Costs and benefits of India's waste disposal options

  • 14/03/2007

Urban India produces 120,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste each day. Businesses want to burn this garbage to produce electricity, using government subsidies. Environmentalists say this is not viable, given Indian conditions—they also fear toxic emissions from incineration. KUSHAL PAL SINGH YADAV analyses the costs and benefits of India’s waste disposal options


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Indian garbage


In December 2006, the Municipal Corporation of Kochi came up with a rather ingenious way of disposing its garbage: loading it on to trucks and sending it to remote villages in neighbouring districts; even neighbouring states. A contractor was granted permission to transport the waste at the rate of Rs 1,365 a tonne. The municipal corporation didn't bother to ask the contractor about the dumping site, or whether he had obtained no-objection certificates from villages where the dumping was to happen.

A convoy of garbage trucks rolled out. On December 6, 19 garbage trucks from Kochi reached the Moolahalla forest checkpost near Bandipur National Park in the neighbouring state of Karnataka. Having traversed five districts of Kerala, they were headed to Gundulpett, a small village 20 km from the checkpost. The forest guards asked for the papers required for such a transfer. All that the truck drivers had was a copy of the agreement between the contractor and the Municipal Corporation of Kochi. The drivers were held at the checkpost that day. The next day, the matter was resolved. The garbage was dumped on some private land.

Blink and I'll dump
To the corporation's great embarrassment, police and local residents in some parts of Tamil Nadu put up a spirited resistance. At some places, like Kambamettu on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, the truck drivers were manhandled. The garbage convoy roamed all over, searching for a safe place to dump. On January 4, when eight loads of garbage were dumped at Veeranpotta near Nalleppilly in Palakkad district, irate residents protested and marched to the police station, which ended up in a lathicharge.

All this notwithstanding, the municipal corporation granted a licence to another contractor who reportedly had "acres of fallow land in Guddalore and waste treatment facilities'. The rate offered this time was Rs 1,600 per tonne.

A quick recap is essential to understand Kochi's desperation. The fast-growing city, with 700,000 people plus a floating population of 100,000, generates around 380 tonnes of municipal solid waste each day; 150 tonnes is biodegradable and 100 tonnes is plastic. But the city had never had effective garbage treatment facilities. A landfill at Cheranellore village had to be abandoned in 1998 after public agitation led to the village council passing a resolution against dumping. The municipal corporation acquired 15 hectares the same year in Brahmapuram in Vadavukod-Puthancruz, a suburban village, for a solid waste treatment plant.

But this land is marshy; it is close to the Kadambrayar, a major waterbody that connects with the rivers Chitrappuzha and Manaykkathodu. Four village councils depend on the Kadambrayar for drinking water, and about 300 families of fish workers also depend on it. The villagers were up in arms against the dumping site coming up in their neighbourhood. As is typical of Kerala, the matter soon became highly political, and the dumping site had to be shelved.

The scrap with the navy
After exhausting all other options, in 2002 the corporation started dumping at a site owned by the Cochin Port Trust, close to the headquarters of the Southern Naval Command on Wellington Island. The navy allowed a stopgap sanitary landfill to give time for the construction of a proposed solid waste treatment plant. But this created a problem: birds congregated at the garbage dump, and bird hits became more likely for aircraft at ins Garuda, the navy's aviation establishment. The navy repeatedly took up this issue with the corporation.

Repeatedly, the municipal corporation sought extensions for the use of the landfill due to delays in setting up the treatment plant.

Matters came to a head on September 30, 2006, when the navy asked the municipal corporation to stop dumping garbage in the vicinity of the airfield. The main runway needed repairs, and the one near the dump was required.

Mercy Williams, mayor of Kochi, led a delegation to chief minister V S Achuthanandan, asking him to intervene. On October 4, 2006, the chief secretary of Kerala requested the navy to permit dumping at the site for 20 more days. The chief minister spoke to the flag officer commanding-in-chief of the Southern Naval Command. But the navy's concerns were thrown into high relief the very next day. A disaster was averted when a bird hit a Dornier aircraft of the Coast Guard near ins Garuda, dangerously close to large oil tanks close to the runway, and in the vicinity of a thickly populated area.

The navy allowed dumping till October-end to help clear heaps of garbage in the city. In November, a delegation of the municipal corporation flew to New Delhi and appealed to A K Antony, Union minister of defence and a former chief minister of Kerala. This secured Kochi another month of dumping at the location. But by January, the navy had put its foot down. That's when the garbage trucks started rolling out.

And the courts step in
On January 5, 2007, a division bench of the Kerala High Court directed the municipal corporation to dump waste at Brahmapuram. The court ordered it to seek police protection if faced with villagers' protests. The court was examining whether the corporation could be held under contempt of court for not submitting a detailed plan for solid waste disposal in accordance with previous orders.

This was expected. The ombudsman for the local government, justice C K Chandrasekhara Das, had warned the corporation in 2005 of an "explosive situation' once the navy disallowed dumping. But the corporation ignored the warning. "None of the five city corporations and 53 municipalities in the state follow the rules,' says M M Abbaz, president of Trikkakara Waste Management Society, an ngo.

The corporation has now decided not to dump waste at Brahmapuram. Land owned by the Greater Cochin Development Authority at Mundamveli will be used for dumping. The corporation says it will set up a solid waste treatment plant in a time-bound manner.

Estimates show Kerala generates 3,000 tonnes of garbage everyday. Less than a half of this is collected, and a tiny amount is processed or recycled. The rest is simply dumped in waterbodies or badly planned landfills, endangering public health and contaminating soil and water.

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