Thiruvananthapuram sinks in its own waste as rulers look for shortcuts

Thiruvananthapuram, which once charmed its visitors with exceptionally clean and lush green surroundings, quaint ways and potable tap water is now sinking in its own filth, with the city’s municipal corporation unable to clear its garbage for several months on end.

Now, the issue has also become a law-and-order situation with the residents of a city suburb Vilappilsaala going on an Anna Hazare/SP Udayakumar style agitation to permanently close down a garbage processing facility that the corporation had set up in their neighbourhood. Even a high court order couldn’t stop them.

The “garbage factory”, which promised to use modern technology in processing solid waste, has made their air fetid, polluted their neighbourhood and water, and permanently stigmatised their real estate. They say their lives and future have been ruined.

Representational image. Reuters.

When the residents of Vilappilsaala said no more garbage to their neighbourhood, the corporation, which had been used to an archaic collect-transport-dump routine, didn’t know what to do. They just stopped garbage collection and it started piling up everywhere. The city is putrid today.

Although the problem has been plaguing Thiruvananthapuram for several months, the CPM ruled civic body hasn’t been able to come up with an integrated and sustainable solid waste management plan. As if garbage management requires complex nano technology, Kerala chief minister Oomen Chandy laments that the state doesn’t have a model to adopt.

What both the corporation commissioner and the chief minister are blissfully unaware of is that the problem needs nothing but some common sense, some simple systems and processes. There are a dime a dozen best practices in different parts of the world, including in developing countries, that they could learn from. Even at this stage of crisis, both the city and state governments are looking for short cuts.

Even though the crisis arose from indiscriminate dumping, the corporation has not been able to change neither its ways nor that of its residents. When the civic body stopped clearing garbage, abdicating its own responsibility as per the municipal waste management law (2000) under the Kerala Municipalities Act (1994), it didn’t advise people on what to do with their waste. Out of no choice, the latter started stealthily dumping it in water ways, bushes and public places.

When the crisis became acute, the administration even issued prohibitory orders! Means one could have been detained and prosecuted on cases related to garbage!

Still, the corporation authorities didn’t advise the people on what to do with their garbage. Instead, they tried to reopen the garbage factory, which was vehemently opposed by the local residents. The Vilappilsaala agitation is a political crisis now with both the CPM (ruling the civic body) and the Congress looking for votes and the agitators getting more hardline by the day. That the local panchayat is ruled by Congress and the Corporation, the CPM, adds a bit of political diabolic.

What the corporation mayor, who accuses the state government of inaction, still didn’t try to do was converting the crisis into an opportunity to change the city’s ways of handling its waste. Instead of political games and hardline public posturing, she could have done the following.

1. Ask the city residents to mandatorily segregate the garbage at source - separate the degradable and non-degradable materials. About 45-50 per cent of south Asian garbage is dry - plastics, paper, glass etc and 30 per cent, organic. Both of these are recyclable. Once these two are removed, only about 20 per cent is absolutely unusable and needs to be dumped. That too in a sanitary landfill.

2. Once the source-segregation is made mandatory, the city corporation can collect both the recyclables door-to-door (women-run self help groups had already been involved in garbage collection in the city and the same groups can do this) for an user-fee or free. Engage scrap dealers to whom the materials can be sold. There is a market for every form of recyclable materials.

3. The bio-degradable materials may also be collected door-to-door and used in compost facilities at several locations in the city. The key here is not to centralise composting and attract the ire of local residents. Either NGOs or local private companies or both can be the partners of the civic body. The corporation or its private partners could easily find a market for the organic manure.

4. The corporation now needs to find places for dumping only 20 per cent of its total solid waste. By segregation and recycling, it has essentially reduced 80 per cent of its waste burden. There are many creative landfill methods such as the one tried by the railways to fill their new platform site. There are international standards for landfilling.
All these processes take some time and behaviour change, but not difficult. It just calls for transformation of civic sense and continuous partnership between governments, people and the private/voluntary sector. User-fee and revenue from recycling could part-fund the waste management.

Are these textbook prescriptions or are there examples where such methods really worked?

They are indeed highlights of working models in the field. One doesn’t need to go all the way to Curitiba in Brazil, but hop over to Thimphu in Bhutan. In partnership with NGOs and local private entrepreneurs, the Thimphu Corporation has piloted a sustainable model of solid waste management that employs the principles of segregation and recycling.

An interesting turnaround in Thimphu has been in PET bottles - from a low value waste and an eye-sore, they have become a money spinner. Interestingly, the scrap dealers who partner with the Thimphu Corporation are selling their waste to Indian companies for recycling and we don’t know what to do with our waste. A lot of Indian contractors import scrap paper and supply to our paper mills, still we don’t recycle our paper.

Even a fairly well-exposed Shashi Tharoor, who represents the city in the Parliament and unsuccessfully tried to twin it with Barcelona, has not been able to advise the corporation. The problem is that the CPM, which rules the city, has in-house capacity in everything under the sun and it doesn’t need advise from anywhere.

Updated Date: Oct 16, 2012 16:06 PM

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