Sri Lanka: Police attack Hanwella villagers protesting against water pollution

Several villagers were seriously injured and over 60 arrested during a brutal police attack on a demonstration outside the Hanwella Rubber Products (HRP) factory in Hanwella, about 30 kilometres east of Colombo, on Sunday morning. Villagers blame the plant, a subsidiary of Dipped Products, for the pollution of local ground water, which they say has resulted in various skin diseases and respiratory problems.

The water contamination has directly affected several villages in the nearby Thunnana area. Almost 3,000 villagers demonstrated in mid-February calling for the plant’s removal. The latest protest, which involved about 300 villagers, began on Saturday and continued overnight outside the HRP factory gate. Early Sunday morning, about 150 police in three buses and some army personnel were mobilised to the plant.

At about 5.30 a.m., police charged the unarmed protestors—men, women and children—hitting them with batons and rifle butts. Villagers fleeing the scene were chased to and attacked in their homes. Those seeking protection in a nearby Buddhist temple were assaulted and part of the building damaged. Some women carrying children were beaten.

One woman told WSWS reporters: “I joined the protest on Sunday morning at around five. Suddenly three buses stopped in front of us. More than 125 police officers got out and started attacking us without any warning. They used batons, rifles and rods. Some wore black uniforms. One woman, Chandrawathi, was brutally attacked before my eyes.

“Nearly 15 people received injuries and some were seriously hurt. All ran away for safety. Some went to the temple, thinking they were safe there, but the police entered the temple and attacked them. It was so brutal, and they used teargas. I saw a mother running with a baby in her arms to avoid the teargas.”

Arrested protesters were taken to Homagama, Padukka and Hanwella police stations and the assault continued throughout Sunday. Angry villagers chopped down trees and blocked the nearby Colombo-Awissawella highway for almost three hours.

The government then deployed about 1,500 heavily-armed security personnel, who sealed off the whole area and began using water cannon and teargas. A police officer was injured during the clashes and later died in hospital. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government immediately seized on this to justify a further intensification of the state repression.

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana told the media that the Colombo Criminal Investigation Department was checking whether the police officer’s death was “a premeditated act of violence.” He claimed that the demonstration was a “sudden, disruptive and provocative act … incited by a specially organised group or groups who want to disgrace the nation’s government and the police internationally.”

Last weekend’s demonstration began after the Magistrate’s Court in Awissawella ruled in the factory’s favour last Friday. Two weeks ago the court gave HRP management 14 days to explain why the plant should not be shut. Instead of ordering the plant closure, as expected by thousands of villagers, the court over-ruled its own deadline on Friday, and gave HRP more time to reply.

Sunday’s police crackdown is the second recent attack on working people protesting against industrial pollution.

Last August, the Rajapakse government mobilised the military against Rathupaswala villagers protesting in Weliweriya against the pollution of local water supplies by the Venigros Dipped Products factory. Three youth were killed and several seriously injured in the attack. Like the HRP factory, Venigros produces rubber gloves.

The latest police violence is another warning from the Rajapakse government that it will not tolerate any protests against the polluting Dipped Products plants and the serious health issues now affecting local residents.

The government continues to whitewash last August’s military assault, and unwaveringly defends Dipped Products in the face of clear evidence that its Venigros plant polluted local water supplies.

While the Venigros factory was closed due to mass local opposition, no official report on the water contamination has been made public. In addition, the government offered Dipped Products the option of relocating to the Biyagama special economic zone, without any known provision for preventing pollution.

Sunday’s clashes have led to concerns within the ruling elite about the growing public opposition. An Island editorial, entitled “Disaster waiting to happen,” declared: “The government blundered by dragging its feet on the Rathupaswala water issue and being seen to be partial to the factory, blamed rightly or wrongly for pollution, much to the consternation of the affected people. It is apparently making the same mistake in Hanwella.”

Behind the government’s defence of Dipped Products and other industrial polluters are its desperate efforts to attract investment and boost an economy hard hit by the global financial crisis. The availability of unpolluted water and other rudimentary health and safety standards are the first casualties in the drive to make Sri Lanka an “internationally competitive” destination for corporate investment.

The Socialist Equality Party has launched an Independent Workers Inquiry into Weliweriya water pollution and is gathering growing support from villagers and workers in the area and other parts of the country.

Almost eight months since last August’s military attack, no one has been held responsible for the killing of three youth. Nor has any independent investigation been conducted into the industrial pollution of water supplies and its health implications for the Sri Lankan masses.

We urge workers and youth throughout Sri Lanka to support the Independent Workers Inquiry into Weliweriya Water Pollution. Sunday’s attack on Hanwella protestors underscores the necessity of building this investigation.