Nobody's waste

Kerala's capital wants a solid waste treatment plant in a nearby village. This has created a rural-urban conflict

By Surendranath C
Published: Monday 15 January 2001

as long as it remained a hit-and-run campaign, the "clean city, green city" programme of Thiruvananthapuram City Corporation offended nobody. But a rural-urban conflict has arisen after a plant to handle solid waste from the state capital was set up at Vilappilsala in Vilappil Gram Panchayat (Vilappil village council). The state government and the city corporation are on one side, the panchayat on the other. The Kerala High Court is hearing a public interest petition seeking closure of the plant.

"Why should the entire city's waste be dumped on our village,'' ask the people of Vilappil. On October 20, the panchayat requested the state government to close down and remove the biofertiliser factory of Poabs Envirotech (Pvt) Ltd. They said the plant poses a serious threat to the residents' wellbeing, pollutes waterbodies, and causes the spread of diseases and a foul, unbearable stench.

The city's leaders have different views. "The wastes are not from city dwellers only," retorts J Chandra, the city's mayor. Hundreds of thousands of people from the villages visit the hospitals, markets and marriage halls of the city everyday, and the vegetables brought from the villages are a major source of pollution, she insists. The city's Mythri Nagar Residents' Association ( mnra ) echoes the mayor's views.

The decision to set up the plant was based on the recommendations of a Supreme Court committee on solid waste management. As a national waste management policy, it recommended separation of 'dry recyclables' and 'wet compostables' at source, with daily collection of 'wet' wastes for composting. Emphasising caution while adopting unproven and expensive technologies for things like power generation, fuel pelletisation and incineration, the committee stressed decentralised of composting. The committee also suggested the involvement of the voluntary sector and the civil society.

This is where the corporation has failed, despite the ongoing campaign for decentralisation (Read: 'Bridging the gap', Down To Earth , July 15, 2000). "There is no concerted effort to promote segregation of waste at source. The collection mechanism is totally inadequate," says Muraleedharan, secretary of mnra . His association tried to mobilise citizens for efficient garbage disposal at source. But the corporation possessed only eight covered trucks capable of removing only 90-120 tonnes of urban waste per day. Houses and markets in the city generate at least 360 tonnes of waste every day. Under the contract with Poabs, the corporation is bound to supply a minimum of 300 tonnes of solid waste per day. Otherwise it has to pay compensation between Rs 17,000 and Rs 50,000. "We have now invited pre-qualification tenders from private truck operators for lifting wastes from the primary dumping yards," says M Najeeb, city secretary with the corporation.

"Even at one-third of the garbage utilisation capacity, the plant is a threat to public health. What will happen if it receives its full load of 300 tonnes of waste per day?" wonders Moongode Rajan, general convenor of an action council formed to oppose the plant. "If the garbage is collected and supplied to the Vilappilsala plant on a daily basis, its anaerobic digestion and putrefaction can be reduced, controlling the problem of stench," says Manilal, scientists and member of mnra . "The stench from the factory gives a creepy feeling in the head," says K Sankaran, resident of Kanikanumpara, a residential cluster that is quite close the Poabs plant. There are over 250 families and 10 religious institutions within a radius of three kilometres of the factory.

Residents complain of an increase in skin problems. Children often visit the public health centre for treatment of skin allergies. Satyanesan, 49, a resident of the locality, was hospitalised with severe rashes all over the body. He complains it was a result of bathing in the Meenmpalli stream that runs below the plant. "Seepage from the plant has already polluted the three streams in the locality that provide drinking water to the city," points out A Stevenson, a panchayat member. The panchayat had granted an operating license to the Poabs plant in March 2000. Now it wants the plant's closure. "If the court upholds our view and the Kerala State Pollution Control Board ( kspcb ) reports to us that the company has not abided by the stipulated conditions, the panchayat could revoke the license," says N Gopakumar, secretary of the local body.

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