The smell of rotting food hits you like a punch to the chest as you enter the broad and almost perfectly maintained Pallavaram-Thuraipakkam road. The source of your nose's distress can be easily located if your teary eyes follow the overspeeding lorries traversing the path to take a sharp left turn.
From a distance the vast expanse of land is outlined with small hillocks, all varying in size. But when TNM entered this property, on a hot July afternoon, it became apparent that this was no natural formation.
Standing there on 228 acres of land, in an I-T hub of Tamil Nadu's capital, were mountains of garbage, each of them the size of a two-storey building. We had arrived at the Perungudi landfill, where half the city's waste is deposited every single day.
According to the solid waste department of the Chennai Corporation, the city generates close to 3,200 tonnes of garbage on a daily basis. This garbage is collected from bins in 15 zones and split between Chennai's two dumping yards - Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. Garbage from zones one to eight are carried by trucks to Kodungaiyur which has a 270 acre landfill in the northern part of the city, while eight to fifteen arrive at the Perungudi landfill in South Chennai.
What happens after the garbage is brought?
"Nothing," says a conservancy officer at the site, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Ideally the waste that we receive should be segregated between degradable material, debris and plastic waste. But the corporation has made no move to do this," he says.
The Perungudi landfill was opened in 1988 and the mountains of waste present have been collected for close to three decades. "If this uncontrolled dumping goes on, in the next ten years, the garbage will be the height of the Chennai One building," warns the conservancy officer.
According to studies, 68% of municipal solid waste generated is residential waste, 16% is from commercial waste, 14% institutional waste and 2% industrial waste. Majority of the garbage in Chennai is in the form of green waste (32.3%), and inert materials (34.7%) like stone and glass. The rest consists plastic material and other non-biodegradable substances.
These numbers speak volumes about how segregation could help reduce the quantity of waste going into these dump yards.
Close to 4000 lorry loads of trash are dumped at both these landfills.
"The bio degradable substances can be converted to manure for farmer, the debris can be reused in construction and plastic can be recycled for roads. There are solutions," says the officer. "The corporation has exact data on the kind of waste we receive. The estimates for recycling plant are all ready but they are doing nothing about it," he alleges.
When TNM visited the Solid Waste Management (SWM) department regarding the city's landfills, authorities put the onus of segregation on residents.
"As per SWM rules, people should be segregating the waste but they just don't care," says Rajeshwari. The Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, had directions to implement source segregation in a phased manner by engaging with residents’ associations.
"It is people's attitude that needs to change. In fact, the rules allow us to levy charges for picking up trash and fine people for not segregating waste. We have a proposal ready for the same and are waiting for approval from our higher authorities," she adds.
But has the corporation at least kept separate bins for bins for biodegradable and plastic waste? "No, we will," is the answer we receive. And are these landfills not nearing the end of their capacities? "There is enough space," she says abruptly.
But at Perungudi, garbage fills the horizon and this mounting trash causes problems beyond being a mere eye sore.
A raging problem at hand
In February, the Kodungaiyur landfill witnessed a major fire after debris from trees gathered after the Vardah cyclone caught fire.
As many as 17 firefighting vehicles, including Metrowater tankers (each containing 9,000 litres of water), were pressed into service. With the area filled with flammable material, it was a disaster just waiting to happen, and it took firefighters all of eight hours to contain it.
At the Perungudi landfill, the officer speaking to TNM had supervised the dousing of a fire only an hour back. "The taller it becomes, the more difficult it will be to contain fires. We were terrified after the Vardah cyclone when all the damaged trees were brought to the dumpyard," he says.
"Multiple fires plagued the site till about two years back as the mounds of garbage were even taller. Afraid of a major disaster, they took to levelling the mounds," he explains.
Currently the garbage stands at 15 feet from the ground.
Residents surrounding the Kodungaiyur and Perungudi dump yards have complained multiple times about fires that erupt in these landfills and the toxic fumes that result from it. In the past the release of landfill gas, which is chiefly methane, has been the cause of multiple fires. However, that is not the only environmental hazard that these primitive methods of waste management pose.
Contamination of water
It is globally known that leachate generation is a major problem for municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills and causes significant threat to surface water and groundwater. Leachate, according to studies, can be defined as a liquid that passes through a landfill and has extracted dissolved and suspended matter from it.
It results from precipitation entering the landfill from moisture that exists in the waste when it is composed.
But going by what conservancy officials at the Perungudi landfill have to say, we have nothing short of a miracle here.
"The Tamil Nadu pollution control board (TNPCB) checks the water quality every month. There is no contamination," he claims. The TNPCB was however unavailable for comment.
"What the conservancy official says goes against the laws of physics," says Nityanand, a Chennai based environmentalist. "The leachate from household waste is as hazardous as industrial waste. The water will have a combination of pathological and chemical contamination. Even exposure to it will lead to health problems," he explains.
Eating fish from this water or plants grown with it could also lead to short or long term effects.
Multiple problems allowed to fester
In addition to this toxic cocktail of chemicals, bio-medical and sanitary waste are also a cause of worry at this landfill.
According to rules, only biodegradable garbage from hospitals and clinics should be sent over to dump yards. But, syringes injection vials, intravenous fluid bags and tubes, masks, blood-stained cotton swabs and beds are indiscriminately dumped at the yard everyday.
According to environmentalists, these two areas don't deserve to be called landfills. "It is called a landfill when measures are taken to reduce exposure to ground and surface water or to the atmosphere. At the most, what we have in Chennai are dumping yards," says Nityanand.
The waste to energy plants
A multi crore proposal is currently in the works to revamp the existing conservancy process and set up of two waste-to-energy units.
Corporation officials told TNM that close to Rs 1,442 crore will be spent on the project will result in the permanent closure of the Kodungaiyur and Perungudi sites.
In their place, two waste-to-energy (WTE) plants will be set up , reportedly with a power production capacity of 26MW and 32MW respectively .
"A private firm called IPE Global limited has evaluated the quantity of garbage and the method of remediation. It has to be approved by the government and tender process will begin," says the Executive Engineer(SWM). But it will take atleast two years for atleast the first plant to be functional.
The corporation will reportedly leave it to the contractor to decide how the waste gets processed to energy .And what about the air pollution if incinerators are used to convert the waste to energy? "Some sacrifices have to be made and you have to give up on some things to get others," is the bizarre explanation offered.
But back at the dumping yard, the conservancy official asks, "What waste are they going to convert to energy when a segregation process is not even in place?"