactory one is to have all the mixed plastic, rubber, paper, wood, glass and metal items put in a single bin for removal on a fixed day of the week.  The removal of these components would be fairly straightforward as there would be no objectionable smells and offensive dripping of liquids during handling and transport.  Furthermore, there would no irreversible adverse environmental hazard.  Those presently engaged in scavenging for recyclable materials in mixed, wet dumping grounds would be able to increase their productivity many-fold because they would now be working in dry conditions.  Considering that there would be a substantial volume of the temporarily stored material being removed continuously for re-cycling, the land area required for the dumping and sorting of this residue would be much less than that which would have been required for the original wet mixed garbage.

A better variation of the above option would be for each household to compost the organic material, as before, but additionally sort the plastics & rubber, the paper & wood, the glass, and the metal & other items separately into four bins. However, this option would have a reasonable chance of being implemented properly only if (a) the required bins are provided at the cost of the local authority and the cost recovered over a period of, say, 5-10 years by enhancing the rates, (b) an intensive campaign is carried out in schools and through the written and visual media to get the population to cooperate, and (c) the collection of the different fractions is entrusted to contractors, on the lines referred to above.

Garbage from Hotels, Restaurants and Canteens

If a hotel, restaurant or canteen is located on a large plot, the composting could be done within the premises and the rest of the materials sorted out into the four bins, as for households.  The removal of the compost and the other components would, in this case too, be entrusted to independent contractors.  On the other hand, where there is no garden space, the local authority may use their existing trucks to transport the organic component to a number of small composting plants, run by the local authority, from where the contractors would collect the compost for sale to the end users.

Toxic Wastes from Hospitals


The wastes produced by hospitals would need to be separated into two basic components.  Those wastes produced in hospital kitchens and restaurants could be separated and decomposed into compost and disposed of in the same way as in hotels.  On the other hand, the plastic, paper, glass and metal wastes from hospitals and nursing homes would undoubtedly be contaminated with germs, drugs, disinfectants etc.  These should not be burnt in the open air because there would be release of toxic gases and possible dispersal of contaminated dust and soot. Consequently, there is no alternative to having these materials destroyed by one of the custom-designed methods of incineration which have been developed for this purpose.

Thin-film Plastic Bags (Sili-sili bags) and Food-Wrapping Film

The proposal to ban thin film sili-sili bags is theoretically attractive but is not without major disadvantages.

There is no more hygienic and economical material for wrapping meat, fish or refrigerated products than plastic film.  However, reuse is not practical at present because the regular plastic film is too thin and tears easily.  One way of dealing with this would be to ban bags from being made with material of less than a certain specified thickness, and to make the user pay for them, which would greatly promote multiple reuse.  Shops should be discouraged from giving away free bags.  This could be done by the government levying a high rate of tax on the manufacture of these bags so that no one would want to throw them away prematurely.  Another sensible alternative, and probably the better one in the long term, would be to encourage all manufacturers to use biodegradable raw materials for making sili-sili bags and food wrapping film.  These raw materials are somewhat more expensive than those used for the standard film.  Their chemical structures are so designed as to result in total degradation within 6-12 months unlike the more common materials which remain intact almost indefinitely.

We need to point out that paper, which has a very low wet strength and is porous, is not a satisfactory substitute for plastic film.  It would cost more to produce, require huge numbers of trees to be cut down (either here or in another country) and would cost very much more to recycle.  The production of paper and its recycling are also far more energy-consuming and environmentally problem-laden than plastic film.  In addition, paper, on account of its porosity, is likely to increase the probability of contamination when used to wrap food items.

Lining of Garbage Dumps and Tapping of Methane for Power Production

The lining of garbage dumps to prevent groundwater pollution is technically more complicated than might appear at first glance.  It is also an enormously expensive exercise to do correctly.  If done without proper engineering inputs in respect of investigations, planning, designs, costing, construction, filling and covering with earth, it would represent money down the drain.  In any event, large areas of land would still have to be found for the dumps and the land, when covered by soil (obtained by affecting adversely the environment somewhere else), would be suitable only as agricultural or park land, and possibly for small-scale power production for a limited number of years by tapping the methane produced within the enclosed fill.

The costs of properly engineered, lined and sealed landfills are extremely high and it is unlikely that Sri Lanka would be able to afford to resort to these in the foreseeable future.


Incineration without Separation


Incineration of unsorted garbage in large-scale plants tends to be favoured by businessmen and politicians because there is a lot of money involved in the financing, designing, building and operating of sophisticated, giant incinerating plants.  Considerable technological inputs are required for the design of the incineration process and the plant so as avoid discharging dangerous gases and smoke into the atmosphere.  Also, even before the design work could commence, a lot of time and resources will be needed for the necessary investigations into land availability, transport costs, capital costs, running costs, financial feasibility, sensitivity to industrial action, environmental impact etc.  Thus, it can be readily appreciated that heavy incineration plants require several years to go from concept to completion.

This option should, nevertheless, not be ignored altogether.  Preliminary studies should be carried out without delay and a decision taken on implementation at such time as it becomes difficult to get contractors to do the collection and disposal of the components and products of garbage as proposed in the earlier parts of this article.

Treatment of Mixed Wet Garbage by Chemicals


There has been brief reference in the press regarding the centralised sorting of mixed garbage and its treatment with a special patented digestive liquid (ADelta D) to break down all organic materials.  The inventors of this system have recommended that a pilot project to convert 50 tonnes per day should be set up, which indicates that there is some way to go to before this method can be considered to be fully tested.  However, as it has been developed by Sri Lankan scientists and engineers, it must be tried out, improved and the financial viability worked out.  This will take some time but may prove to be the best direction in which we would need to go in the long term.

Readers are reminded that the garbage load in Colombo and its suburbs runs into a few thousand tonnes per day and it will be many years before this particular technology would be able to take over from the simpler ones outlined here.

Action by Central Government


To help deal with the disposal of garbage on the lines proposed here, the Central Government should take steps to do the following -

a)     Get the State-controlled media to prepare on an urgent basis publicity and educational material to teach the younger generation – and, through them, the older generation – to show a greater degree of social responsibility to deal with garbage in a sustainable manner – composting, sorting, multiple reuse of plastic bags etc;

b)     Get the state banks to give loans on easy terms for the leasing of mini-trucks to those who are prepared to become contractors for the collection and transport of compost and recyclable materials (both sorted and unsorted) to meet any existing shortages of equipment;

c)     Release small plots of land for the temporary storage and sorting of the relatively inoffensive recyclable materials;

d)     Help local authorities with loans to set up small-scale composting plants to deal with organic waste from large institutions such as hospitals, hotels, restaurants and so on;

e)     Get the Department of Health to provide standards for the safe incineration of non-compostable waste from hospitals and set up small, standard-sized units, each to serve hospitals within a radius of, say, 5-10km;

f)     Help local authorities with expertise to help them raise money on municipal and similar bonds to pay for the early implementation of proposals such as those proposed here, and guarantee the funds;

g)     Ban, with a grace period of one or two years, thin-film products of all kinds unless they are biodegradable.


Action by Local Authority

a)     Set up a dedicated task force to follow up actively on the above proposals;

b)     Meet with Ministers, MPs and central government officials, and keep ratepayers informed regularly of the progress made so that the public could know quickly where things are getting stuck and bring appropriate pressure to bear on their representatives;

c)     Inform all householders who have even a small area of open space outside their houses that they would have to use the compost bins provided and also sort their waste into the different categories into the other bins.  Failure to cooperate would result in their rates being increased to, say, three times the standard figure or being subject to some other penalty to be determined by the local authority;

d)     Allocate areas of work, collection programmes and payment schemes to match the contractors’ equipment, transport distance etc;

e)     Divert underemployed cadres from existing cadres and train them to run the composting plants, and the final sorting and sale of recyclable materials.



Restrictions of space do not permit going into any more detail regarding the suggestions and proposals given here.  However, there is a wealth of information available on these matters in our universities, research organisations and governmental and non-governmental institutions concerned with health, the environment and public services.  It would be responsibility of the task force to tap these sources for such information and act on them.