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Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala was once known as the cleanest city in India. Today, it is littered with garbage. In 1995, the city corporation embarked upon a plan to convert organic waste into biofertiliser with private sector participation. In accordance with the corporation's plans, a plant run by P O Abraham and Sons (poabs) came up in June 2000 in Villappilsala -- a village, situated 14 kilometres away from the city and inhabited mostly by casual labourers and marginal farmers.
The plant has made lives of the villagers miserable. Once an area of great natural beauty, Villappilsala is a living nightmare. Waste from the factory site has polluted groundwater in low lying areas. It has contaminated the local aquifer in toxic proportions: cattle have died after drinking water from it. One youth showed us wounds all over his body and complained that he got them after taking bath in the aquifer. The report of the government committee constituted to study the problem refuses to acknowledge groundwater contamination in Villappilsala. This is despite a water analyst's report to the contrary. In June this year, the Kerala minister for local administration, stated in the state assembly "that existence of water pollution in the area cannot be ruled out".
The plant management has been allowed to go on with dumping waste -- there is no clause in the agreement that poabs signed with the Thiruvananthapuram corporation to prevent this. The corporation has gifted away its right to levy penalty for environmental despoiling consequent to dumping, while failing to extract any assurance from the plant management on environmental protection.
Garbage is brought to the factory after lying for days in the dumping yards of the Thiruvananthapuram corporation. It often spills over to the village road while being transported to the factory site in open lorries. The villagers have to live with the unbearable stench that this putrefying waste emanates. Flies swarm the houses in evening when the garbage is transported. All this has affected the health of Villappilsala's residents. Month-wise data collected from the Villappil Primary Health Centre and the neighbouring Vellanad Community Health Centre, for the years 1999, 2000 and 2001, shows a marked increase in acute respiratory illness amongst people of the village since June 2000. The stench emanating from the rooting garbage also causes nausea and loss of appetite among local people. According to Father Kanakaraj, priest of the Church of South India in the area, the aged are most affected by this.
The people of Villappilsala feel slighted at the way they have being treated. They had opposed the plant all along. But the corporation rode roughshod over their opinions and the plant was started in 2000. Today, the local population has no faith in the bureaucracy and in elected representatives -- they are all seen as puppets of the factory management. There is an unanimous opinion amongst villagers that their rights have been sacrificed for the good of Thiruvananthapuram's residents. They also felt let down by the 'so called environmentalists' who had not cared to visit the area even once despite being requested.
It is high time to think of other alternatives for disposing municipal solid waste in Thiruvananthapuram. Voices from the boundaries of the waste mound cannot be ignored. The city dwellers have to remember that they are sitting on the boundary of a waste volcano which can erupt any time and and unleash a lava of epidemics.
Also, the plant has done precious little in mitigating the waste problem of Thiruvananthapuram. For the city to become clean again, its residents have to practise segregation, source reduction, recycling and reuse of solid waste. The rights to clean drinking water and clean air of the residents of Villappilsala cannot be the price for a clean Thiruvananthapuram. Alternative methods of waste disposal may require extra efforts. But cutting corners to achieve the goal of a clean city will have pernicious consequences, while the goal itself might remain a dream.
R Mohan is a research scholar at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram