By Shanika Sriyananda/The Sunday Observer
Another lorry load of garbage arrives at the dump. While the crows flock around the “new” arrival a group of men race towards it, piled on top of the huge garbage mountain of over 20 ft high.
Stepping on to the garbage dump and walking through the stinking rubbish is like walking through hell. The rubbish with left-over eatables, plastic items, zinc sheets, paper, clothes, hospital wastes, e-waste, dead carcasses and human internal organs are strewn all over. The dogs and crows have a field day!
Men, with ragged cloths walk like ghosts run through the muddy and slippery garbage dump to dig ‘valuables’ among the rotting rubbish.
With bare hands they dig the rubbish just arrived from the city. It was 12 noon and each of them own a fairly good collection for half a day.
These men, numbering over 50, are the scavengers of the notorious Meetotamulla garbage dump, which take in over 800 metric tons of garbage from Colombo and Kolonnawa.
Premasiri became a scavenger 20 years ago in the small garbage dump which was designated to dump garbage daily from Kolonnawa.
But, scarcity of land to dump Colombo garbage, compelled the Colombo Municipality to commence dumping its garbage in the Meetotamulla site, despite persistent opposition from the residents of Kolonnawa.
The dump kept expanding day by day and became a huge dump that became a hell for the residents, including children, making them fall ill often.
Premasiri, who comes from Armour Street, has no qualms on the expansion and he wants the site to remain for ever.
For Premasiri, Alavudeen, Sunil and Jagath and the rest of the scavengers the dump is their gold mine. But, for the people in Kolonnawa, living in and around the dump, it is hell.
After a few minutes ‘journey’ through the rubbish dump, one tends to lose the sense of stench. All these men are immune to the awful stench as they have been exposed to the dump from their teens.
Premasiri collects coal, coconut shells and bottles from the dump. “I have to feed my four children and my old parents”, he says.
Rain brings bad luck for them as they find it difficult to walk through. Being a scavenger for over 15 years, Alavudeen has collected over 30 kg of plastics, zinc sheets, bottles and glass pieces. Used water bottles too have a good demand.
The scavengers collect all re-useable stuff. According to Alavudeen, some times it’s risky to walk on the dump as hospital waste – discarded syringes, injections, bottles and even human flesh- are among the trash.
A truck load of rubbish enters the site. Most of the scavengers stop digging and run behind the truck. Alavudeen too runs after it.
He comes back with a parcel. “It’s still hot. This is going to be my lunch”, he smiles.
The blue truck is their favourite rubbish carrier. It brings left-overs from a popular hotel in Colombo. The driver, a good-hearted man brings the eatables separately so that the scavengers can relish the food.
Gunasiri does not bother others. With no water to wash his hands, he starts having his lunch while the crows and dogs crowd around him. He drinks water from a used bottled water. Others too have their lunch in their new found places.
“This is a competition. If we miss the chance of collecting the stuff which we could sell, it will affect the daily income. Sometimes we do not have time to have our lunch as the trucks arrive one after another”, Alavudeen says.
He has to feed four mouths from his income. They find toys and clothes among the trash but never take them home for their children as they fear infections.
“We have been exposed to viruses for years. But our children at home are not”, he says adding that they have the blessings of the Gods to protect them from being sick. They believe that they have developed a good immune system to fight with bacteria due to their daily exposure to the waste.
The only remedy that these scavengers have taken to guard them from viruses is to have a good bath at the end of the day.
Some, they say, are lucky as they find pieces of gold from the dump. Alavudeen is one of the luckiest who had found a piece of gold chain worth Rs. 4,500, some years ago.
“That is the most expensive item that I have found in my 15-year-long stay at the dump”, he says happily.
The saddest experience, he can remember is the death of one of his colleagues, who died after being buried under truck-load of garbage, a was taken unawares.
They confessed to have seen, at times foetuses among the hospital waste but unaware of its exact origins.
With no formal education, the majority of them have not studied even up to grade five due to poverty. They engage in one of the ugliest income generations in the country to make their children’s lives better. None of the scavenger wants their children to dig the dump for a living.
Cleanliness is the word that is missing in their vocabulary. “We do not have a life without this garbage dump now as our families depend on this income. We are not used to do any other job. But we too like to have live decent lives”, Alavudeen says.
All of them have no big hopes for life. Being fit enough to dig the ‘gold mine’ tomorrow, is the only wish they have and they pray that more rubbish will be dumped at the site. Though they earn a good income through re-selling trash, these scavengers are still drowned in extreme poverty as most of them are drug addicts.
A large portion of their meagre income goes to drug peddlers, who are thriving in the areas.
Alavudeen agrees that they take little bit of alcohol to have a good nights sleep to forget the ugly Meetotamulla garbage dump and to have a fresh start next day.
“Though we look ugly and live in trash from dawn to dusk, we are good at heart. Our hearts are not ugly like many people in our society”, Alavudeen chuckled.