Our correspondent in Weliweriya and Rathupaswala
“When the army started firing, most of us ran to St Anthony’s Church, Weliweriya. The army then followed us to the church and started firing live ammunition that injured many. Then they threatened the people to kneel down on the church grounds and started assaulting with bicycle chains, clubs and also with rifle butts….”
The Sri Lanka Army has come under severe criticism for firing live bullets to disperse a crowd that was staging a
protest demanding drinking water at Weliweriya on Thursday. The army is accused of not allowing the people to take the critically injured to the hospital after the shooting.
The clash following the protest killed one person while injuring over 15 including media personnel. The Weliweriya
incident reminded one of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone shooting that killed Roshen Chanaka and the Chilaw Fishermen agitations over the price hike of kerosene oil.
Weliweriya town in the Gampaha District and its suburbs looked more like a mini battle field on Thursday afternoon when a contingent of army personnel fired live bullets at the villagers who had gathered in their numbers to protest against a rubber glove factory in Rathupaswala that had allegedly discharged their untreated chemical waste to a large trench.
As a result, ground water in and around Gampaha were contaminated depriving more than 10,000 families any access to clean drinking water.
Dipped Products PLC is a subsidiary of the Hayleys Group that manufactures rubber gloves. The manufacturing plant is situated at Rathupaswala in Weliweriya and is accused of discharging their chemical waste to the trench untreated. As a result the ground water over the years has become contaminated and according to the villagers, the area public health inspectors (PHI) have wanted the villagers not to use the well water as it causes many severe diseases.
The Lankastandard visited the area and spoke to several residents.
“Although the PHIs wanted us not to use well water even for cleaning purposes, there is no other option but for us to drink the contaminated water. According to the PHIs the PH level in water has dropped beyond 4.4 which is harmful to the body. When we drink this water the throat and the oesophagus irritate and when we wash our bodies the skin starts itching,” said Clarence Gnanamuttu who was the then Personal Assistant to Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.
Meanwhile Jayasuriya, a resident of Nendungamuwa said how the army arrived after dispersing the Belummahara protest and stated firing at them.
“There were two large protests – one in Balummahara and the other at Weliweriya. The army had first gone to Balummahara protest that was blocking the Kandy Road. While we were protesting in Weliweriya, we came to know that the army was assaulting the protestors in Balummahara. It was around 5.30pm. A few army officers came in motor bikes and army vehicles. No sooner they came, they started firing into the air and without any warning started shooting at the street lamps to bring the entire area into darkness,” alleged Jayasuriya.
“We are living in small hamlets in the Gampaha district and the majority does not have permanent jobs. Why is this happening to people like us? What is wrong in asking the government to supply us with drinking water?’ he asked.
Susantha who joined Jayasuriya described as to how a large contingent of army personnel came covering their faces and started firing towards the crowd.
“When the army started firing, most of us ran to St Anthony’s Church, Weliweriya. The army then followed us to the
church and started firing live ammunition that injured many. Then they threatened the people to kneel down on the church grounds and started assaulting with bicycle chains, clubs and also with rifle butts,” said Susantha.
Accusing the army for turning the area into a mini battle field, Susantha said as to how the army prevented the people from taking the injured to the hospital.
“We have seen how military personnel attack people in films but saw a real military assault only on Thursday. How inhumane they were for not allowing the people to remove the severely injured to hospitals? The injured had to be taken to the hospital through paddy fields and cemeteries. We want to give you the real picture of what exactly happened that afternoon. Please ask anybody whether I have fabricated the story. People in this country should know the real story,” said Susantha.
Wimalasena, a resident at Embaraluwa said as to how one of the Dipped Products employees claimed that the chemical waste was earlier treated before they were discharged to the ground but the process was stopped after the electricity tariff hike.
“Earlier the company treated the chemical waste but since the electricity tariff hike this procedure was stopped,” said Wimalasena
It’s The Villagers Who Attacked First – Army
Military Spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasuriya, refuting allegations, said that it was the villagers that first attacked the army and police with clubs, sand bottles and petrol bombs but not the army or police.
“A meeting was held at the Defence Ministry to find a solution for Rathupaswala issue and the factory owners, the water board, local politicians, district and divisional secretariat representatives were present at the occasion. At the meeting the factory owners decided to stop their operational work until scientific experiments were done to ascertain what the reason for the water contamination was. Once the investigations are done and the report is released, the necessary actions would be taken,” said Brig. Wanigasuriya.
He further said that the army was sent to Belummahara and Weliweriya on the request of the police since the police could not handle the protestors.
“We cannot allow the people to disrupt the public life by closing down the Kandy Road. As per the Criminal Procedure Code Section 95, the police can request the army to help if they find it difficult to control any situation. So we got a request and we helped the police to calm the situation,” he added.
According to Brig. Wanigasuriya, once the police investigations are over, he will be able to give a clear statement over the incident.
“At the moment I cannot give further details because of the ongoing investigations,” he added.
17-Year-Old Akila Dinesh Killed
The Lankastandard visited the home of 17-year-old Akila Dinesh who was killed by the army on Thursday afternoon. Akila’s mother was hospitalized when we visited the grieving family at Weliweriya. His grandmother Manel and grandfather Sunil Jayawardena were dumbfounded and crying silently remembering their only grandson.
According to the villagers, Akila was about 200 meters away from the main Kaduwela- Balummahara main road when the army chased him firing at him.
“While they were chasing Akila they broke a CCTV camera fixed to a house knowing that their ‘brave’ actions would be recorded. After breaking the CCTV camera, they fired at the street lights and then chased away the people shooting all over,” said Malkanthi, a neighbour.
According to Malkanthi the actual number of injured is yet to be ascertained as some of them have been transferred to Colombo as their conditions were critical.
“We only know the number of patients taking treatment at the Gampaha hospital but do not know as to how many have been transferred to Colombo. In addition, there are a number of people that have gone missing since Thursday night and we have already started a search for them but there are no clues of their whereabouts,” said Malkanthi.
They accused the government and the security forces for attacking the unarmed villagers who were protesting for their rights but not taking any action against the factory for releasing chemical waste from the DPL factory.
Meanwhile, a relative of Akila said as to how a middle aged woman walked into Akila’s home on Friday morning and seeing many reporters capturing pictures called her boss, an MP, and asking her to send police officers to give protection to Akila’s relatives.
“She called the MP and asked her to send some police officers to stop journalists from reporting fabricated stories. They have now got scared knowing that the truth will be reported in media,” said the relative.
She further said as to how DIG Anura Senanayake visited Akila’s family on Friday morning and promised to supply all meals, Nescafe and water until the funeral .
“In addition he said that the government would deposit Rs.1 million in Akila’s mother’s bank account. Has he estimated our sons’ life for Rs.1 million? Is this the way the security forces attack people. To our knowledge they should first use tear gas, failing which water cannon and then rubber bullets. If nothing works, then they are allowed to fire live bullets into the air. But in this incident they started off with firing live bullets,” said the relative.
Statement by Hayleys Group factory
With regard to the public unrest concerning the Hayleys Group’s factory in the Weliweriya area, the Managing Director of Dipped Products PLC Dr Mahesha Ranasoma released the following statement:
Dipped Products PLC of Hayleys Group has been making an invaluable contribution to the economy of Sri Lanka and is a key foreign exchange earner for the country through the manufacture of latex glove products and marketing them to more than 70 countries in the world. Operating for nearly four decades, Dipped Products PLC accounts for 5% of the world’s production of non-medical rubber gloves of which our factory in Nedungamuwa produces nearly 45%.
There has been a misconception that the Dipped Products factory located in Nadungamuwa, Weliweriya is causing environmental and water pollution which consequently has caused much social unrest among the residents of the area. As a representative of the organisation I would like to express our grave concern over this matter.
The residents are acting under the impression that the effluents released by the factory are lowering the well water quality (pH). We as a conglomerate that follows ethical procedures to deliver quality products as well as service with utmost care, condemn the accusations made by the residents of the area and take this opportunity to affirm our Quality Control Procedures.
Our effluent water quality is regularly tested by the National Building and Research Organization and our facility operates with a valid Environmental Protection Licence. Reports issued by the National Building and Research Organisation throughout the history of our operations to-date clearly show that the pH level of the treated water released by our factory falls between 6.5 and 8.2. This shows that the treated water released from the factory is well within the accepted standards and does not in any way harm the environment. We have also received ISO 14000 certification which clearly shows that our factory complies with all environmental guidelines and further to this we encourage our customers to conduct their own audits of our factory, in addition to several quality audits conducted by us.
Upon request more information can be presented on behalf of my organisation that is being subjected to this unfair accusation.
Another key factor to consider is that our factory is located at Nadungamuwa, Weliweriya an area in which there can be natural occurrences of low levels of pH in shallow water that could be less than 6.5. Therefore accusing us of being responsible for creating this situation is false and invalid when it is known that the Attanagalu Oya basin has naturally occurring low pH shallow water areas.
Reasons for such low pH occurrence could be the dissolved carbon dioxide as well as iron oxide predominantly present in the Ratupaswala area neighbouring Nedungamuwa.
Before this incident took place, we have had many discussions with the residents, officials from the Health Department, and political leaders of the area as well as heads of civil organisations all of which were conducted in a friendly and hospitable manner and never once amounted to anything resembling the violence and unrest we are experiencing today.
“We have reasonable suspicions that this incident is being aggravated by certain parties with hidden political agendas who are seeking to bring our company to disrepute and tarnish the good image that Dipped Products PLC as a part of the Hayleys Group has so successfully built up over the years.
“As the public unrest escalated we held discussions with several government officials of this country including the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. During this meeting we agreed to cease manufacturing operations while an investigation to determine the reasons for low pH water in the wells is conducted by the Industrial Technology Institute, National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, University of Moratuwa and the University of Kelaniya. We are prepared to offer whatever support is required to ensure that a full and fair investigation is carried out. We also urge the responsible authorities concerned to conduct their investigation in a speedy manner so that our good image can be restored.
Furthermore, the Hayleys Group has been the winner of the Best Corporate Citizen Award in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010 which is a clear indication of our commitment to the public of this country. Even during this situation, we have always acted in a people-friendly manner with the sole objective of resolving the tension in the area.
I would like to express my deep disappointment towards those who are trying to fulfil narrow political agendas by creating a violent atmosphere and urge them to cease these hostilities and work with us towards achieving a solution that is beneficial to all parties concerned.