Pune's garbage crisis: No end in sight as villagers protest, waste festers, impasse continues

As one passes through Pune city, piles of garbage can be seen heaped by the roadsid. Pune ranked second in the Smart City scheme of the central government, but now resembles a garbage depot. At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pursuing his Swacch Bharat scheme, the Swacch Pune drive started by the municipal body has become all but a pipedream.

The reason these mounds of garbage have come up all across the city is because the residents of Uruli Devachi and Phursungi have refused to let the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) continue using their land as a dumping ground and landfill site. Since the last 15 days, the protesting villagers have refused to let the PMC's garbage vehicles enter their premises. The protests started after a fire broke out in the garbage depot in April. Two weeks have passed since, but the city is still far from finding a solution to the problem.

About 1,600 to 1,700 tonnes of waste is produced daily in Pune city. This is collected and sent to 48 processing plants, of which the largest is the Uruli-Phursungi garbage depot, which takes in 450-500 tonnes of waste every day. With that depot unoperational, the waste is lying unprocessed in the city currently.

The state government had allotted land in Uruli Devachi and Phursungi villages to the PMC, which started dumping garbage at the site in 1991. But the villagers complained of inconveniences, and moved court in 1995 demanding the dumping ground be closed. The case reached the high court, which passed an order in favour of the villagers. Following this order, the villagers requested the PMC to finish the formalities, such that the depot could officially be shut.

Meanwhile, a processing plant was set up by the PMC, which was supposed to process the garbage and produce cubes that can be used as fuel. But when processing started, there were no takers for the fuel, and the plant had to be closed.

 Punes garbage crisis: No end in sight as villagers protest, waste festers, impasse continues

Representational image. AFP

The court ordered PMC to build a compound, to stop open dumping, and to cover all garbage lying at the dumping site by capping. It also suggested the corporation should start searching for an alternate land.

But despite the order, nothing materialised, which led to the first protest by the villagers. They moved court again, citing contempt of court by the corporation. This led PMC to start capping at site. Now the villagers have protested almost 25 times, and after every protest, the government comes up with various promises to end the logjam. But the villagers have alleged that none of the promises are ever fulfilled.

Last month, a fire erupted at the depot. Smoke and stink filled the villages. And though things were brought under control in 3-4 days, the garbage continued to burn. The cooling process continued in the days that followed. Villagers came together and called for a bandh, and didn't let vehicles from the city enter the depot. Attempts were made to end the logjam, but though PMC office bearers tried talking to them, the villagers refused to buck.

Waste produced in the city was now being sent to other processing plants, while a backlog of over 350-400 tonnes of garbage remained in place. This was stored in the form of dry waste at various locations. But this made segregating the waste a problem.

"I collect waste from people's houses every day. Today, our vehicle is overflowing, but the garbage is still lying on the roads. We will have to clear it all. But how can we do that? Nobody has any answers, but we are suffering," said one waste picker, breaking down in tears.

Waste pickers are now spending entire days just collecting garbage and waiting for vehicles to collect it. Aparna Susrala, a member of the NGO Swach, that works with the waste pickers, said, "People are still not ready to segregate their garbage despite the PMC providing them with separate buckets. They tell the waste pickers to do it themselves. Segregation isn't the waste pickers' job; it's supposed to be done at source. But because it's never done right, the containers and garbage dumps are filled with mixed waste. Due to the strike, chronic spots have developed at various places. But because the garbage cannot go for processing before segregation, waste pickers are spending double the time every day."

Guarding the segregated waste is another arduous task. This also resulted in a brawl at Kondhwa recently, which resulted in the death of a man who was trying to dump his garbage.

The situation is worsening by the day, but according to the citizens, it's the PMC's fault. "Out of five processing plants which were set up to generate electricity by processing garbage, three have been shut. In one of the programmes held by our organisation, the city's guardian minister Girish Bapat said 1,600 tonnes of garbage is generated every day in Pune, which is untrue. It's just 1,200-1,300 tonnes. If we check the capacity of the processing plants that are working, this can be processed easily. Why then do we see so much garbage strewn everywhere? This is also not the first time the city is facing such a problem. But the corporation simply doesn't seem interested in seeking solutions," said Vivek Welankar, president of the Sajag Nagarik Manch, a citizen forum.

"Punekars are irriated just because no action has taken place in 15 days. But we've been facing such problems for over 25 years, and that too because of their garbage. If they cannot bear garbage on their roads for just two weeks, imagine what our plight must be like," said Vijay Bhadale, a resident of Uruli Devachi.

According to a PMC official, almost three to four fire-related incidents take place every year at the landfill. Since 2010, however, he said that things have become better, and there have been only a handful of such incidents in the last seven years. Last month's incident was the biggest one, he said.

Bhadale added, "We don't want promises anymore. We just want the garbage to be moved elsewhere. The corporation keeps promising this will happen soon, but nothing has come of it. We filed a case in court six months ago, we also filed a case with the NGT in 2015. They submitted a similar affidavit as well. But, despite a written submission in court, they can't initiate action."


"This has become a routine issue for us. Every time there is a fire at the depot, we send our children to relatives in other villages, so at least they won't suffer," rued Neeta Bhadale, a former sarpanch of Uruli village.

"According to the Maharashtra pollution control laws, open dumping is not to be allowed at all. And the plant is also supposed to be closed in 15 years. But the PMC has flouted all these norms," a villager claimed.

This time, however, they say their protest is different; it will be a do-or-die situation for them, they say. After the protest started, Pune mayor Mukta Tilak visited the dumping ground and personally requested the villagers to let the garbage vehicles in. But the villagers didn't budge, and continued protesting. She even requested chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to intervene. He ordered Bapat to find a solution to the problem and discuss with the villagers. But both Tilak and Bapat have since left for foreign tours, leaving the so-called 'smart city' in the lurch.

"When we had launched a protest in 2015, Fadnavis had himself promised that he will look into the matter and close the dumping ground in six months. We have it in writing within minutes of the meeting. But it's since been 23 months. But it seems that was also a blatant lie," Vijay Bhadale added.

According to a PMC official, almost 300 tonnes of unprocessed dry garbage is being stored at processing plants daily since the last 15 days. "We are processing 80-85 tonnes of waste in biogas plants, 12-15 tonnes of waste in mechanical plants, and 30-35 tonnes of waste in thermal plants. Vermicompost plants handle 250-275 tonnes, and 50-60 tonnes are being processed at households as well. We are also sending 70-80 tonnes of garbage to farmers who need it for fodder. So we are left with 300-350 tonnes of dry garbage daily, which we are storing and processing as an when possible," said Sanjay Gawade, a PMC official from the solid waste management department. "We used to send 400-450 tonnes of garbage plus rejects to the Uruli site. We were sending only the processed garbage to the landfill site."

But the villagers denied this claim. "They have capped at 80 percent of the area, which was also not done scientifically. They have not stopped open dumping in the remaining 20 percent area," said Tatyasaheb Bhadale, another villager and protester.

Having the dumping ground in their midst has had a great impact on the villagers' health as well. Due to constant dumping, the soil quality has deteriorated, while pollution levels are high. It has also damaged the ground water, making it non-drinkable. The presence of stray dogs and mosquitoes have become normal for them. "We depend entirely on water tankers provided by the corporation. We have to store and use this water for drinking as well as other purposes. At times, even this is not sufficient. Quarrels over water have become routine now. We have abundant amounts of water, but we cannot use it, because of the garbage depot," Neeta Bhadale added.

But beyond all this, it's also taking a toll on their health. "Half of the patients visiting me suffer from health concerns brought about due to the presence of the garbage depot. Their lungs are damaged, and they are facing breathing problems as well. Many of them have suffered jaundice, while malaria cases rise in the monsoon," said Dr Balasaheb Harpale, a resident of Uruli and a practicing doctor. "The government issues pictorial warnings and publishes advertisments about how cigarette smoking is injurious to health. But what about inhaling smoke from the garbage depot? Imagine the condition of the people who do this daily."

"We submitted this data to the Human Rights Commission. We also submitted this in the ongoing case in the NGT. But time and again, their only promise is that they will move the depot soon. But when is this 'soon' going to arrive? Submitting false affidavits in court should attract legal action. But the PMC has done this many times," said advocate Asim Sarode, who is representing the villagers in the court.

Politics have taken centrestage over the larger social issue that is having a large impact across the city. Political parties are leaving no stone unturned to show how much they care for the citizens. Recently, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena protested outside the mayor's house — which also happens to be Lokmanya Tilak's house — and threw garbage at her doorstep. The Congress too organised a protest march to the PMC, and gifted garbage to the officials. But amid all the protests, no one tried to end the deadlock.

It was the Congress-NCP regime that was previously at the PMC, and now it's the BJP-Shiv Sena regime. But nothing seems to have changed for the villagers. Shiv Sena MLA Vijay Shivtare used to participate in protests against the previous administration, but the situation has turned on its head now. It's now NCP's Supriya Sule who is participating in the agitations while Shivtare remains silent.

Sule, following a protest on Thursday, demanded Prime Minister Narendra Modi to look into the matter, saying the state government is not resolving it. "Modi started 'Swacch Bharat Abhiyan'. But Pune seems to be going in the opposite direction. Modi should intervene now," she said.

Gawade, representing the PMC, said the corporation has found an alternative dumping ground near Pimpri Sandas. "Land procurement is in the final stages. We are also setting up a processing unit which will process 500 tonnes of garbage everyday at the Uruli depot. But we are facing opposition in Pimpri as well. We don't have any other options in hand," he said, revealing that the authorities have no plans of shutting the Uruli depot anytime soon.

Governments have changed but the issue remains unresolved. Lack of political will is hurting the issue, as the deadlock continues. Villagers organised the depot's funeral and hoped that this wish will come true. But will the protest push the government to find a permanent solution? Or will the villagers call off their protest following some more promises? The question remains unanswered at the moment as the impasse continues.

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Updated Date: May 05, 2017 10:53:55 IST