Lack of local policies and action adversely affect India’s ability to control greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change; this is an area that is receiving far too little attention

Plastic waste dumped in the edge of a Kole wetland paddy field in Kerala’s Thrissur district (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

Plastic waste dumped in the edge of a Kole wetland paddy field in Kerala’s Thrissur district (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

“Come to Kerala, God’s own country,” beckon the advertisements promoting the south Indians state as a tourism destination. The enticing pictures invariably have the beautiful backwaters of Kerala as the theme.

A thin, long wedge of land between the tall ridges of the Western Ghats and the waters of the Arabian Sea, Kerala has 41 rivers running west. As these rivers slow down near the coast, they break into a network of backwaters and estuaries. The water spread of the wetlands is harnessed for paddy-shrimp cultivation in Kuttanad region of Alapuzha district and for ‘Kole’ paddy cultivation in Thrissur district.

These water bodies provide the perfect theatre for backwater tourism and also serve as the state’s economic backbone, especially in the midlands and the coastal areas.

There is bad news though. These water bodies are facing slow death with the dumping of plastic-based urban waste.

V.M. Sudheeran, a senior political leader from the state, recently launched a people’s campaign for the protection of the water bodies. He has been persuading communities to get rid of the habit of dumping waste into water bodies. Sudheeran is a charismatic leader prone to persuasive campaigns. His recent one was an effort to get rid of alcohol addiction in the state.

With most of the urban municipalities in the state having discontinued the practice of collecting and disposing urban waste, hapless citizens have been clandestinely depositing refuse on the banks of these water bodies. Slow moving water obstructed by non-decomposing plastic wastes causes stagnation, excessive organic load in the water, resulting in eutrophication. Decaying and disintegrating wastes also generate greenhouse gases, especially methane.

The campaign to protect the water bodies in Kerala has similarities with the Swachch Bharat campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Charismatic political leaders have launched both campaigns, which appeal to the individual to remove urban waste from the environment.

They differ in the fact that they attack different ends of the urban waste collection and disposal spectrum. While the Swachch Bharat campaign deals with removal of waste from the streets, the water bodies campaign focuses on preventing urban waste from being dumped into the water bodies.

Conflicts with regards to urban wastes that were simmering for decades in Kerala’s cities intensified in 2012, when communities living near the areas where corporations dumped waste protested. Conflicts at Vilappilsala near Thiruvananthapuram and Lalur near Thrissur made national news. In these locations, residents refused to let municipal trucks dump waste from other parts of the city. “Why should we suffer and let our children fall ill for your convenience?” they asked.

Stung by criticism and without alternate infrastructure in place, municipal corporations stopped collecting waste and encouraged families to deal with their own waste. Those who lived in homesteads with a plot of land around the house started to compost their organic waste and burn the rest. But those living in apartments do not have this opportunity.

Many families have taken the easier option – drive to the edge of water bodies at night and dump their garbage bags. Heaps of garbage, filled in bright-coloured plastic bags, litter the edges of the water bodies. Slowly these bags disintegrate and the waste from their innards floats and blocks the drainage channels. The water bodies suffocate with the excessive load of decomposable and non-decomposable matter.

When I was growing up in Thrissur three decades ago, we composted organic waste in our compound and placed on the street what we could not compost. The municipal trucks picked up this waste for the landfill. There was one critical difference though. Our grocery was not packed in plastic. The grocer made large cones out of used newspapers, weighed our rice and pulses, filled them inside these cones, and tied it with thin coir thread. The paper and the thread could be composted in our homesteads. So what the municipality picked up was negligible compared to the waste an average family generates today.

The urban waste problem, not just in Kerala but across the country, is because the collection, segregation, transportation and disposal systems have not kept pace with changing needs. Take for instance the situation in Chennai, a city that has registered the highest growth in population density between 2001 and 2011.

According to the Corporation of Chennai, the city generates 4,500 tonnes of urban waste per day, of which household waste contributes 68%. The corporation has an efficient process of collection and disposal. But there it ends. The garbage is land-filled – without segregation – into Pallikarnai swamp in the southern part of the city.

A decade ago, there were proposals to convert Chennai’s waste to energy through a heat-based process, and for bio-methanation of organic wastes. Neither project materialised. The waste to energy project faced opposition from environmental groups such as Greenpeace who said the process would generate dioxins and furans – a family of toxic chemicals that can cause hormone disruption and cancer.

Meanwhile, the landfill site in Chennai continues to emit greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Further, uncontrolled fires burning waste in multiple locations generate carbon dioxide, dioxins and furans. A point source of these gases from a waste to energy plant could have been controlled, whereas unorganised multiple sources are far more difficult to handle.

In Kerala, urban bodies have abdicated even their responsibility of collecting and disposing waste. This again means that there are multiple and unorganised sources for generation of methane where the waste degenerates; and carbon dioxide, dioxins and furans when the waste is incinerated in thousands of home fires every day.

The problem in Kerala has been compounded by the fact that the state has registered a high growth in urbanisation in recent years. According to the Census of India, the number of towns in the state grew from 159 in 2001 to 520 in 2011. The percentage of urban population grew from 25.96% to 47.72% in the same period. That means there is more waste being generated by families living in less space.

When the urban population is growing and urban waste management infrastructure is inadequate, initiating campaigns that look at one link in a long chain of activities will not deliver effective results. The campaign in Kerala to protect water bodies or the Swachch Bharat initiative can at best serve as token gestures if they do not think through the entire process of generation, segregation, collection and disposal of urban waste.

 

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