As Kerala cities dump their waste in the countryside, people in the villages hit back. An unresolved civic problem of decades compounded by topography and demography has now turned gram panchayats against municipalities and urban bodies against the state government. M Suchitra reports
Stench in my backyard
Vilappil, a small village located 14 kilometres from the heart of Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, comprises mostly marginal farmers and wage labourers. On August 3, defying prohibitory orders issued by the police against public gathering of 5,000-odd people, including schoolchildren and women with babies, gathered near a temple. They formed a human wall across a two-kilometre stretch of road that leads to Thiruvananthapuram’s lone solid waste treatment plant located in their village. Women and children stood in the front. They wanted to stop trucks carrying machinery to a leachate treatment facility under construction on the plant premises. Leachate is the liquid that oozes out of decaying waste.
At about 7 am, 2,500 armed cops, including 500 women constables, reached Vilappil and took positions. “Our children will welcome the police with flowers,” a public address system announced. The police were there to provide protection to Thiruvananthapuram municipal corporation trucks, under directions of the Kerala High Court passed on July 26. To make passage for the trucks, the cops began arresting and removing the protesters. People lit bonfires to stop the cops and trucks, and police responded by using water cannons. Protesters threw whatever they could lay their hands on to keep the bonfires burning.
In the melee, many, including two women constables, sustained injuries. Police vehicles were also attacked by masked youth, who, the protesters allege, were the corporation’s goons. Finally, the police were withdrawn. “We did our best to implement the court order,” said additional district magistrate P K Girija, who had accompanied the police force to the site. “People’s resistance was strong. We did not want to wage a war with them.”
Earlier, on February 13, police had beaten up people when they blocked a garbage truck escorted by 500 armed constables. Women had tied ends of their sarees and laid themselves down on the road to form a human chain. They were hit with batons. Even children were not spared. That day, too, the police could not make any headway. “This is a freedom struggle for us, a life-and-death battle that we cannot afford to lose,” says L Beneckson, secretary of Janakeeya Samara Samithy, people’s committee spearheading the agitation. “We have been suffering for 12 years because of severe air and water pollution caused by the plant. We want freedom from diseases and miseries,” adds S Burhanudeen, president of the committee.
In 1993, the municipal corporation bought 18.6 hectares in the village. “The authorities led us into believing that the land was for a herbal garden,” says C Yesudas who lives close to the plant. In 2000, people began protesting after they saw a compost plant being set up. The corporation assured them that the plant would function under the supervision of scientists who would ensure zero stench and pollution. But the site became an open dump. When people protested, criminal cases were filed against 24 of them.
The plant that was projected as the future model for the state could process only small quantities of biodegradable waste because the waste was not segregated (see ‘Why Vilappil plant failed’ on p28). Heaps of unsegregated waste accumulated in the open and started to rot.
People complained of the stench even from a distance of three kilometres. Leachate flowed into nearby streams that join the Meenapalli Thodu, a tributary of the Karamana river. There are six drinking water pumping stations on this river, two of which provide water to the city, and the rest to the surrounding villages.
Chemical analysis by Centre For Earth Sciences Studies (CESS) at Thiruvananthapuram shows city waste contains heavy metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic that can cause cancer, kidney failure and nervous and genetic disorders.
People say the dump began to affect their daily lives. “Matters deteriorated so much that getting suitable marriage alliance became difficult,” says Kumari Latha, a resident. Many sold their land and left Vilappil.
Incidence of respiratory and skin diseases, blurring of vision and swollen limbs is high among those who live close to the plant, says S Shobhana Kumari, Vilappil panchayat president. Medical records substantiate her allegation. The number of respiratory cases reported in Vilappil’s public health centre has increased from 341 in August 1999 to 5,895 in November 2001.
When compared with the community health centre at neighbouring Vellanad, the number of respiratory cases in Vilappil is very high for the same period. But the corporation counters this by saying the plant’s 30-odd employees do not have health problems.
The central government’s Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 prohibit open dumping of unsegregated municipal waste, especially in residential areas.
The dumping also violates Environment Protection Act, Kerala Paddy Land and Wetland Conservation Act, Kerala Ground Water Act and Coastal Zone Regulation Act. Thiruvananthapuram municipal corporation, with 0.95 million people, generates 203 tonnes of waste a day.
|It is the gram panchayat’s prerogative to address the village’s health and sanitation problems|
|S SHOBHANA KUMARI VILAPPIL PANCHAYAT PRESIDENT|
|Vilappil panchayat does not allow us to implement the Kerala High Court orders. The plant should be opened else there will be health problems in the city|
|K CHANDRIKA, THIRUVANANTHAPURAM CITY MAYOR|
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.