The Waste in Kerala’s Front Yard

What makes the CM and his cronies - the MP, the health, tourism and urban development ministers, and the Mayor - think that angels are waiting to partner with them and flock to the state he heads, bearing investments from all over, when the state’s front yard is an awful mess, the stench is overpowering and the scenario is evidence enough that none of them care two hoots for the citizens? How long will they ignore the writing on the wall? The city of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the over-touted ‘God’s Own Country’, is drowning in garbage for several years now.  (If I had said ‘since this Govt or that took over’, waiting morons will dismiss this as a politically primed piece).

A most dishonourable fall from being the Cleanest

When confronted with the reasons for flouting the Municipal Solid Waste Management and Handling Rule, 2000 by burying and burning unsegregated garbage, and in the process polluting soil, groundwater and air, City mayor Chandrika K admits the wrongdoing, but asks ”What else can we do?” (Down To Earth Sep 2013)

“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”. (Down To Earth Aug 2003)

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. (Down To Earth Sep 2012)

In a study based on the findings of three weeklong field work conducted in Villappilsala, the authors focused “on the health and environmental impacts of the functioning of the plant on the local community and addresses the larger question of necessity for scientific and cost effective alternative methods of waste disposal in the city itself. The disposal of Solid Waste has become a problem calling for more attention in the wake of urban development, which is the consequence of more people settling in the cities”. The authors have also emphasised the issue of decentralised and scientific disposal of Solid Waste at household level and at the level of small groups of households. The central issue that gets highlighted is “the profligate consumption and callous waste disposal habits of the upper classes in the cities letting the poorer sections bear the brunt of the consequences”. (MPRA Paper No. 24258, posted 12 August 2010)

Repeated ‘auction’ of Kerala

With such a front yard greeting visitors to God’s Own Country, the merrymaking authorities conveniently plan grandiose dos like Emerging Kerala Global Connect 12-14 Sep 2012 and Partner Kerala Urban Development Meet 24-25 Feb 2014 elsewhere in Kerala, in the happening city of Kochi. Cosily seated in air-conditioned ambience, it is easy for participants to look at futuristic figures projected on screen and wind up their flying visits satisfied that their ideas and investments are indeed in ‘safe’ hands. After all, the Government, representing the people of the state, is ever-ready to give generous assurances if provided glimpses of the figures in the minds of the investors.

Mission of Emerging Kerala 2012
“To present and showcase Kerala  and Create  awareness amongst all stakeholders - Enterprises, Government, Institutions, Leaders & Influencers, Investors and General Public - through continuous engagement and connect initiatives, while simultaneously creating the right environment, to facilitate the transformation of Kerala into a business hub and preferred  investment destination.”

In the 2012 show, as many as 26 sectors were projected as attractive investment opportunities for starry-eyed investors sitting in starred hospitality centres – Tourism, Healthcare services, Manufacturing including Engineering & Automotive, Projects under MSME Sector, IT / ITES / IT Infrastructure, Science & Technology, Trade & Retailing, Food & Agro Processing and Value-addition, Ports & Shipbuilding, Textiles & Garments, Electronics, Knowledge / Education sector, Green Energy, Bio-Technology - Nano Technology - Pharmaceuticals, Urban Infrastructure Development, Infotainment, Logistics, Petrochemicals, Gas based Industries, Airport Infrastructure, Aeroplane & Helicopter services, Centres of Excellence and Infrastructure development (Road, Rail, Power, Water Supply, Sewage). Solid Waste in the state, that has assumed proportions of the elephant in the room, didn’t figure at all. Perhaps the party-goers believed that it was a mammoth, (and therefore extinct?). But ‘Mega projects’ were being conceptualised – as many as 14 of them.

Land Bank applications included 32 owners of land in 11 districts, amounting to over 246 acres. Most of the owners seem partial to tourism projects.

KSIDC, the organizer, provided data on the landowners who were willing to provide / utilise their land for an industrial venture, strongly advising the potential investors to “scrutinize the title deeds before taking a final decision”. Further, “KSIDC is not responsible in any manner, for the success / failure of the project that may fructify through the scheme. Investors are advised to take decisions, based on their independent assessment of the proposals mentioned above, after detailed evaluation”.

Pan to Feb 2014. The same kind of party-goers – Department of Urban Affairs, ‘great’ and ‘greater’ city development authorities, corporations and municipalities led by the CM looked for partners to undertake “several long cherished projects” on a PPP/BOT mode.

"About Partner Kerala Event

Partner Kerala is a-first-of-its-kind investment meet to be held at The Gateway Hotel, Marine Drive, Ernakulam on the 24th & 25th February, 2014. The conference provides investors ample opportunities to invest in a number of infrastructure and civic projects in Kerala. The associated programmes of the event will have the collaborated support of the government, in addition to various trade and industrial bodies".

But let us focus on the front yard – our capital city.

This time, the ‘willing’ Trivandrum partner was the city’s Corporation, and solid waste figures last among this partner’s list of projects, reflective of the misplaced priorities of civic authorities in the whole of India.

An epidemic waiting to happen

Globalisation brought plastic, besides other wasteful concepts, to villages. The people responsible for bringing it have no clue about dealing with it after its ‘useful life’. The possible analogy one can think of is the discarded cola bottle that ‘crazy gods’ let fall on a hapless African native; the fictionalised instance serves as a typical example of the belief ‘The Waste I Generate is NOT My Responsibility’.

As a regular walker, of late, I am accompanied frequently by the stench of burning plastic. Perhaps I should not complain – this makes me walk faster, after all. But I am not sure whether I’ll succumb to constant feelings of guilt that plague me, or to any plague-like epidemic eventually...

Isn’t the sight of bags full of waste revolting to the eye and likely the nose?

Is it not obvious that burning plastic is not the solution?

Should we not be ashamed that several car owners among us ‘responsibly’ carry their waste in their comfortable, mobile second home, only to nonchalantly get rid of their responsibility in stretches of roadsides when no one is looking?

Experts in public health and in sanitation foresee an epidemic of epic proportions. What makes the minds of us residents immune to the looming calamity, even as we note that we are not immune to the effects of these despicable practices?

The one reason that can explain our behaviour is that “the administration does not care, so why should I be expected to?” Of course the authority does not care, does not take concerted efforts, does not recognize a mammoth health issue, continues to promote tourism foolishly, does not enforce the ban on indiscriminate use of plastics and polystyrene, takes brief half-hearted attempts at educating the public on Solid waste management efforts, and blatantly violates the Municipal Solid Waste Management and Handling Rule, 2000. But why don’t we care for the city’s ambience as we do our individual home’s?

I wonder if any of the authorities - the CM, the local MP, the 140 MLA’s, the Mayor and all the other elected representatives, and heads of civic bodies - cringe at all when seeing the multitude of telltale signs at Erumakkuzhi, at Injakkal, at Kariyavattom, at Sri Chitra Thirunal Park, anywhere and everywhere.

Do their cocoon-like vehicles protect them from the stench of burning plastic? Or are they ‘short-smelled’ too, besides being short-sighted?

Dare we hope that our Mayor, or our District Collector or our Town Planner, and we the people take charge of our irresponsible habits and bring about a transformation in our city? A former collector of Surat rescued that city after a plague epidemic nearly 20 years ago; will these worshipful authorities retrieve the city before a possible cancer epidemic?

Blueprint to get us going

Enforce strict waste segregation at source, with penalties.

Set up recycling plants in every ward.

Implement the ban on plastic bags and polystyrene, and regulate the use of packaging.

Get Big Retail to cooperate in collecting packaging material sourced from them.

Put solid waste management on top of Government agenda – everyday.

Sewage is another elephant in the room. Heed the warning signs. Water bodies lining urban areas are toxic reservoirs. The sea off Thiruvananthapuram and adjoining tourist paradises is soon to pose more issues, because you the city manager have forced it to become a waste dump.

Keep breathing Sewage and Solid Waste Management issues as mantras, if you must.

Desist from the habit of erecting vulgar-sized flex-boards and grinning down from them. I don’t believe you have anything to grin about.

Let fanciful terms like plazas, malls, commercial complexes, mobility hubs and multiplexes wait behind the sidelines. Don’t drool, get swayed, or give in when hearing these terms tumble out of the mouths of tech-savvy young things.

The next issue you need to address is of course sustainable and cooperative agriculture, in what is left of precious arable land in the state. A lounge to receive the Airbus A380 and take selfies near it will serve us neither during floods nor during famine.

So let’s clean up the front yard. Have we begun?

Full disclosure: The writer segregates waste at source. 95% of ‘waste’ material (resulting from managing a household of three individuals with varying levels of minimalistic habits) reaches the neighbourhood ‘paperman’ twice a month. The kitchen waste goes into the ground for natural degradation. May I request my city’s managers to disclose their household’s practices, and eventually their larger flock’s?

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