Kerala is grappling with a problem of plenty: plenty of solid waste. The major cities of the state are generating more garbage than ever before and people who live around the overflowing dumping yards are raising a stink – with good reason.
Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode, Thrissur and Kottayam have seen rapid urbanisation and population growth in recent years. This has led to generation of more solid waste than they can handle. Though waste management is a sensitive issue, it has not been accorded the sort of importance it merits in Kerala's development strategy. Ordinary citizens are the worst sufferers.
When a city generates an overload of solid waste, the only option available to the authorities is to make arrangements for removing garbage from the municipal limits and offload it in dumping yards located in the outskirts of the city. No thought is given to the plight of the people who live around the garbage dump.
Living around dumping yards and treatment plants in Kerala, as it would be anywhere else, is a veritable nightmare. The story is the same whether one is in Njeliyanparambu in Kozhikode district, Laloor in Thrissur, Brahmapuram in Kochi, or Vilappilsala in Thiruvananthapuram.
Njeliyanparambu, located six km from Kozhikode, is a picture of complete administrative neglect. Ask Asmabi. She can never live down the ignominy her family faced when her younger daughter got married two years ago. She says: “The stench from the waste treatment plant marred the occasion. The stink was so bad that the guests couldn't partake of the wedding feast and the groom had to keep his nose covered through the nuptial ceremony. It was so humiliating for my family.”
Marriages have become infrequent in the neighbourhood around the 18.5-acre waste treatment plant in Njeliyanparambu. The local people opt for faraway places as venues for marriage ceremonies for fear of the obnoxious stench playing spoilsport. Pretty much the same is true in other areas near the treatment plant – Cheruvannur-Nallalm, Farook and Olavanna.
Parents are reluctant to give their daughters in marriage to boys who live near the plant. The number of over-aged men still waiting for life partners is steadily increasing. Similarly, boys are averse to marrying girls from here. In many families the problem of unmarried youth is assuming serious proportions.
In the last century, Njeliyanparambu was where human excreta collected from the town was dumped. The smell was foul but the waste was bio-degradable. Later, the place was transformed into a solid waste dumping ground. In the initial years, the quantity of waste was manageable. It is no more so. Kozhikode now generates 300 tonnes of waste, including non-degradable plastic, medical waste, food waste, slaughter and fish waste, every day.
“Despite the authorities being directed to set up more treatment plants, waste continues to flow incessantly. The municipal corporation has installed a plant in the central fish market but it has yet to become operational. According to official claims, the quantity of waste has come down to 50 tonnes. That's not true. Local inhabitants have to suffer as a result of the waste that urban folk dump here,” says VP Basheer, convenor of the Njeliyanparambu Agitation Front. According to Basheer, around 175 wells and other water sources have over the years become useless due to water contamination. Cancer, skin problems and lung ailments are common in the area.
During the last monsoon, chikunguniya took on epidemic form here but the health authorities sought to conceal this. Untreated effluents from the so-called treatment plant pollutes the Chaliyar river, which is the district's main drinking water source.
Water pollution has rendered acres of farmland unusable for agriculture. Houses in these areas have no takers, so selling them is impossible. The Njeliyanparambu Agitation Front and other organisations have submitted many alternative projects like decentralised waste management plants to solve the problem. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
“Around 60 vehicles still come here carrying garbage collected by women workers from houses and hotels. A clandestine deal between the administration and vehicle contractors may be the reason for the authorities turning a blind eye,” alleges Manaf, a local resident. Njeliyanparambu is not the only area thus affected. The misery of people living near the Laloor dumping yard in Thrissur attracted public attention in the 1990s when three young men died of suffocation while cleaning a well.
In 2009, the water that seeped from the garbage heap in the trenching ground flooded nearby houses and polluted most wells in the nearby areas. In another incident, when the Orgraver machines for processing waste into manure became non-functional, the Thrissur corporation authorities set fire to the waste. The fumes engulfed the area and many residents suffered the consequences of suffocation. “Criminal negligence of the municipal corporation aggravates the problem manifold. The authorities make false promises,” says T.K. Vasu, convenor of Laloor Malineekarana Virudha Samiti.
After direct intervention of Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan and the state high court, a waste management plan was put in place. The decentralised waste treatment plan suggested by Dr Pathiyoor Gopinath, a professor of Kerala Agricultural University, was approved by the government and the high court. Land has been acquired and the funds sanctioned but the project has not taken off. Meanwhile, the corporation has seen a change of guard.
When the left was in power, UDF leaders were in the forefront of the agitation against waste dumping. Ironically, the newly elected UDF Council and its mayor are now silent on the project. “Laloor is not an important issue now,” I.P.Paul, new mayor of Thrissur, told TSI.
The solid waste treatment plant at Vilappilsala in Thiruvananthapuram is another problem area. Garbage accumulation has raised the threat of an epidemic outbreak in the densely-populated coastal areas. The Vilappil gram panchayat and the people are on the warpath against the corporation, demanding that the centralised treatment plant be closed down on grounds of environmental pollution. They want the corporation to adopt a decentralised system of solid waste management, focusing on mini treatment plants and household and community-level garbage disposal.
The situation is no different in places like Brahmapuram near Kochi, Vadavathur in Kottayam, Chelora in Kannur, Kureepuzha in Kollam and some other cities. According to Dr M.P. Parameswaran, a scientist and social activist, “The cities of Kerala generate 3000-4000 tonnes of solid waste daily.” He says the problem can be solved by setting up 3000 to 4000 small waste treatment plants across the state.