Urban Pollution in south India
Kerala is making the slow turnaround to eco-friendly waste disposal but there is a troubling afterlife to its garbage that authorities still have no way to deal with.
Images: Sreekesh Raveendran Nair

Brahmapuram, Vilappilsala, Kalamassery… these are just some of the names of Kerala’s recent garbage-ridden history, housing some of the state’s most problematic waste dumps. Go back even a few years ago, and you find a surfeit of headlines bemoaning the fact that Kerala’s towns and cities were inundated in their own garbage.

A turnaround has begun in the last few years, however, as most districts, with the notable exception of Ernakulam, turning to decentralised waste management to cut the garbage problem down to size. Alappuzha, for instance, even won praise from the United Nations Environment Programme in 2017 as one of the five best waste management models in the world. With the aid of a rigorous segregation programme and kitchen bins, pipe composting units, and biogas plants processed nearly 80% of its waste within neighbourhoods, drastically reducing the burden of 58 tonnes of daily waste to be processed at the Sarvodayapuram treatment plant.

Thiruvananthapuram too has followed suit, making neighbourhoods responsible for their own biodegradable waste. Besides this, the corporation has also instituted a segregated collection schedule for such waste as plastics, glass, e-waste, slowly-decomposing organic waste and so on. “It’s a work in progress, but we are satisfied with the implementation,” says KV Prashanth, Thiruvananthapuram’s Mayor.

Even as Kerala starts to make the slow turnaround to efficient and eco-friendly waste disposal, however, there is a troubling afterlife to its garbage that the authorities still have no way to deal with.

Not all garbage dumps are landfills

As cities like Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram grew in the last two decades, one of their biggest struggles was what to do with the growing amounts of solid waste. According to some estimates, for instance, Kochi produces over 380 tonnes of solid waste every day, of which 150 tonnes are biodegradable, while around 100 tonnes comprise plastic waste. Centralised waste management in these cities, where garbage was sought to be processed in one large dumping location, proved inadequate.

One of the key problems was the lack of a scientific approach to disposing their solid waste. As environmentalists are quick to point out, unscientific garbage dumps do not automatically become landfills. Unfortunately, going by the requirements for proper landfilling, Kerala has never had landfills. However, it has several large and small dumping yards spread around its key towns and cities, which became massive sources of pollution, filling the air with toxic odours and methane gas, polluting the ground water and making life impossible for those living near these sites.  

Scientific landfilling requires the careful design of a proper pit structure, away from inhabited land and properly isolated from local water sources. A thick clay lining at the bottom and intervening soil layers to collect leachate (water seeping through the garbage and containing various pollutants), and proper channels for the extraction of methane, are some of the basic requirements for a scientific landfill.

Absent such measures, however, Kerala’s dumping grounds simply turned into cesspools of pollution and disease. Brahmapuram, once a green hub of paddy cultivation on the outskirts of Kochi, for instance, turned into a ghost village after a waste treatment plant was built there in 2007. Unable to deal with all of Kochi’s waste that was dumped here, the area soon turned into a giant dump yard, killing the Chitrapuzha and Kadambrayar rivers that flowed through there.

A similarly urgent situation at Vilappilsala in Thiruvananthapuram district came to a head in 2012, when garbage trucks from the capital escorted by policemen faced off against a human wall of protestors. A waste disposal plant built in the area in 2000 became the site of protests for years, as agricultural lands became contaminated, and livestock and children began to fall victim to diseases. As protestors refused to let their village continue as a dumping ground, defying even High Court and Supreme Court orders, the government was forced to backtrack and shut down the plant.

Cannot bury the problem

Vilappilsala marked a turning point in thinking about landfills. Soon after the successful shutdown of the plant, similar opposition built up in Alappuzha’s Sarvodayapuram, leading to the first successful decentralised waste management solution in that district. Even as other districts are turning onto these models, though, a major concern remains: what to do with the existing dump yards that remain as a monument to earlier failures at waste management?

The message from environmentalists is clear: existing dump yards can never be wholly cleaned up, but there are means to seal them away so that these areas become usable.

Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance (Waste Management), Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi tells TNM that options to get rid of existing landfills are limited.

 “Bio mining or bio remediation are the only option. The main option is to segregate waste into different piles and use a bio killer on them, which will mainly degrade the wet waste within them in a few months. Then we can turn it into compost. But the quality of this compost is questionable as it would be contaminated with plastic contents. It is not ideal to sell it off or use it for other needs,” she says.

Shibu K Nair, director Climate Change and Zero Waste at Thanal, an NGO for waste management and environmental protection, also says that bio-mining and bio-remediation are the best compromise available at the moment.

“Bio mining is a compromise, as we do not have a complete solution. The waste should be segregated at first. After decomposition, the leftover recovered waste should be capped. This capping should be done properly so that no contaminants from the waste should leak out into ground water. In Vilappilsala this capping has done successfully,” he says.

Importantly, both Shibu and Swati point out, capping has to be very meticulously carried out to ensure no leakage or contamination of surrounding areas can occur. As residents near the Murukkumpuzha Railway Station found out, a failure to properly cap buried waste can lead to disastrous results.

Groundwater laid waste

In 2013, tonnes of solid waste, both organic as well as plastic, were brought to the Murukkumpuzha Railway Station from different parts of Thiruvananthapuram district. As local residents watched with shock and scepticism, the waste was used to fill the land on which the 40-metre-long and six-metre-wide second platform of the railway station was built. Around 600 tonnes of non-biodegradable waste was buried under the platform.

At the time, the project by the Kerala Suchitwa Mission was lauded by many as an innovative waste management project. Protests from the locals were dismissed, as the government claimed that a safe and scientific method was being followed.

Within a year, the locals’ fears were proved true. 24 families living near the railway station on Gomez Road had to abandon their plentiful wells, as the water turned black in colour and became unsafe to drink. 

 "Many chemicals leaked into the ground water, and our wells got polluted. We had warned the authorities about this earlier, but no one listened. We had pipe connections to our house and suddenly the water coming through them became unusable. From then on, it was a long fight,” says Franklin Periera, one of the Gomez Road residents and a leader of the Murukkumpuzha Action Council.

“After many months, the government allotted the panchayat a common water connection nearby, and we had to carry water in pots to our home from the common pipes. Our fight continued, and after a few more months they allotted personal connections to our homes. Now those connections supply water once in two or three days, for a maximum of two hours. We all started buying drinking water from outside,” he says.

Franklin Periera

The groundwater, meanwhile, continues to remain too polluted for any use. “Last month, we again tested our well water. The results clearly say that it is still unsafe," says Franklin, standing near his well. He adds that though many of the local residents have tried to sell off their properties, nobody was ready to buy land because of the water pollution.

Now, while the wells stand abandoned, every house in Gomez Road has a long line of cans of water in their courtyard. Most of the water they need has to be bought at a high cost. “How pure the water in our wells was. We used to drink it even without boiling it. But now it has got a bad smell. The latest test results say that there is a high presence of heavy metals in the water,” says Prabhakaran, another resident.

 When the construction of Murukkumpuzha station was completed a press release from the Railways said, "Landfills are said to be one of the safest and engineered method to protect the environment and prevent pollutants from entering the soil and possibly polluting ground water. The construction process involves spreading of thick plastic sheet at the identified site and a layer of trash and earth is evenly spread over it as a 30 cm layer.  Each time the spread is thoroughly compressed by rollers. When the spread attains required height, a layer of red earth is sprinkled over it.  On the top cobble stones or interlocking tiles are laid as part of beautification. Railways was able to save Rs 10 lakh in construction by using the garbage for landfill."

But residents and activists allege that proper precautionary measures were not taken to prevent the leakage of waste or gases into the ground while building the platform.

“You can see grass growing on parts of the platform, which shows that it was not covered properly. During the rainy season several plants had grown near platform as seeds from the buried waste had flown out. In the same way waste also oozed out into the ground water,” alleges Franklin.

Will construction at Attukalangara suffer a similar fate?

Even as the residents near Murukkumpuzha lament the fate of their groundwater, a major construction was begun earlier this year on another former landfill at Attukalangara in Thiruvananthapuram. For about 20 years, waste from various markets of Thiruvananthapuram was dumped here in a plot owned by the Thiruvananthapuram Development Authority (TRIDA). Waste from markets, hotels, huge weddings and even domestic waste was dumped at the site. Now a shopping complex is being built in the area, over soil that still contains tonnes of waste.

Environmentalists express the concern that this project will repeat the failure of the Murukkumpuzha attempt. "When something is being constructed over a landfill, they use plastered waste to fill in the basement. What happens later is that gases like methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide will be formed from this waste and will start leaking out. This can affect the strength of the building. Moreover, the waste pollutes the ground water. People who are exposed to this over the long term will have serious health issues," says Shibu.

For example of how such contamination occurs, he recalls a case in Bengaluru from some years ago. “In a firm there, computers began to malfunction regularly. Tired of frequently servicing the machines, they tested the air samples in the office, and found that some of the pollutants in the air was causing the harm. These pollutants can gradually create health issues among humans too. It was later learnt that the land where that company was built was earlier a landfill,” he says.

Workers involved in the construction of the shopping complex in Attakulangara already complain that they are facing a series of health issues. "Sometimes a strong smell comes out of the waste, which makes us feel giddy or nauseated. Itching sensations all over the body is a common issue we’ve been facing ever since we started working here," says one of the migrant labourers on the site.

Swati says that construction can be carried out on landfills, but only if the waste is properly capped. “If the soil is loose, there are chances of leakage. Several safety tests should be done before building something on a landfill. If all safety parameters are met, it is okay to have a structure on top of a landfill. Outside India, it has been successful in many places. The capping should be done properly to do this,” she says.

Shibu agrees, adding that such constructions only fail when they cut corners. “Abroad there are successful models of landfills being used for other purposes. There, the capping is done scientifically. Since we loosen the rules here, it creates problems.”

Time to share responsibility

All of these concerns point to a simple message for the future. Landfills have to become a thing of the past, as centralised waste management is unsuitable for land-starved Kerala.

With the state’s urban areas constantly spreading outwards, says Swati, the residents of Kerala’s cities cannot hope for their waste to simply disappear to some out of the way location anymore. “Most landfill sites will be on the outskirts of the city. But when the city expands, these sites become a part of the city. So, we should think do we want a landfill-facing apartment? The only solution is segregating our waste ourselves,” says Swati.

Besides, she adds, with consciousness of pollution growing, struggles against landfills are set to grow stronger. “Unlike earlier, people will not allow a landfill to come up in their neighbourhood now. They are more aware of their rights. Considering the fact that land availability is very less these protests will only increase. Decentralization is the only solution,” she adds.

But for decentralisation to work, implementation on ground has to improve. “Even when we look at the rule book, it says that segregation should happen. If it’s not happening, there should be penalties for not segregating, there should be maximum utilization of composting bio-mechanization, there should be maximum recycling of dry waste. This system has to be implemented on the ground. We need social engineering in this matter. Convince people of the necessity of this system. Dumping and burning cannot be a solution. A behavior change among people is necessary,” she says.