Column | Kerala should adopt best practices in waste management

Fire and Rescue officers trying to douse the fire at Brahmapuram waste treatment plant in Kochi. Photo: Josekutty Panackal

Soon after the first Pinarayi Government was formed in 2016, a prominent Kerala newspaper organised a discussion on the topic of waste management to which I was invited, perhaps because of my familiarity with different systems in countries in which I served as a diplomat. Several former Ministers and a couple of new Ministers were present. I started by saying that the waste management system in many developed countries are operated by Government agencies, with minimum participation by the people.

Once the waste is segregated and put in the marked places in bins provided, the responsibility  of the public is over. In most places, the incinerator which handles the waste is in the centre of the city and often located in gleaming steel and glass structures. In Vienna, Austria, for instance, the most beautiful building is the incinerator, designed by no less a person than Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the most celebrated architect of Austria. The treated waste is eventually used to make golf courses and public gardens.

In reply to my statement, a former Minister announced that centralised disposal of waste is not in fashion anymore and that the Government has decided to adopt a system of disposal of waste at the source because central plants would be a health hazard and that the citizens will have to play their role in waste disposal. When I pointed out that central waste disposal was supposed to be after treatment, it was ruled out as impractical and a decision was taken to arrange for waste disposal at the source. That was already a failure earlier, but it would be tried again!

I happened to stay later in the guest house of a reputed college in Kochi and I could not sleep because of the awful smell from the nearby waste dump. When I mentioned it to the college authorities the next day, they said that they had become immune to the smell. Today, waste disposal at the source is poor and the centralised dumps have become the biggest health hazard in Kerala.

Brahmapuram symptomatic of a deeper malaise

The devastating fire at Kochi’s Brahmapuram garbage plant is the result of a haphazard approach to disposal of waste without any strategy to protect the lives of the people. It has left the hapless residents breathless and exposed the dangerous consequences of Kerala’s waste management system. On March 2, 2023, the 110-acre site caught fire due to extreme heat and excessive garbage accumulation. This resulted in Kochi being engulfed in poisonous fumes, which turned the city into a “gas chamber”, according to the Kerala High Court.

Almost two weeks later, authorities have managed to quell the fire, but there is no strategy to end the crisis. The situation continues to pose a grave risk to the city’s environment as well as the general health of its residents. The Brahmapuram incident is not an isolated one. In fact, it is a symptom of Kerala’s chronic waste management crisis fuelled by a severe lack of appropriate disposal infrastructure, flawed regulations and poor public awareness about segregation and recycling.

Reports indicate that the waste treatment plant has been operating over its capacity, turning, with time, into a hazardous dump yard at increased risk of catching fire. The situation requires the urgent need for comprehensive and swift action to tackle improper waste management in the state.

Task ahead

The Kerala Government introduced its Solid Waste Management Policy in 2018 and recently declared its vision of making the state garbage-free by 2026. According to the Kerala State Environment Plan 2022, the state produces over 11,449 tonnes of solid waste daily, with 3,452 tonnes generated in urban areas and 7,997 tonnes in rural areas. However, the Kerala Government has informed the state assembly that treatment facilities can only process 3,205 tonnes of solid waste per day. Bridging this large gap in daily waste management would require significant capital investment and capacity building, such as constructing new state-of-the-art waste treatment facilities.

Patchy work by Haritha Karma Sena

According to the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), less than 10 percent of the garbage generated in the state is segregated at the source, making it difficult to manage the garbage. The Haritha Karma Sena, functioning under the Kerala Government’s poverty-eradicating Kudumbashree Mission, collects and segregates dry, non-biodegradable waste from households and sends it to shredding units for recycling. This is in accordance with Kerala’s 2016 Solid Waste Management Rules and aims to reduce the adverse impact of improper garbage segregation on the environment. But the efforts of the Haritha Karma Sena volunteers have been largely inconsistent. While some are punctual and collect trash regularly, others may not do so for days or even weeks. This results in households being left with huge piles of waste to manage on their own, which can be challenging, particularly for those who lack the necessary resources and knowledge.

As a consequence, illegal dumping of solid waste on streets and vacant spots has become common in the densely populated neighbourhoods of cities. A lack of monitoring has also made it difficult to assess the impact of this initiative. But a recent initiative by the World Malayalee Council to honour these workers was widely welcomed and the workers assembled there claimed that their perpetual battle against garbage will be successful soon.

Poor monitoring too a bane

While local authorities can impose spot fines to punish offenders, the real solution lies in closing the gap between monitoring and evaluation of waste collection processes and ensuring that volunteers carry out their duties as expected. However, allegations of corruption in the monitoring and enforcement of Kerala’s solid waste management policy only add to the problem. Biomining, the process of extracting economically viable metals from the waste dumps, has been tried. But the performance of the company entrusted with this task was found not only inefficient, but also corrupt.

It appears that Kerala is engaged in reinventing the wheel, while there are proven systems available in different parts of the world, which can be adopted with variations to suit the local circumstances. This approach entails an ongoing, collaborative effort to understand and address Kerala’s underlying problems through experimentation, learning, and continuous feedback and adjustment. This is a time-consuming process, but urgent measures must be taken to strengthen the existing structures to avoid creating more gas chambers.

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