Dealing with Waste in Kerala

The waste in the urban streets of India is becoming more and more of an issue. Walk into any house in Kerala and ask about rubbish and waste on the streets and you will start a passionate debate about individual failing, municipal corruption and a general sense that the fast-growing mounds of rubbish are a metaphor for India today. The problem is not about to get any smaller: over the past decade urban India has grown by 25,000 people per day and it is forecast that that number will rise to 32,000 per day. It is not just the growing population but also the growing prosperity of parts of that population the leading to increasing amounts of waste. At present, somewhere between 70 to 80% of waste is biodegradable and with the right handling can be reused. But, as Indians move away from their agrarian roots and begin to spend more time shopping in supermarkets, then increasing amounts of waste will need to be landfilled or processed. As Keralites know too well, it seems as though most of the waste is simply landing up on the streets and the municipal authorities seem to have lost control.

Municipal authorities face a number of challenges: educating people to think more carefully about waste and how they dispose of it, creating an infrastructure that collects and processes waste and then finding places where long-term waste can be stored. All these challenges seem a long way from being solved. The typical Indian seems to feel that waste is not their problem and there is a remarkable lack of civic pride witnessed through the appalling mounds of waste that grow in any waste ground. Municipal and civic authorities seem absolutely overwhelmed and some expensive projects have failed mired in corruption and poor engineering. The scale of the problem is substantial: even a small city like Trivandrum generates over 300 t of waste per day and there are 71 cities in India that are larger. The Kerala High Court has issued orders banning the dumping of waste in public, this is being largely but judging by the amount of rubbish but judging by the amount of rubbish in the streets these orders are being largely ignored.

The problem of what to do with the waste once it’s been collected is evidenced by the experience of the small village of Vilappilsala near Trivandrum where the local government send up a land fill. Respiratory illnesses in the village jumped from 450 to 5000 per month and the villagers demonstrated against the plant lying down in front of trucks and in the case of the mayor of the village actually going on hunger strike. Improper waste management in India causes both public health problems as well as environmental hazards with poor processes leading to both air and water pollution as well as soil contamination. The open burning of waste in India’s cities is one of the largest sources of air pollution. There have been widespread reports of the problems in Delhi during the winter months and it has been estimated that trash fires cause about 20% of Mumbai’s air-pollution. Comparisons with other countries are absolutely shocking: Mumbai’s fires emit 10,000 g of toxins into the air which compare with the same amount being burned correctly in France which emit only 4 g.

The shocking truth behind this is that 15 years after the Indian government passed the municipal solid waste rules in 2000, not one city in India is in compliance with them. Open dumping, burning, dump site fires and open human and animal exposure to waste remain typical.

The problems of waste and pollution are not only private. In Kerala’s fragile water-based ecosystem, the attack is coming from two directions. As the flow of the rivers is reduced so say line water from the sea is travelling higher and higher up the rivers: the cello could be River is now saline up to 20 km from the sea. The problem is also start at the source with ever increasing amounts of fertiliser and chemicals being used in the tea plantations in the mountains which then flow down the rivers. Many chemical and industrial plants openly dispose of industrial waste into the rivers. Once upon a time it was common practice to bathe in the rivers and lakes of Kerala, today most locals shun the ever increasing the filthy and polluted waters. The impact of the pollution can be measured by the changes in Riverbank life: mangroves once common on the banks of rivers and lakes have largely disappeared. The state government regularly issue issues orders for the protection of the rivers but it was seem that no one can be bothered to implement them.

Of course the problems in Kerala are just a subset of the wider problems facing developing India. A growing population, increasing climate uncertainty, the continued trend of urbanism and the growth of the middle class make the disposal and management of waste just one of many problems facing the country. There has been an ever more of a sufferer’s public outcry demanding that the government does something about waste, but while laws may be passed and High Court orders pronounced, it is unlikely that much will change until both the individual Indian and local government make a concerted and joint effort to reduce the amount of waste the country produces.

I thought I would link to a few interesting stories and resources for those who are interested in reading more:

The story of how AIMS hospital transformed a landfill.

Overall world view of Waste Issues from World Resources Institute

Sholto Ramsay

Boss, motivator and general eccentric with a deep love of Kerala and India who just wants everyone to enjoy an amazing and life enhancing experience of Kerala.

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