When the massive Vellalore dump yard erupted into flames at the end of March, it was one of the largest fires the Coimbatore outskirts had seen in recent years. For 36 hours, firefighters battled the inferno spread over 10 acres, as it continued to grow and spread. The fire threatened to engulf nearby areas, only to be finally contained by a helicopter from the Indian Air Force (IAF). Carrying around 20 tonnes of water, it took about 10 trips for the chopper from the nearby Sulur Air Base to get the blaze under control.
The helicopter carried a ‘Bambi’ bucket of 3,500 litres in capacity and sprayed water over the fire in an effort to extinguish it, though even after the flames were doused, a thick layer of smoke covered the scene for days. The 10-day long inferno made headlines for its intensity and the military’s intervention. But though it was a devastating environmental hazard for residents of Sriram Nagar in Podanur, in reality, the problems involving the dump yard -- including fires -- are not new.
Situated around 13 kilometres from Coimbatore city, the Vellalore dump yard is a landfill that came into existence around 2003. “The dump yard where Coimbatore Corporation threw its solid waste was in Kavundampalayam, which is within the city limits. But from June 2003, the corporation started dumping garbage at the present site in Vellalore,” says KS Mohan, the secretary of the Kurichi-Vellalore Pollution Prevention Action Committee, a citizen-action group which is pushing the corporation to change the location of the landfill.
All photos by Sudhakar Balasundaram
The 650-acre Vellalore land site did not turn into the dump yard overnight, but rather, it gradually turned into a menace for those living in the area. “It was only after a few months that we, the public, started noticing that garbage is being dumped in that place, because every evening something would happen – smoke would arise from there, the nasty smell etc. After that, we noticed. So after around six months, we formed an association to enable our concerns to be heard by the corporation,” Mohan explains.
But the 15-year-long problem surrounding the garbage site has devolved into a blame game between residents and authorities. Corporation officials say the recent fire was caused due to unsegregated garbage thrown by residents, while those living in the area say they have seen little on-the-ground action from the corporation.
A journey of 15 years
From smoky blazes to the terrible stench, landfills have made Sriram Nagar almost unliveable for residents. Usha Sridharan says while some residents have accepted the garbage site as a part of Podanur’s landscape, others have moved to different localities as a result of it.
“We cannot even live here when it rains because the stench is horrible. The houseflies are also a menace. Many people who lived on rent have shifted out of the area purely because of the unbearable living conditions in this area. We live in our own house here, so we can’t even go anywhere,” she says.
The situation turns far worse when the heat of summer sets in. Residents say they’re unable to keep the doors and windows of their homes open to encourage ventilation. “I got affected by skin allergies because of the smoke, fumes and the particles that come from the dump yard. No one in this locality keeps their windows open. I think we will live like this and die,” says Savithri Ganesan, another longtime resident of Sriram Nagar in Podanur.
Savithri and her husband, Ganesan, shifted to Podanur back in 1991 and have remained there ever since. But after 28 years, Savithri is not impressed by their current living conditions. “We shifted to this place because it was serene and peaceful. Now, we really have no other choice so we are staying here,” she adds.
Protests, petitions and strikes
To address their woes, residents have tried to bring these issues to the notice of corporation officials and politicians. But their cries have fallen on deaf ears and authority figures have shown little concern for their plight, the residents say.
People living in the locality often come to Usha with their issues since she a part of the Residents Welfare Association. But Usha says she feels helpless beyond a point. “We have filed numerous complaints and submitted a lot of petitions with the authorities, but they are not acting on it,” she states.
Even numerous protests and strikes by residents have not succeeded in bringing about any change on the ground, says Savithri Ganesan. And the indifference shown appears to be even more blatant when it comes to issues surrounding the dump yard.
“Politicians or officers don’t even acknowledge this problem. Only if they acknowledge it, can they start thinking about ways to address this. All political parties are similar in this aspect. They just don’t care,” she says.
The legal battle
In 2004, months after the dump yard was shifted to Vellalore, KS Mohan decided to take legal recourse against it. He filed a writ petition at the Madras High Court seeking to transfer the landfill elsewhere. “D Karthikeyan (Previously Chennai Corporation and currently the Commissioner of Municipal Administration) was the Coimbatore Corporation Commissioner back then. He had assured the court during the hearings that the Coimbatore Corporation would solve all the problems arising due to the dump yard. Nothing has happened since then,” Mohan recently told TNM.
Though the verdict for the case came in 2010, with the court ordering the Corporation to implement the Solid Waste Management Rules while disposing off garbage, action on the ground has been almost absent.
“The court had also ordered that before implementing anything, the residents of the area must be consulted. But neither the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) nor the corporation consulted us about this after the order,” he adds.
According to Mohan, Vellalore dump yard sees at least 900 tonnes of waste every day and he claims that none of it has been segregated.
“I then took it up with the National Green Tribunal (NGT). They finally ruled that the corporation must choose 65 spots across the city for waste disposal, which is to be carried out as per the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016,” he says. The NGT order had also given the corporation four months from October 2018 to select these 65 spots.
The NGT also constituted a monitoring committee under P Jyothimani, a former judge of the Madras High Court, but Mohan claims that only one meeting has been conducted so far.
Where does the fault lie?
When TNM reached out to K Vijaykarthikeyan, who was Commissioner of Coimbatore Corporation for four years until February, on residents’ concerns on the dump yard menace, he explains that implementation of the NGT order will push the needle. “We have already identified 10 spots and issued tenders for them last year. This year, we will add 40 more to the tally. By next month, five to six centres will start functioning. The initial centres that are coming up next month are Micro Composting Centres (MCC), which will handle organic waste,” he says.
He also noted that the corporation is waiting for the elections to end. Once the Model Code of Conduct is relaxed, he says that the corporation will hire 1,000 personnel to make this scheme a reality. Vijaykarthikeyan also tells TNM that these efforts will greatly reduce the quantity of waste being dumped in Vellalore daily.
But Vijaykarthikeyan was also quick to point out that without the cooperation of residents across the city, their garbage-related worries would not come to an end. “Though we create a lot of awareness around the necessity of segregation, nothing seems to be happening on the ground. If the residents are mixing the garbage and giving it to the workers, then it’s tough to separate it later on. Unless and until people support our efforts, it will lead to a menace like Vellalore,” he explains.
He blamed the latest Vellalore fire on the unsegregated garbage in the landfill, and, by extension, on the residents themselves. Vijaykarthikeyan says that if people do their part, the corporation is also ready to act. “The inflammable gas inside the garbage covers caused the fire. It means the culprit is the people themselves,” he says.
Vijaykarthikeyan also criticised the lack of funds from the local administrative authority required to enable schemes. “If taxes are paid properly, we will have money in the corporation and we can do whatever they want. The local body is self-financing and we are authorised to tax people. Only if they pay taxes, we can even work. Now we have 100 wards, but the taxes still have not changed. The work that must be done on the ground has increased. Blaming someone is very easy,” he says.
KS Mohan, however, refutes Vijaykarthikeyan’s claims of an absence of source-based segregation. “Source-based segregation is in effect right now. But that is in individual houses only. Once the garbage is collected from houses, it is taken to a collection point, where everything is mixed up again,” he explains.
But as delays arise around the implementation of the NGT order and a defensive corporation continues to be at loggerheads with residents, the woes of people living in the toxicity spewed by the landfill isn't ending anytime soon.