Stench in my backyard

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

By M Suchitra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Stench in my backyard

Protesters light a bonfire to stop trucks from entering the waste treatment plant at Vilappil, near Thiruvananthapuram

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 Finally, the police were withdrawn.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.

Why plant at Vilappil failed
In 1993, Thiruvananthapuram municipal corporation entered into an agreement with Poabs Group, a plantation and granite quarrying company, to construct a waste treatment plant at Vilappil village. The corporation gave the land and Poabs built the plant. It was agreed that the corporation would give at least 300 tonnes of waste daily to convert organic waste to biofertiliser. Failing this, it would pay penalty of Rs 49,995 per day. But the corporation made the agreement on an incorrect assessment. It was not collecting even 150 tonnes of waste in a day.

The design for the plant was lifted from the one at Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh. The fact that climate and nature of waste in the two states are different was not considered. Unlike Andhra Pradesh, Kerala gets five months of continuous rainfall because of which moisture content in the waste is as high as 60 per cent. Poabs did not even construct leachate treatment facility and scientific landfill that requires segregation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste.

As per the agreement, government-owned Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) was to buy the biofertiliser. But FACT was not ready to buy manure at the price quoted by Poabs. To cut cost, Poabs began to treat waste only as per FACT’s demand and left the rest to rot. When people protested, the corporation asked Poabs to build a landfill and a leachate treatment plant. But the firm refused, claiming it was running in losses. When it was found that the firm could treat only 90 tonnes of waste and could not be running in losses, both the partners reached a compromise. The corporation bought the plant and promised the firm that no legal action would be initiated against it for polluting air and water resources, and causing serious environmental, social and health problems to people.

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.

S SHOBHANA KUMARI VILAPPIL PANCHAYAT PRESIDENT It is the gram panchayat’s prerogative to address the village’s health and sanitation problems

On December 21, 2011, Vilappil refused to take this garbage. Waste collection in the city also stopped. Garbage started to pile on roadsides and clogged drains. Unexpected cyclonic rains worsened the situation. Cases of dengue fever, chikungunya and rat fever were reported. The municipal corporation sought the high court’s intervention, which ordered in favour of the civic body. “But we are unable to implement the court order because of panchayat’s high-handedness,” says K Chandrika, mayor of the municipal corporation.

Displeased with the high court order, the gram panchayat approached the Supreme Court. On March 19, the apex court gave an interim order allowing the city’s waste to go to Vilappil, but with riders. The corporation could take 90 tonnes of waste in a day to the plant only if it had the mandatory licence from the panchayat and a no-objection certificate from the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. The plant has neither. With the lone plant inaccessible, the corporation buried 30,000 tonnes of waste at various places in the city. It has “donated” 1,000 tonnes of waste to the Indian Railways for constructing platforms at Murikkumpuzha and Kochuveli railway stations in the district, says D Sreekumar, health officer of the municipal corporation who is in charge of waste management.

K CHANDRIKA, THIRUVANANTHAPURAM CITY MAYOR 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

The corporation is trying to popularise home composting (see ‘Two-pot composting’) and has offered one per cent concession in property tax for households that install these units. This was announced this year during the corporation’s budget presentation.

Now, 12 years after the plant at Vilappil started functioning, the municipal corporation is on the verge of losing it and wants to make amends. It has capped waste mountains with plastic sheets. A facility that can treat 0.6 million litres of leachate in a day is almost complete. But residents are not willing to allow even clay to be taken to the site to develop a scientific landfill. They want complete closure of the plant.

At an all-party meet attended by representatives of the corporation, gram panchayat and protesters, chief minister Oommen Chandy had assured the plant would be closed forever, says Beneckson. The state government sought six months to find an alternative, but people gave it just three months. When the deadline ended, the gram panchayat passed a resolution to ban the entry of city waste and locked the plant’s gate. Under the Kerala Panchayati Raj Act and the Kerala Municipality Act of 1994, it is the panchayat’s prerogative, says Kumari, to address the village’s health and sanitation problems.

The state government is in a fix. “If we don’t carry out the court order, it would amount to contempt of court,” says the chief minister. “At the same time, we cannot ignore people’s struggle.” In the court, the corporation accused his government of sympathising with the gram panchayat. Congress-led United Democratic Front is in power both at the state and the panchayat. The corporation is administered by CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front.

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  • Excellent article. All facts

    Excellent article. All facts are covered well in detail. proper waste disposal should be given utmost importance and should be done on war-foot basis..It's high time to change the current filthy practice of tying up all waste in a plastic cover and dump wherever feasible! Public should take initiative to segregate the wet & dry waste and civic bodies should provide enough support for this.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Already conflict is being

    Already conflict is being brewed between judiciary and legislature. In a divorce case in Chennai the judge made an irrelevant remark "wives are not slaves". I wonder how could the High Court pass an order to dump garbage at the village site?
    Congrats Suchitra for this excellent article, which will open eyes of affected citizens in other sttes.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The problem with waste

    The problem with waste management is the same at all urban centers in India.

    See article in Down To Earth:

    How many more such battles are going to be fought before we understand that there's no way forward without segregating our waste at source i.e our own homes. No more excuses will work because this SHIT is going to hit right on our own face.

    At home we'd started segregating wet and dry waste since last 4 years and started home composting using Daily Dump ( We also encouraged other residents of our apartment complex to segregate their dry waste and have installed bins to collect paper & plastic waste. This is disposed on a weekly basis to recyclers.

    The city corporations should provide and incentive in the form of a property tax rebate so that more people take up segregating their waste. The BBMP's tax rebate of 5% for timely payment of property tax really brought in very good response. There should be also a penalty again on the property tax if the waste is not segregated. Simply collected an additional waste management cess (introduced by BBMP in 2011) will no way solve the problem.

    Citizens in the Ward level can form a Waste Management Committee who'll work along with the Municipal Ward/Councillors office identify a suitable site for wet waste composting (just 80 sqm is required for 1 Tonne of wet waste composting. Ward funds of the council should be used for construction and maintenance of the compost plant. Dry waste can be recycled by companies such as ITC (paper recycling)and KK Plastic waste (plastic to roads) and which is already active in Bangalore. The discarded waste that cannot be composted or recycled will be less than 5% of the total for which a scientific landfill or waste to energy incinerator is the solution.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I wish to congratulate you

    I wish to congratulate you for the excellent cover story in the current DTE issue. While reading the article, a sense of d├®j├á vu hit me. Particularly, I remember the last 10 days or so that I spent in Kerala and the cross-country train journey that I tool last week, from Kannur through Calicut to Shoranur to reach Chennai and eventually to Assam. The cover-image, par-excellence, reflects, almost precisely, the images registered in my mind and my camera.
    The contribution of DTE thus, to unyieldingly and tirelessly highlight, subaltern socio- cultural and environmental realities, remains unparalleled in India.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • An excellent cover story.Are

    An excellent cover story.Are similar stories in the making.If we dont wake up soon we my wake up with a jaundiced face.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Trivandrum certainly was one

    Trivandrum certainly was one of the cleanest cities in India but that was due to the general cleanliness of the people in the district and in the state. Except for the unremoved heaps of rubbish and waste, the city is even now comparatively clean. These garbage mountains remain as monuments to the ignorance, negligence and haughtiness of the present mayor of Trivandrum and her inefficient bunch of councillors and officers. She has no time left. She is busy fighting the people of Vilappilsala village in the High Court and in the Supreme Court. These villagers, under stress of insufferable pollution from the waste dumping yard of this city corporation, decided to oppose dumping of anymore waste there. Thousands of women and children stood vigil there, watching if anymore waste-carrying lorries from this corporation would be arriving there. Only hard-working women who are born in poor families will know how hard and painful it is when they and their little children are afflicted with skin diseases, constant coughing and other unspeakable bodily deformities caused from a waste treatment yard. The mayor is a very law-abiding citizen, who never has broken a single law, domestic or state, in her six decades- long life! Even in her school political years, college political years or during her adult communist party years has she never agitated unlawfully against anything in the country! So she is now eagerly awaiting implementation of Supreme Court order to dump corporation waste in Vilappilsala village. We have this story of Velutthampi Dalava of Travancore Kingdom who ruled this very Trivandrum city in the bygone past. One of his fanatically law-obeying officers confiscated a poor manÔÇÖs coconut tree for the crime of not paying revenue tax. This only tree was his revenue without which how could he pay government the tax? The question reached Prime Minister Velutthampi Dalava and the tax-collector was summoned. His explanation was that he was only eager to see the rule of law in the land. Velutthampi Dalava asked him: It is true you were effecting the law. But who will effect justice? Velutthampi Dalava ordered immediate amputation of the right hand of this tax-officer. This was Trivandrum city, dear lady! It is Velutthampi DalavaÔÇÖs majestic statue standing opposite the Government Secretariate in Trivandrum, looking towards that seat of haughtiness and corruption, with a long sword in his hand, the symbol of pagan justice in Travancore. One industrialist of India, Mr. Mallya once gave clean certificate to the present mayor for keeping the city clean which was headlined in newsapers. Mr. Vijay Mallya who toured this Trivandrum city to attend an airlines conference might have seen this statue standing there at Statue Junction and might have thought it would be just another statue in the midst of a sea of statues in this city of statues. He might have travelled in a fast moving air-conditioned car. Stench of this city wonÔÇÖt penetrate such cars.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The Corporation of

    The Corporation of Trivandrum, as a measure to dispose of the waste accumulated in the city, decided earlier to use government office compounds for this purpose which cleared all doubts about the sanity of the members of this administration. The corporation does have enough spots of their own to dispose of this waste. These places are scattered throughout the city, in prime spots, with good real estate value. ÔÇ£If these places are set apart for disposal of our waste, what shall we say, when such and such persons who contributed heavily to our funds and are eagerly awaiting to make use of their contribution money come with some proposal to construct something lucrative there?ÔÇØ This is the thought that hinders all councillors from raising the subject of utilizing their own places for burial or burning of waste. Money and future political gains come first; peopleÔÇÖs hygiene and safety come only after that, for them. The government offices in Trivandrum do have space, which is a legacy from the old administrators who found it only their duty to construct office buildings with spacious compounds so that the people who use them shall live with and inspired by the grandeur of the spaciousness of this ancient land. That is what makes people feel that something benevolent and considerate is existing above them, in the form of a government. These office compounds in the city are not places for the city corporation to trample with and abuse. The old administration did plan the city well, and paid salaries to technical personnel only for doing their job well. Those who pass through Trivandrum city will marvel at the dedication and ingenuity of the architects who designed this city in the time of the Maharajas. How much money does the city corporation pay as salaries to their technical personnel who are not anywhere near capable of solving such simple technical problems as disposing waste efficiently or pave roads bump-free? That the government received the corporationÔÇÖs wicked proposal for disposing waste in office compounds is in itself a crime which has no justification or peopleÔÇÖs mandate. The Supreme Court ordering removal of accumulated waste is not an excuse to pollute government office compounds. Nowhere in this world has such a solution been sought by anyone. Neither has anyone sane gone to nearby villages to purchase land and build the cityÔÇÖs waste treatment plant to pollute villages. Polluter shall pay, that is the modern world concept. Let the Trivandrum Corporation pay 5000 rupees per year to each registered resident of Vilappilsala village as compensation for polluting their atmosphere and making their lives hell. The honourable Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court have decreed urgent disposal of city waste. Law Courts explain laws, they do not make laws. It is the duty of Kerala politicians to make laws banning a local body purchasing land in another local body utilizing peopleÔÇÖs money and removing waste outside their area.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The person most responsible

    The person most responsible for the present crisis in the administration of Trivandrum City Corporation is the Mayor herself. She does not possess the usual knack or amiability of political leaders to influence their political opponents, win their hearts and make things possible. It is when disasters strike that even enemies offer their unconditional assistance and co-operation. When natural calamities and disasters occur, we have seen this co-operation and patronage extended to authorities by all political parties in the state. Human beings are good basically in their hearts, whether they are the authority, politicians or the ordinary citizens. Here what we saw was the mayor herself making the co-operation impossible at the most needed time. She seemed to have been a bad litigator in her nature and attitude. Since she took charge of the office of the mayor of the capital city of Kerala, the most heard three words coming from her lips were ÔÇÿI Will Sue, I will sue, I will sue.ÔÇÖ She will sue the Vilappilsala village natives, she will sue the opposition party councillors, she will sue the people of the city for failing to remove waste from nearby streets, she will sue poor roadside merchants for daring to operate their livelihood shops, she will sue roadside plank shops for selling tea to street walkers and she will sue even the government of Kerala. Where does the money to sue all these people, establishments and organizations come from, from own purse? It is a mayor who can talk to people and settle things amicably through discussions that Trivandrum city wants, not a hateful and vengeful lawyer who threatens everyone by saying that the mayor is going to sue them in law courts. All former mayors of Trivandrum, including those of her party and those of the opposition party were tactful and experienced political leaders who were experts in solving problems without resolving to legal litigation. This mayor seems to know nothing about political kinhood and social tact. The people of Trivandrum know that she was a practicing lawyer in her former life. But almost all politicians in Kerala were or are practicing lawyers. None of them were or are as court-crazy and aggressive as this one. It is because the mayor does not have practically any political or social experience other than taking occasional part in rallies, processions, demonstrations, meetings and seminars that she has not cultivated the faculties of co-operation and tolerance. Principles of organizing people for social causes seem Greek to her. And she never have had any experience of leading workers and labourers in the party except appearing for them in courts perhaps, if she did have any real practice. The Trivandrum Corporation has only limited resources which never shall be unnecessarily spent as lawyersÔÇÖ fees. Or is it dividing cityÔÇÖs money among lawyers and former colleagues while one is in power to do so?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Can we dispose waste in our

    Can we dispose waste in our neighborÔÇÖs property? Trivandrum City grows each day by receiving more people from all over Kerala, as every other capital city in the world does. Large quantities of man made waste is therefore accumulated in the city each day. Many years back the city authorities burned the waste generated at a place there itself. Large waste bins and cans were placed in different parts of the city where people could deposit their wastes which the city staff would come and collect each day and dispose of decently. No one had any complaints. The city was clean and neat. The corporation councilors then represented a race dedicated to people. They did engage themselves in some decent occupation to make their living and worked as councillors as a service. Then this changed and a new race of politicians who do no work but take serving the society as a work began to be got elected as councillors. They considered cleaning the city as a detestable and mean work, and in their general laxity the city lost its world famous cleanliness, charm and neatness. The city began to smell. People began to complain and a private company came forward with a solution as if there have been no solutions at all to this kind of problem in the world. ÔÇÿPurchase a few acres of land in a distant village posing as for horticultural purposes, construct a burning yard there and forget.ÔÇÖ No Corporation Mayor, Commissioner or Environmental Adviser raised the question, why spend huge amounts of money for longÔÇôdistance haul of waste and create hell in a remote peaceful and quiet village. No political party, youth organization or nature activist questioned the corporationÔÇÖs authority to purchase land in another village and pollute it. Everyone was eager to share the new pie, involving many million rupees, all tax payersÔÇÖ money. Thus the hell in Vilappilsala was created. Now they want to destroy other beauty spots such as Brymore, Tenmala and Nettukaltherry to dispose waste, all eco challenges. The Mayor of Trivandrum accompanied by councillors toured Kozhikode to study how waste is disposed there. Why go to distant Kozhikode? There is an excellent and model waste disposal plant just 32 kilometres from Trivandrum, run by the efficient local body of Attingal Municipality. Why don't imitate them? It was government's good will to allot 5.7 crores to Trivandrum Corporation for managing and disposing waste in its source. The city corporation utilizes this amount for fighting the people of Vilappilsala Village. The corporation went too far when they initiated legal litigation against the people of Vilappilsala. The Marxist city administration hangs on a narrow margin of one or two seats and the opposition who rules Kerala is not willing to topple her for fear of shouldering responsibility for removing these waste mountains. The Mayor keeps these waste mountains as security against toppling.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Once, there arose demands for

    Once, there arose demands for setting up mobile incinerators for burning the waste produced in Trivandrum city. A technical committee was appointed for the purpose of evaluating the applicability of mobile incinerators in the city and recommending the best bid for supplying these mobile incinerators. The committee met, is said to have discussed things in detail and finally gave their consent to setting up mobile incinerators with a stack height of eleven metres, a clear violation of the norms fixed by the Central Pollution Control Board. Smoke emission from incinerators should go above 30 metres, lest the breathing range of people would be affected. 300 tonnes of waste is produced each day in the city and these 15- tonne moving incinerators would only be inadequate, and by moving from place to place, would be moving polluters also. It is the boilers in these incinerators that should have a height of 11 metres and the ÔÇÿtechnicalÔÇÖ committee purposefully confused this and made this an opportunity for corruption by lowering the stack height from 30 metres to 11 metres to help the supplying firms. When we hear about technical committees constituted for purchasing things for government departments or corporations, we neednÔÇÖt wonder about the technical vision and discussion that would go into the making of their decision. Almost all such technical committees are made up of members of government who reached technical positions just through toe licking and favouritism, not through any type of technical proficiency. So, practically, no thinking goes into the making of their decisions. From the purchase of heavy duty trucks to the purchase of simple x-ray machines, that is what is going on in government. Because they are not fairly recruited, most of them would not have any commitment to the community also or any respect for regulations. Moreover, most of them would be the departmental canvassing agents for the supplying firms. That is why the names, posts and technical qualifications of these so called technical committee members are never disclosed when the deals are closed, how much costly the deal might be. It was later proved that the Trivandrum Corporation was thrust upon with a fleet of illegally designed and manufactured Waste Incinerating Machines and a few more lakhs of public money were squandered. This is the cost people pay for electing the ignoramus who does not have even some basic scientific knowledge to see things in advance and the backbone to say ÔÇÿnoÔÇÖ when it is necessary. After seeing the show of turning against the people of nearby Vilappilsala village, sueing them in court, running away from the responsibility of waste disposal, touring the world for studying waste disposal and now purchasing useless incinerators, the people of Trivandrum have only one thing to tell their Corporation authority: Just resign and do some decent job to make a living.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • As an outsider this is an

    As an outsider this is an appalling article to read. My sympathy for the people who suffer.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply