The banner headline in Kerala’s largest circulated newspaper, Malayala Manorama, on Sunday last, 5 March, was short and stark: Visha Pugha, (Poisonous Smoke).
That is what lakhs of citizens in the state’s Ernakulam district have been breathing for five consecutive days from 2 March.
That was because the landfill used by the Kochi Corporation — as a dump for the city’s domestic waste — caught fire, at Brahmapuram, 20 km from the Ernakulam sea front.
In three municipalities — Thrikkakara, Tripunithura and Maradu as well as the Kochi Corporation, air quality had deteriorated to red — for ‘very poor’ and the toxic air had wafted south to villages in the adjoining Alappuzha district.
Aged citizens and those with bronchial problems, literally gasped for air as the noxious fumes were laden with carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide — since what set off the fire was plastic in the dump, unseparated from other civic waste.
Those who had friends and relatives in other towns away from the affected area, took temporary shelter. Those who did not, stayed indoors and shut all the windows.
Indeed, after days of ignoring what had snowballed into a significant environmental disaster, the civic body and state government ministries of health and industry finally woke up on Monday (6 March) to close all schools till class 7, advise malls and large markets to stay closed and older citizens to remain indoors.
Some 22 fire fighting units, 300 firefighters assisted by Navy and Air Force helicopters, aerially spraying water are still fighting the flames: the challenge is that the burning plastic is some metres below the top layers of stinking trash and bulldozers are required to expose them to the fire extinguishing systems.
Without the sophisticated masks that are required to fight toxic chemical fires, dozens of fire personnel have fallen sick and are being resuscitated in oxygen tents.
Over 100 hospital beds set aside in the government hospitals are filling up with lay citizens overcome by the fumes.
The Kerala High Court which received a letter petition from a sitting judge, Devan Ramachandran, converted it into a suo moto public interest litigation (PIL).
Earlier today (7 March) a two-judge Bench of Justices S V Bhatti and Basant Balaji commenced a hearing where they summoned, the Secretary of the Kochi Corporation, the District Collector Ernakulam and the chairman of the state pollution control board.
Characterising Kochi today as a ‘gas chamber’ in his opening remarks, Justice Bhatti said like thousands in Ernakulam, he suffocated when he stepped out for a few minutes.
He extracted an undertaking from the corporation that by tomorrow (8 March) the fire at the dump site would be put out, no matter what it took.
Then he laid out a roadmap for the next few days’ hearing at the end of which he was confident a ‘holistic implementation’ of a comprehensive solid waste management plan for the entire state would be in place, to end this ‘perpetual nuisance’.
In a state famed for its backwater ecosystems, Judge Bhatti spoke of the ‘pathetic woes of the water bodies which had been converted to waste dumping sites’.
So, it looks as if judicial intervention would finally accomplish what civic and governmental apathy had failed to address for decades.
A Waste Dump For Two Decades
The case of the Brahmapuram waste dump is particularly bizarre:
Some 37 acres of land were acquired by the Kochi Corporation way back in 1997 for establishing a solid waste treatment plant, but nothing was done for decades.
Sites closer to Ernakulam were used and then abandoned, after locals protested about the foul smell.
With no clear policy visible, the High Court in 2006 appointed an Advocate Commissioner — a leading environmental law specialist, PB Sahasranaman — to inspect the Brahmapuram site and suggest any lacunae.
The Commissioner found no plausible reason — except civic apathy for the creation of a waste treatment plant at the site.
Incredibly, after 17 years, there is still no waste treatment, but over the years, unsegregated waste from the entire corporation is being dumped at Brahmapuram, creating a massive landfill of some 5.6 lakh cubic metres spread over 40 acres.
Said Sahasranaman speaking to this correspondent earlier today:
“The recent fire incident at Brahmapuram is an open violation of waste management rules by the Cochin Corporation which has not done anything since 1997 for the management of waste which is its primary responsibility.”
In what appears as a weird practice, the Corporation, asks residents to segregate solid waste for collection, charges Rs 50, per house per month, seemingly dumps them — biodegradable and non degradable — in the same site, then pays contractors a huge annual fee to do biomining.
Biomining is digging out previously dumped or disposed-off material from landfill to recover plastic, metal, glass, combustibles, other fine material, and soil, to be sent for recycling.
Not surprisingly, fires at this landfill are not uncommon and locals say they happen almost every year in the summer — albeit not on the disaster level of last week.
When the High Court heard the Secretary of the Kochi Corporation earlier today, he was given short shrift by the senior judge when he tried to suggest that fires at landfills worldwide are somehow endemic.
Indeed, managing the public perception rather than managing the disaster seemed to be the bureaucratic priority in Kerala for the first few days of the Brahmapuram air pollution incident — till it gradually snowballed from being a little local difficulty to a national and international concern.
When in doubt to make somebody else pay, seems to have been the strategy of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board which has just imposed a fine of Rs 1.8 crore on the Kochi Corporation for failing to comply with the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016.
But the Board may not get away too easily. Justice Bhatti got its Chairman A B Pradeep Kumar (himself a solid waste specialist) to commit in Court today (7 March), that Kerala would have a water tight waste management plan up and working by an appropriate date — 5 June, World Environment Day 2023.
But even as the court ordained processes may change the state’s poor record in waste management, what about the — literally — mountain of a problem that still remains on the ground in Brahmapuram?
Technology may yet provide a solution — and an Atmanirbhar Bharat solution at that.
Since 2017, a Bengaluru startup — TrashCon — has helped dozens of municipalities, hospitals and industries in India handle solid waste with what it claims is the world's first completely automated segregation system.
This patented technology has attracted headlines in global media for its cost-effective solution and can handle typically 250 tonnes of waste a day, with the ability to scale up.
Explains Nivedha R M, who co-founded the company and invented the product —TrashBot — with her small team:
“It automatically segregates solid waste into bio-degradables and non-biodegradables like plastics, and metals with over 85 per cent efficiency. All the outputs find use in one way or other ensuring they do not go back to the landfills. The plastics recovered is converted to recycled sheets like plywood and used as building material creating value from what today is often claiming lives.”
“It is a low capital cost and low operating cost model and can be run by unskilled labour generating dignified employment to thousands of waste pickers as well. When I see situations of waste burning and people falling ill due to the same, I feel proud that we have a solution right here, made in our country.”
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