Age putting an end to his days in the army, Somasekharan Pillai returned to his little village in Kerala. Near to a little place called Nedumkuzhi. Awaiting him back home were his wife and two children. Pillai set up a small shop (bakery) two years ago, opposite a site that is now doing rounds in the media every other day - the Vilappilsala Waste Treatment Plant.
Entrance to the Vilappilsala Waste Treatment Plant
Pillai said that people started striking from the beginning. “But our movements were all suppressed. The police would resort to lathi charge. They filed cases against us, and people are still going to court for it. It has been 10 years now, and nothing they promised is here, including the compound walls around the plant. They don’t even have a board.”
Landfills of waste, at the plant. View from Shobana's house
Shobana added: “Problem is no one is ready to buy lands from here anymore. A girl in our neighbourhood, who got a marriage proposal recently, is struggling now. Her folks are trying to sell their land for the marriage expenses. But no one would buy it. People may buy land for very unreasonable prices. But how could we buy any land elsewhere with that kind of money? So we take all this silently.”
The streams believed to be infested by the toxic content from the waste-treatment plant
The recently-elected panchayat members of Peyad have now come to the forefront demanding the corporation to close down the plant. On Jan.1, they decided to stop the waste-loaded trucks coming from the city. “Fourteen (panchayat) members took part in the protests. They were arrested, leading the people there to call a harthal,” said panchayat member Vallimangalathu Chandran.
“The factory should be closed. It is a threat to the life of the people here,” said panchayat president Shobanakumari.
“What they should understand is that it is this contaminated water that is pumped into the pipes of the entire city,” said another panchayat member Chenthil Kumar. “A water sample taken from 1.5km outside the plant was tested in a lab and found to contain poisonous matter.”
“When they launched the plant, they said that the waste would be buried. But they made huge landfills of it,” said Chandran. “When they started, it was 13 acres of land. Now it is 47 acres of land, processing waste brought from 65 wards. Fifteen vehicles (bringing waste) became fifty. If this continues, it will be 200 vehicles bringing waste to 200 acres of land.”
Panchayat president Shobanakumari (right) and member Vallimangalathu Chandran
“Girls from this neighbourhood do not get good marriage proposals. Men too find it difficult to get married because no girls would be willing to move here,” said Shobanakumari. “There should be a decentralised system, with a mini plant in each ward. The only compromise we are ready to make is the shutting down of the plant.” The panchayat has never issued a license to the plant.
Shobanakumari said that discussions with the Trivandrum Corporation are still proceeding. “They say there is no way the plant could be shut down. But they are ready to try a decentralised system and try to institute mini plants in wards. On 7th, we are having a committee to consider legal action.”
On contacting the Corporation office, the mayor was not available for comment. Deputy Mayor G Happikumar said: “We are implementing a project to come up with a solution. There are 16 scientists working under this project. The Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project (KSUDP) has opened an office. We will come up with a leachate plant and set up a compound wall. With the new scheme in place, rejects would be scientifically buried. We want to reduce the amount of waste taken there, and set up mini waste treatment plants at every ward.” He denied that the CED, (Centre for Environment and Development), the NGO which is presently operating the plant, is pulling out.
The technical committee formed by activist and environmentalist RVG Menon had made three recommendations to solve the issue. “To build a leachate plant, to have more space for the entire treatment plant, and to bury inert materials (rejects) in a sanitary landfill. If these three points are implemented, we should have no more issues,” said RVG Menon. “These points are as per the Supreme Court guidelines.”
The Janakeeya Vikasana Samithi, a registered organisation that works for the development of Vilappilsala panchayat, has also been trying to urge the corporation to close the plant. Chairman of the Samithi, Sreedharan, said: “We should develop a culture of taking care of the waste that we create. One should not dump one’s waste on another. It should be treated at its source. That’s why we should develop mini plants at ward-level. Because of the factory, so many people have moved out. Where else in this world would you find a waste treatment plant like this planted in the middle of a populated area?”
Even as they oppose, they agree that they should be patient for the Corporation to find alternate means to set up the mini plants and then close down the one at Vilappilsala. This is not a question of taking sides or clinging to political attacks. It is not a question of blame-game. It is a question of asking yourself if you would tolerate living next to a waste treatment plant and be able to ignore it. The question is whether you would disregard their pleas and demands if you were living in the same neighbourhood.
Photos by Manu Radhakrishnan