| by Dilrukshi Handunnetti

( August 13, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) On 1 August, a group of innocent citizens demanding water fit for human consumption ended up paying the price for demanding a service – access to clean drinking water.

Three youngsters paid with their lives in the most unfortunate manner and 33 were injured. All because, unarmed but angry, they demanded from the authorities, for a better service delivery.

Much has been said and written about the 'Weliweriya incident.' Most of it has been critical accounts on the conduct of the military in quelling a peaceful protest. There had been public outrage at what happened but finally, it turned out to be a double whammy for the innocent citizen in Rathupaswala in Weliweriya.

It is natural and certainly right that the public express outrage and to keep the debate moving on the gross rights violations that took place there. There had been calls for urgent investigations into the incidents of violence, a minister and presidential brother, Basil Rajapaksa has swiftly demonstrated his political acumen by apologizing to his constituency, the military too had offered an explanation of their own and the people remain shocked by what they experienced/witnessed besides being unable to trust the State for a fair response, even in the wake of three deaths.

All in all, discussions have concentrated, again quite righty, on the right to life. There is outrage that Article 14 (b) that guarantees the freedom of peaceful assembly and Article 14 (c) that guarantees the freedom of association were taken to task on 1 August. Weliweriya has also opened our eyes about how fragile the status of human rights in Sri Lanka, four years after the war, and how the South too can be at the receiving end of brute force.

Inalienable right of citizens

In this country, that the uniformed have come to all but officially represent the State and public administration is fact, unquestioned. But in our outrage and as immediate reaction to the deaths and injuries, we appear to overlook an extremely significant, inalienable right of every citizen. It is this right – the right to proper service delivery that got the villagers activated and there lies the root cause of the Weliweriya rebellion.

Looking beyond the emotionally-charged condemnation of the Army for opening fire on innocent and unarmed protestors, it would be appropriate to consider the constitutional guarantee on equality. If all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law, why would the Weliweriya protesters have to be in the doghouse? For voicing disapproval against the failure in the discharge of public duty?

Whatever the counter-arguments are, the people of Rathupaswala wetted their soil with blood a fortnight ago, for water. What is forgotten amidst the dramatic developments in the quiet village is that they have been demanding for safe drinking water for a long time. Instead of delivering this vital service, they now allege the government is watching the interests of the company that is faulted for releasing its chemical waste, which is mixed with the water resources in the area.

It's been a while since the villagers of Weliweriya and another 13 neighbouring villages became aware that they were consuming water rendered contaminated by the discharge of untreated waste chemicals. They opposed this and appealed to the government to have Vinigros (Pvt) Ltd., an entity of Dipped Products PLC, be shut down or relocated, and in the meantime, to ensure they have clean drinking water.

Protesting with pent up anger, they alleged there are containers of hard toxic chemicals within the Venigros factory premises, and demanded from the authorities that the premises be inspected. Meanwhile, they continued to use and consume toxic water.

On 27 July, the first 'water cannon' was fired by Ven. Therippahe Siri Dhamma Thera of the Galoluwa Temple, who began a fast unto death in front of the company premises. As pressure mounted against the company, the villagers reiterated their demand – to investigate the manner of disposing the factory's untreated chemical waste and what toxic chemicals were being used. The fast was called off with a government undertaking to close the glove-making factory for two weeks. Villagers allege the containers were swiftly removed the moment the protesters dispersed, following the abandoning of the fast by the protesting monk.

Today, the Rathupaswala people must be convinced that the government is hand in glove with the controversial company and was not keen to address the actual issue of the lack of access to safe drinking water. It is indeed tragic that in Sri Lanka, a middle income country which aspires to be the 'Miracle of Asia' is still unable to ensure safe drinking water to its one million plus inhabitants, and end up turning the barrel of guns in the public's direction.

Water cannons

These innocent victims in Rathupaswala have brought to light, among many things, the failure of the government in the all-important aspect of service delivery. If citizens are equal, then all should have equal access to water. But that's only as far as the constitutional provision goes.

Though a little new to Sri Lanka, water wars of this kind are all too common in neighbouring countries – India and Bangladesh. There are disputes over the rivers as there are continuous struggles to secure safe drinking water.

In Sri Lanka, Badulla holds a record for providing unsafe drinking water. There had been many reports on river pollution in the Badulla and Kegalle Districts – caused largely by faecal matter – and the lack of drinking water had been a serious health issue and a service delivery concern in many parts of Sri Lanka.

In 2010, Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) through the Social Indicator had a survey conducted on the nexus between service delivery and corruption in two selected Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) Divisions in Badulla, Meegahakivula and Rideemaliyadda. Two key problems plagued the lives of 307 respondents who live in the two infrastructurally-weak PS divisions – water supply and road development. But water supply affected them more, with 47% of men and 49% of women stressing on the poor water supply.

All this, despite the country's Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Policy of 2001, declaring that the provision of water supply and sanitation services being considered integral components of service delivery and development initiatives.

The policy also recognizes the government's primary role in ensuring all citizens access to potable water and sanitation facilities. Six years later, with the introduction of the National Policy on Drinking Water in 2007, access to water was recognized as an inalienable right of the people while the National Policy on Sanitation explicitly recognized sanitation as a human right.

This is why what happened in Rathupaswala becomes truly tragic. The incident had the government having its soldiers turning their guns on peaceful demonstrators who were demanding that inalienable right be not just a part of national policy, but a practical right.

On 1 August, lives were lost for a failure on the part of the State that often goes unrecognized – service delivery. It is not sexy. The public pay taxes to have this inalienable right ensured and now appear to have barrels of gun turned in their direction instead of barrels of water reaching their homes. It's a double whammy when on top of having to drink contaminated water, to find democracy undermined with governance hitting the lowest depths.

( The writer is a deputy editor of the Ceylon Today,a daily based in Colombo, where this piece was originally appeared)