It was close to 9 pm on November 22 when Deputy Director of Health Services, Senthil Kumar, finally received a phone call that he had been waiting for over two days. The official from Tamil Nadu had asked the police at the Puliyarai checkpost in Tirunelveli district, which shares borders with the neighbouring state of Kerala, to report any suspicious movement of lorries.
"The police had been instructed to check the contents of every single lorry that came into our state, irrespective of what license they had," reveals the Health Services officer. "Usually the surveillance is not this tight. But on that night, we found exactly what we were looking for. From 9 pm in the night to 9.30 am the next morning, we stopped 27 lorries coming in from Kerala. Of them, four lorries contained medical waste and the others contained plastic and electronic waste," he adds. While some of the medical waste was being taken to incinerators in TN, others were planning to dump the waste in open land illegally, Senthil says.
On November 20, the administration had found waste dumped on a private land near Puliyarai and at closer examination, it was revealed that the heap contained dangerous medical waste. Adamant about preventing more waste from from being dumped illegally in Tamil Nadu, they worked alongside the police and Collectorate to stop lorries.
"They chose that day because they knew it was Milad un nabi – a Muslim festival. They believed roads will be emptier and there will be fewer people at the checkpost," explains the Deputy Director. "We caught four lorries containing used syringes, surgical instruments, and used medicine bottles. These are dangerous and can even spread infections and diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis A and B. These were all coming from cities in Kerala and some were going to be dumped in rural areas of Tirunelveli, where there are vast and open lands,” Senthil Kumar tells TNM.
The lorries were seized and taken to the nearest police station. A fine of Rs 3 lakh was imposed on ones carrying medical waste and the others were fined Rs 1 lakh under the The Public Health Act.
The waste wars
TN authorities allege that for four years now, cutting edge hospitals in Kerala have been disposing their medical waste in an irresponsible manner in many areas in TN. On paper, these hospitals sell the waste to agents or brokers who promise to arrange for the disposal of the bio-hazardous material.
"But what they actually do is load these items onto lorries returning from Kerala, and pay the drivers to dispose it off in open lands in Tamil Nadu. These men, despite being from here, agree to do it for a quick buck, since their lorries would return empty anyway," says a health officer on condition of anonymity. Of the 27 lorries seized last week, 24 had TN registration plates. "No matter how many times we stop them or fine them, this continues to happen," he adds.
According to officials, Coimbatore and Tirunelveli are the most affected in this waste war, as they border the neighbouring state, allowing for easy and quick access. In Tirunelveli, tonnes of waste was being dumped in rural areas near Valliyoor and other parts of the district. The police and revenue department officials were ordered to be on vigil from early this year and former Collector Sandeep Nanduri tells TNM that he even wrote to the Collectors of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram to keep a check on their trucks entering into Tamil Nadu with waste. But both district administrations deny receiving any communication on this matter from Tirunelveli district.
"We are planning to send back the impounded lorries to the Kollam Collectorate and let them decide how to deal with it," says Senthil Kumar, "As of now, 15 lorry owners have paid the fine but the four carrying medical waste are yet to pay."
Why are Kerala hospitals dumping waste in TN?
Highly placed sources in Tamil Nadu government tell TNM that the main reason that hospitals in Kerala outsource waste dumping is because of the lack of bio medical waste treatment facilities in the state. According to a state wise status put out by the Central Pollution Control Board, while Tamil Nadu has nine incinerators across the state to treat bio-medical waste, Kerala has just one. This exists at Kanjikode in Palakkad district and it covers only Palakkad, Thrissur, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur, Kasargod, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram.
"They find it easier to come to Tamil Nadu with the waste. But instead of heading straight to incinerators to drop the goods, they end up dropping it on private lands, unused quarries and even farmlands after they strike deals with land owners," says the source in the state government.
In October 2016, people living in the outskirts of Coimbatore district (bordering Palakkad) along with environmental activists seized as many as 23 trucks coming in from Kerala that were filled with plastic, electronic and medical medical wastes. Following allegations that the waste was going to dumped indiscriminately on a vacant farmland, local police registered a case against four persons including the land owner. They even arrested the agent from Kerala who had taken the land on lease.
GK Nagaraj, a farmer leader from south western Tamil Nadu, who was part of these protests, recalls how the drought had forced farmers to look for other sources of income. Several farmlands had been left uncultivated. "These brokers fooled the farmers saying that nothing will happen if they dig pits and bury the waste. Farmers were also ready to do it in return for some money but we managed to stop it. The police action acted as a huge deterrent," he says.
In Tirunelveli, however, despite the seizures last week, no case has been filed against the errant drivers or hospitals. Neither the health department nor the police have a convincing answer as to why it was not done.
No harsh repercussions
"Even if we arrest them, they will come out with a bail amount of Rs 2,000," says a police officer who helped seize the 27 lorries. But isn't it important to trace where the waste was coming from? "These are just local drivers, the real culprits are the agents who send the waste. The bringing of waste here is not actually illegal per say," he adds.
The Health Department had to interpret the Public Health Act differently in order to slap a fine on the lorry owners. A source in the department tells TNM that much like how people who allow water to stagnate in their homes are fined (for allowing mosquitoes to breed), these lorry drivers too were fined for potentially causing spread of disease.
"Dumping waste in Kerala is not possible because authorities there are very strict, people are vigilant and regions more densely populated. All we can do is ensure no waste enters Tamil Nadu but even that is unlikely because police at check posts do not manually check contents of every lorry that comes in," he adds. Most authorities admit that not enough effort has been made to trace the source of the waste and the agents in charge of negotiations.
'Will coordinate with Kerala'
The TN government however promises to step in to handle this long term problem. "We are communicating with border officials in Kerala to stop such trucks and will also talk to the Chief Secretary in Kerala," says Health Secretary Dr Radhakrishnan.
The Health Department is also looking to rope in the TNPCB to talk to its counterpart in Kerala. "Collectors have to be strict, check all vehicle and impound vehicles of wrongdoers," says the Health Secretary, "We will also get in touch with district authorities in Kerala to tighten all screws."