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
Published: Saturday 15 September 2012

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 Finally, the police were withdrawn.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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