Vilappilsala, The Wasteland Of Trivandrum
Health problems, water pollution, hassles of selling land and getting alliances, the troubles they face are plenty. Mini plants at ward-level is what they ask for and what the Corporation says it could implement. When will our troubles end, they ask, as Cris Seetha listens.
On Jan 04, 2011


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.

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Entrance to the Vilappilsala Waste Treatment Plant

“A lot of people have heard our difficulties and went away. Nothing has changed,” he said reproachfully. “Life is very difficult here. The air we breathe is infected by the pungent odour that emanates from all the waste. Mosquitoes are in plenty. Our children are always sick. The pesticide that they use to get rid of the flies seems poisonous. My daughter and her children moved away because of the unhealthy environment.”

He added: “In the beginning when Sivankutty was the mayor, people in the neighbourhood opposed the move to bring the plant here. They promised us a garden, children’s park, hospitals, good roads and streetlights. They said tourists will be visiting the place. It was such a grand inauguration. Today, we can’t even sleep because of the sound of the vehicles that bring waste in the nights.”

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Somasekharan Pillai in his shop


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.”

While talking to Pillai, Salomi, who lives in the neighbourhood, stopped by. Earning her living doing household chores, she has been living in Vilappilasala for 27 years. She said: “The mosquito bites make my husband and children sick, they have breathing troubles. My husband is not healthy enough to work. We live in three cents of land and cannot afford to protect ourselves against the polluted air. Eagles and dogs that come because of the waste accumulated in the plant would attack the animals we raise (poultry). My daughter, who is in class VI, gets sick so often she can’t go to school most days.”

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Salomi, a Vilappilsala-resident

Jalaja, who passed by, said that she was from Peyad but could get the smell even there. “So I can imagine the condition of people who live here.”

The plant itself was not open to public, owing to the growing troubles in the area. However, landfills of plastic could be seen from the housetops here. Shobana, who lived in one such house, said that part of the land used for the plant, at one time, belonged to her husband’s sister. “They told that they wanted the land to bring up gardens. It was much later we learnt about the waste treatment plant. By then we had already sold the land.”


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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.”

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Shobana, outside her house near the waste-treatment plant

Taking the road up from the plant and reaching Thenavila-Paruthumpara junction, one can see the streams that flow along the roads, which are feared to be infested with the toxic content from the plant. Daisy John, who lives by the stream, said: “Once upon a time people used to drink from these streams. Now it is black water that flows most of the time. It is this water that flows to Vellakadavu and Aruvikkara. So we don’t use water coming in pipes. We use well water. They (corporation) procured all the land saying it was for developing a garden.”

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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.”

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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.”

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RVG Menon

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.

Text: cris.seetha@yentha.com
Photos by Manu Radhakrishnan

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This is a very important issue. Even those who make the effort to keep their immediate environment clean may not think enough about where all the accumulated waste goes to. Any solution to such massive environmental problems is going to succeed only when it happens as a dual-initiative. Along with governments trying to improve waste management, individuals should also learn to reduce their use and addiction to plastic and use-and-throw material. Thank you Yentha for an informative and well-researched piece. The article really brings out the many ways in which environmental issues affect individual lives.
Anand, on Jan 05, 2011 07:12:29 AM
good one
Don, on Jan 05, 2011 07:30:57 AM
Well researched, well documented, touching story. Good work Cris. Such stories make Yentha different from the mediocre.
English Teacher, on Jan 05, 2011 07:31:18 AM
@Anand: Yes, it is a pressing issue and what it requires is immediate attention. The people I talked to were tired of telling their woes to media. They have lost faith, but are trying their best to fight. There should be a permanent solution to this. And it will come only if we understand the plight of living at a place where every scrap of litter goes to. @Don, @English Teacher: Thank you. Hope it brings a difference.
Cris, on Jan 05, 2011 02:47:46 PM
The Solid Waste Management is an International Problems. The Report published here is thought provoking, well researched and understood the basic problems and well narrated. I appreciate it as good work and brought to the notice of the public who generate the waste but not known where it being taken. Okay that is one part of the problem at the beginning and the other at the end. Now, we should find a solution to immediately destroy the generated solid waste at the point it is generated. Kerala is a small piece of land. Trivandrum does not have enough open spaces to function a waste management plant. Thickly populated City. Those who are suffering in the vicinity of the area of the plant should be suitably resettled elsewere in a dignified manner, by giving housing pots or flats in a different locality. The Waste should be managed scientifically, in a plant only. But till the waste converted into fertilizer there is and need time based processing systems, till that times the collected wastes should naturally lie in and around the surrounding Plant area only. It is better not shout at the plant rather find out a suitable location for those suffering people to have a appropriate residence and place of living. These people should also come forward and support this cause. In Kerala, especially in Trivandrum, the generation of daily waste is increasing only, since we the people of Kerala are Consumer State. We seldom produce our own requirements. Everything is imported, from milk to materials for building to vegetables. It is quiet natural that the generated waste should be scientifically managed and discharged, without damaging the existing river lets and environment. Let us not fight the Waste Management Plant, Let us fight for the people who suffer near the plant location and give them a fresh and new life and hope. Let us cooperate with the administration to have healthy environment and surrounding.
GaneshRamaswamyIyer, on Jan 05, 2011 02:47:53 PM
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