Litter divide

Print edition : November 16, 2012

Vilappilsala has become the symbol of villages in Kerala rising in protest against the use of their land as dumping grounds for urban waste.

in Thiruvananthapuram

Garbage dumped at the South Fort entrance in Thiruvananthapuram. The city corporation has stopped collecting garbage from homes and streets.-S.GOPAKUMAR

MORE and more village communities in Kerala, a State with a high density of population and acute scarcity of land, are rising in protest against the dumping of urban waste in their neighbourhoods.

As urbanisation spreads and living standards rise, Keralas increasingly crowded municipalities and corporations are producing more garbage than their rudimentary processing facilities can handle.

A crisis is looming and is set to pose a huge environmental and financial burden on State and local governments. It is already leading to frequent tensions between communities pitted against each other across the litter dividebetween apathetic municipal polluters and hapless suburban populations who are forced to pay the price.

On the one hand, a breakdown of waste management practices has led to heaps of uncollected garbage lying strewn around for months in many cities and towns; on the other, a wildfire of mass protests is spreading in several satellite villages against the transportation, dumping and processing of urban trash within their territory.

The agitations are increasingly shrill and have led to garbage trucks being ineffectively armed with court orders and police cover when they enter certain localities.

Vilappilsala disaster

The most symbolic and strident of such protests has come from Vilappilsala. Until the mid-1990s it was a beautiful village with green hillocks, paddy fields and crystal-clear streams. It was subsequently forced to become a dump yard for the pernicious urban waste from Keralas capital city, Thiruvananthapuram.

The initial plan, mooted in 2000 by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, was to establish a centralised waste processing plant for the fast-growing city on the 12-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) government land at Vilappilsala bought by the State government in 1995 for the city corporation.

The plant was to be established and operated by a private company, which was to process biodegradable waste to produce fertilizer, dispose the leftover rubbish in scientifically managed landfills within the facility, and treat the contaminated water coming out of the dump by setting up a leachate treatment plant.

But in what soon became characteristic of the silent problem that was growing every day in several other such villages in the State, the Vilappilsala waste treatment plant, with a processing capacity of 157 tonnes, proved inadequate to handle the nearly 300 tonnes of city garbage that was transported every day into the facility by the corporation. As garbage hills grew in size within, the village and its neighbourhoods, which once offered a heavenly view to the rulers of Travancore if they chose to look out from the palace windows far away in the city, became a hell for its residents.

The stench of rotting garbage became overbearing, mosquitoes and flies swarmed the place, rats and ferocious dogs colonised the waste dump and the village streets. A clear stream that fed the Karama river, a major water source for Thiruvananthapuram, became jet black and lifeless. A pumping station on it that let water into the citys supply lines was abandoned. Leachate streams oozed out from the dump yard into the village wells and other waterbodies. Skin diseases and illnesses borne by vectors became commonplace. Visitors refused to eat or drink from homes or at weddings or funerals in the village. Young men and women would not consider marriage proposals from Vilappilsala. A number of families chose to sell their land and homes at cheap prices and move elsewhere; others locked their homes and sought sanctuary in the city.

The initial protests were brushed aside by successive governments. The police filed cases against many of the protesters, the majority of them from poorer sections of society who could not afford to spend their daily wages or time on prolonged legal hassles, which are continuing.

Despite local opposition, the waste factory and the area around it soon grew from six to 42 acres, the private company withdrew from its operation following differences with the corporation authorities, and, by many accounts, there were no takers for the stinking fertilizer it produced.

Although the construction of the leachate treatment plant began in 2008, the machinery could not be installed fully and soon it became impossible to transport it to the site because protests by the local community had by then reached a certain pitch. Villagers joined hands to form a peoples committee in January 2011 and began to organise a more effective struggle, with a relay fast that led to a tense stand-off extending over several months between the protesters and the local panchayat on one side and the city corporation on the other.

K. MEERA, MEMBER OF THE COMMISSION appointed by the High Court, inspecting the Vilappilsala garbage unit.-S. GOPAKUMAR

Soon it also became the cause for a major political battle between the Congress-led State government and the LDF-ruled city corporationwith the protesters and the village panchayat caught in between.

In September last year, for the first time, the villagers blocked the corporations garbage trucks from entering their village. As movement of garbage from Thiruvananthapuram came to a halt, the State government called all parties for a discussion and sought three months for making alternative arrangements. But the deadline ended in December without results, and the panchayat decided to lock the gates of the waste factory and the peoples committee began blocking roads leading to it.

The city corporation had taken over the treatment plant in 2011 and wanted the government to allow it to establish the leachate treatment machinery there and the plant to start functioning again, as per a Supreme Court order. But peoples protests grew in strength day by day. After a series of discussions, when it became clear that the villagers were in no mood for a compromiseand amidst allegations that a real estate lobby which had bought land cheap at the village and nearby places were actively behind moves to close down the factorythe government withdrew.

The corporation moved the High Court, which appointed a one-member commission to look into the matter, and after which it ordered the government to provide police protection to the movement of machinery and trucks to Vilappilsala. The first attempt to do this, on February 13, with the police trying to break through the cordon of villagers, including women and children and the aged, resulted in use of force. It was ordered to be stopped in the nick of time by the government as it threatened to escalate into widespread violence.

Capital of waste

However, the city of over 10 lakh people soon began to have a taste of its own medicine. As waste disposal became a chronic problem, the corporation stopped collecting garbage from homes and streets, blaming it all on the State government for not helping it implement the court order to reopen the Vilappilsala facility. There has been no waste collection for over 10 months now in Thiruvananthapuram, posing serious health and environmental risks and, with the arrival of the north-east monsoon, the threat of diseases. Tonnes of garbage lies uncollected in the streets, and highways have become festering dumping grounds.

Spontaneous waste dumps have sprouted even in the heart of the city, near the State Secretariat and around the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, among other city landmarks. Household, hotel and abattoir waste, often dropped surreptitiously, lies rotting, and by nightfall brings out the feral animals in their hordes.

With the court insisting on the implementation of its order, the governments subsequent attempt, in which the authorities and the police managed to move the remaining machinery into the leachate plant premises in the middle of a rainy night, eluding peoples vigil, has led to a flare-up. The village action committee called for an indefinite hartal and a ban on the entry of all vehicles to the village. Panchayat president S. Sobhana Kumari and others launched a fast unto death.

For the first time the government was forced to suggest an alternative location for dumping the citys refuse: a handful of abandoned quarries in suburban villages around Thiruvananthapuram. But the initial attempts to locate quarries suitable for dumping waste was greeted with mass protests in all such localities. Eventually, on October 17, the government struck a deal with the villagers at Vilappilsala through the good offices of independent mediators.

As part of the deal, it has reportedly agreed in principle to close down the Vilappilsala waste treatment facility pending orders from the High Court. Subsequently, it also informed a Division Bench of the court that after the last bit of machinery was moved in for the leachate plant, the law and order situation was highly volatile in Vilappilsala panchayat. The government has also, considering the crisis-like situation, requested the court to hear the case earlier than the scheduled date of November 19. Government authorities, meanwhile, are desperately seeking new landfill sites, or trying to move garbage from the streets to temporary sites; but there too, protests are being launched.

The experience so far makes it clear that a permanent solution to the issue that addresses the environmental expectation of local populations is unlikely in the near future. Significantly, Vilappilsala has reached a turning point at a time when the first such agitation in the State, at Lalur near Thrissur, against villages being made waste dumps, completes 25 years of unfruitful existence.

Lalur was perhaps a rare kind of agitation when its residents launched it in October 1988. But today, such agitations have sprung up all over Keralaat Chakkukandam (near the temple township of Guruvayoor), Njelianparamba (near Kozhikode), Pettippalam (near Thalassery), Chelora (near Kannur), Vadavathoor (near Kottayam), Fathimapuram (near Changanassery), Kannattupura (near Pala), Sarvodayapuram (near Alappuzha), Kureepuzha (near Kollam), Brahmapuram (near Kochi), Paarakkadavu (near Thodupuzha) and Kelugudde, Seethangoli and Kollangana (near Kasargod), to name a few.

Such suburban hot spots have almost similar stories to tell about the evolution of their struggles and how the dumping of waste from the cities had transformed life in the localities within a short time.

Most such cases have initially been sought to be suppressed using police force or referred to the courts, whose verdicts have remained at best controversial and impractical. But the protests have continued, often with more vigour, and people in the affected villages are in no mood for compromise.

Vilappilsala has brought in a sense of urgency to the problem of managing municipal solid waste. It has made city-dwellers in Kerala see the merit in the struggle of the affected villages. And, State and local governments, for the first time, are seeking alternatives.

But that is just a good beginning, if at all.

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