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Issue 37
, 2012
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India Grapples With Garbage

K. S. Harikrishnan
Source: IPSNews, Date: , 2012

VILAPPILSALA, "We tell friends planning to visit us to follow the stench of rotting garbage," says Jeevaratnam (one name), a homemaker in this village 16 km from Kerala state’s capital of Thiruvananthapuram.

But Jeevaratnam’s humorous quips give way to anger as she talks about a plan by the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation to convert a part of this once idyllic, palm-fringed village of limpid backwaters into a garbage dump.

"Let the people of Thiruvananthapuram city deal with their own garbage. Why are they dumping it on us?" she demands to know.

Six months ago, Jeevaratnam joined other villagers and environmental activists in physically stopping trucks unloading garbage from the city on a 54-acre site acquired by the corporation in Vilappilsala for an aerobic waste composting plant.

Although the corporation is now armed with an order from the Kerala High Court to reopen the plant, it does not have the courage to face the irate villagers.

An enquiry commission appointed by the court has substantiated allegations by the villagers that the waste from the composting site was leaching into streams, wells and water sources in the village.

"Many of the villagers have been suffering from stomach and respiratory problems ever since they started dumping the garbage here," said Shobhana Kumari, president of the panchayat (village local body). "We are not going to allow city garbage to be dumped in our village," she said.

What is happening at Vilappilsala is indicative of a malaise that is gripping the whole of India - an inability to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by rapid urbanization.

India framed a solid waste policy in 2000 on the orders of the Supreme Court, which required all cities to implement comprehensive waste-management programmes that would include household collection of segregated waste, recycling and composting.

However, no city has been able to set up any programme like that envisaged in the policy, with the result that heaps of rotting wastes are now a regular feature of urban life.

Indian cities generate more than 50 million tonnes of solid waste a year, and on average, each person in the urbanized areas produces half a kilogram of waste daily.

The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi estimates that by 2047 waste generation in the cities will touch 260 million tonnes per year, with local governments unable to handle the problem.

Commenting on the mass dumping of urban waste in rural areas, as is being attempted in Vilappilsala, C. R. Neelakantan, one of Kerala’s best-known environmental activists, told IPS that this is "unconscionable and violates the ‘polluter pays’ principle."

"Trash and garbage are now a serious source of pollution in towns and cities and it is a failure of governance that the problem remains unaddressed," Neelakantan, chairman of ‘Samara Samiti,’ a non-government organization (NGO), said.

One solution, increasingly finding favour with local governments, is contracting out waste handling to private waste incinerator operators - though environmentalists say this is a remedy worse than the disease.

Almitra Patel, a Bangalore-based environmentalist who has been involved in shaping Indian solid waste policy for over 16 years, told IPS that incinerators and waste-to-energy schemes are rotten with corrupt practices.

"The simple fact is that corrupt municipal authorities do not have the capacity to operate or monitor these plants under the strict conditions required to ensure that there is no environmental pollution from toxic emissions," she said.

"Incinerators also cost 12 - 43 times more than simple, easily-managed, low-cost composting, which is the ideal solution for a country like India," said Patel, a member of the Supreme Court committee on solid waste management.

"Unlike in developed countries where waste is segregated and has high calorie packaging that works well with incinerators, Indian waste is high in organics and moisture and has very low calorific content," Patel said.

"Thermodynamically there is no surplus energy available after deducting processing energy needs and that rules out waste-to-energy incinerators," she said.

Indian waste also has a high proportion of inert materials such as street dust and drain silt that damage waste-conveying equipment and the incineration chambers. "An incinerator set up in New Delhi’s Timarpur area packed up within a week and has been lying inoperative for years," Patel said.

Yet, Delhi went on to allow a private contractor to build a larger ‘waste-to-energy’ incinerator with a capacity to handle 2,000 tonnes of solid waste daily, ignoring protests by residents of the Okhla area who fear that the thick smoke billowing out of its smokestacks will harm their health.

"We fail to understand how the government can allocate 15 acres of prime land in a densely populated part of the city for a privately-operated incinerator of this size, utterly disregarding public health," said Vimal Monga, president of a residents’ welfare association.

"Government must enforce controls, starting with segregation of waste and monitoring of emissions for toxic byproducts such as dioxins, furans and respirable particulate matter before allowing incinerators to come up in residential areas," Ravi Agarwal, chief of Toxic Links, a major environment NGO, told IPS.

Lack of waste segregation is a serious issue in India, said Agarwal, with everything from electronic waste to hazardous biomedical refuse from hospitals ending up in the same stream.

A study carried out in 2010 by the Indian Institute of Management in Lucknow for the Central Pollution Control Board found that 50 percent of biomedical waste generated in India’s hospitals gets dumped along with municipal garbage.

Jose Joseph, executive director of the ‘Clean City’ movement in Kerala’s port city of Kochi, told IPS that better understanding between manufacturers and consumers about the use and recycling of products will go a long way in solving the growing problem of waste disposal.

Green economists have suggested that what India needs is a comprehensive waste management and recycling strategy on the lines of Brazil’s national solid waste policy.

K. Lathanathan, a green activist, told IPS that recycling and energy recovery from waste are profitable even if there are issues of decent work involved. "It is worth considering that recycling in all its forms employs 12 million people in Brazil, China and the United States.