Wednesday, August 10, 2011

God's Own Garbage

In Thiruvananthapuram, there is a new way of disposing household garbage - it is called "toss and scoot". 

Even in the most affluent areas, one can now witness something, which until recently, was rare in Kerala : the unedifying sight of citizens rolling down windows of their air-conditioned cars, to toss out plastic packets full of garbage on to public sidewalks or any blind corner deemed to be "no man's land".

A good example of this practice can be seen on the road going down from the upmarket PTP Nagar to Maruthankuzhi. Also known as Pipeline Road, this is one of the few straight roads in the city, gently sloping down the hill with a Forest Department plantation on one side and the Army cantonment property on the other. It is a lovely, green stretch.  However, a hundred meter's down this road, just beyond a board welcoming you to PTP Nagar, piles of garbage adorn both sides of the road. And just when you're wondering how so much garbage had come to occupy such a large area, a car speeds by, a window rolls down and yet another garbage projectile hits the ground, scattering its contents down the slope. Domestic servants and morning walkers toss in their packets at a more leisurely pace, much to the delight of crows and stray dogs.

The same pattern is repeated in most parts of the city - except in the areas surrounding the Raj Bhavan and Kowdiar. In the narrow lanes of Vazhutacaud, Elipode and Pettah, where you cannot hide behind the anonymity of a faceless, speedy car, the garbage packets are surreptitiously dropped in blind corners or empty plots. In Vattioorkavu  one spot has packets piled right under a Residents Welfare Association (RWA) board pleading in Malayalam - "For God's sake, please don't drop your garbage here!".

In keeping with Wilson & Kelling’s “Broken Window Theory”, a single garbage packet, lying unattended for a couple of days attract many more such packets, and soon, a pile builds up. Some get tossed into open drains and rivulets, increasing the chances of flooding during the monsoons.

Why is it that the allegedly 'most educated people', in the most literate state in the country, are so indifferent and callous to public hygiene? Is it merely a failure of the civic administration or is these pointer's to a deeper societal problem?

The civic administration does have a scheme in place, under the Kudumbasree program. Each of the eighty-six wards under the city corporation has a team of women who set about early in the morning, going from house-to-house collecting garbage. Each household is supposed to hand over segregated the garbage to the workers, who pack them into crates for further processing at their facility at Vilappilsala, 16 km East of the city.
This is, of course, the plan. In practice, the Kudumbasree workers regularly face householders who grudge them even the token monthly charge of Rs.40. Since most of the packets they receive are un-segregated, they go about using their bare hands to pull out kitchen & food waste from piles that invariably contain razor blades, rusty cans, broken bulbs and glass shards. An exasperated worker at Elipode says, "We keep requesting the people to give us segregated garbage, but nobody listens!"

The situation at Vilappilsala processing centre is often the subject of controversies. The plant was commissioned in 1999-2000 and is presently being run by a quasi-government agency - the Centre for Environment & Development. Spread across an area of 43 acres, the Vilappisala facility has the capacity to convert 200 tonnes of biodegradable garbage per day using aerobic reactors as well as mechanical composting. The choice of technology has raised a stink and, in response to vociferous protests from residents in surrounding areas, the government is restricting the inflow to just 100 tonnes per day - half its built capacity. 

According to a paper presented by Edward and Kumar (2009 CET Trivandrum), the problem of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) disposal in Trivandrum city is typical of the problem faced by all states in India. Lack of financial resources, institutional weaknesses, improper choice of technology and public apathy towards MSW has made this service far from satisfactory. Two years ago, the city produced an average of 145 tonnes of garbage per day and now, there just not enough land available for conventional landfills and processing plants.

Given the precarious finances of the Kerala state government, it may be unrealistic to expect quick-fix, high-tech solutions. What can be addressed incrementally are the institutional weaknesses, but, ultimately, the crux of the problem rests on one single issue: public apathy. 

Perhaps the only cure to this ailment is a sustained, carefully crafted campaign involving  households, RWA's, schools as well as entrepreneurs’ involved in the waste-recycling business. In consultation with the RWA's, each area should have clearly demarcated points for garbage disposal, provided, if necessary with wire-mesh enclosures or nets that blocks free access to scavenging birds and animals.  

Chennai city produces 3500 tonnes of garbage and, after years of experimenting, seems to have come up with an effective solution that involves private enterprise, RWA’s and the municipality. This model may have some lessons to offer to the people of Thiruvananthapuram.

There is no point procrastinating here. The problem is only going to get worse as the population increases. Until careful planning is backed by concerted action, households - even in the most affluent areas - will continue to toss their garbage out of their cars, or delegate this unpleasant task to their domestic servants.

The Trivandrum Corporation, in consultation with the RWA’s, needs to get proactive on this issue. As of now the corporation website provides only a "White Paper" on the subject, with no information or guidelines on what is to be done with domestic waste, including the tricky issue of disposing non-biodegradable waste - especially the more hazardous items like hospital waste, battery-cells, electronic goods, glassware, fluorescent tube lights and bulbs.

Until this happens, the capital city of God's Own Country will continue be the abode of ironies : a city named after the richest temple in the country, home to Technoparks, high-tech hospitals, satellite & rocket scientists, but one that is incapable of coming up with a creative, effective way of managing its own household garbage.



Anonymous said...

its high time the govt of kerala did some useful work for the development of kerala...the people of kerala are just literate...there is a huge difference between being literate and educated...all they care about is how to earn more money from dubai and give huge dowries to their daughters...just look at the pathetic infrastructure ...nothing

Dinakarr said... have a point there. The question that arises is: what makes literate people 'educated'? Is common civic sense a part of that education?