Indian government accused of “rampantly violating” waste management rules as mass landfill fire engulfs Kerala
21 Mar 2023 --- The fire in Brahmapuram garbage dump in Kerala, India, lays bare the country’s ineffectual waste management systems. According to reports, the massive fire that lasted for nearly two weeks resulted from thick layers of dry plastic waste accumulated over several years.
PackagingInsights speaks to Shibu Nair, India coordinator at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific, to learn more about the fire and Kerala’s waste-processing practices.
“The fire that broke out at Brahmapuram waste plant in Kerala shows that a lot still needs to be done in how waste is managed,” Nair says.
India’s news agency Press Trust of India reported that the site was ravaged by fire as aerial visuals showed “huge and thick plumes of toxic smoke billowing.”
The Kerala High Court formed a “high-level committee” to audit the environmental and infrastructure facilities provided by the local municipal corporation at the Brahmpauram site. Additionally, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a fine of ₹100 crores (US$12 million) as environmental compensation for the damage caused.
The NGT case file details that proceedings were initiated in this matter suo-motu in the light of a news item published in The Hindu titled “Kochi chokes as fire at waste dump still rages; government asks people to stay indoors.” It highlighted the serious environmental emergency caused due to the fire at the waste dump site, “as a result of utter failure of the state authorities in performing their inalienable basic duties of providing a pollution free environment.”
The NGT also states that it deems waste processing facilities in the state “grossly inadequate,” and until the gap is bridged, “unprocessed solid waste and untreated liquid waste will continue to remain a source of degradation of the environment and damage to public health, including deaths and diseases which the society can ill afford.”
Matter of public safety
The Brahmapuram dump site is spread over 100 acres of land and is capable of waste processing 300 metric tons per day. Contract to process the waste has been given to a contractor, but only 33% of the work has been completed, NGT informs.
Several major and minor fires earlier have broken out at the site over the years. According to local media reports, Kochi residents have witnessed the annual burning of plastic wastes within the Brahmapuram plant for the last 11 years. The reports blame the corporation’s failure to modernize the waste treatment facility in the face of “huge corruption” involved in the process.
“For decades, landfills and incinerators have not made a dent in the garbage crisis and have, in fact, added more problems, as we are seeing now in the Brahmapuram waste plant. On the other hand, waste management systems such as Zero Waste have proven that it works, does not harm the environment, and waste pickers are not to be left behind as they are integrated into the system,” Nair tells us.
“While countries are moving away from incinerators and landfills, for us in Asia, landfills are an interim solution that needs to be coupled with proper waste management systems such as Zero Waste: redesign, reduce, reuse, compost, recycle. Over 50% of our wastes are biodegradable that can be composted and the rest recycled, leaving only a minimal volume for landfilling.”
According to NGT, the state authorities have “rampantly violated the statutory solid waste management rules and orders,” and the attitude of the authorities in not fixing accountability for environmental violations was “a threat to the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, routine waste collection by the local Kochi Municipal Corporation came to a standstill, affecting daily waste management of over 100 metric tons from nearby areas.
Nair says the state of Kerala has been a model for waste management with the Suchwita Mission and Haritha Kerala Mission focused on decentralized solid waste management and on-site management of biodegradable discards, while the Green Protocol of the states looks at single-use plastic (SUP) bans.
“Non-profit organizations and GAIA members such as Green Army, Thanal, Pelican Foundation are working toward building zero waste systems in Kerala.”
“The Kerala government should dismantle the waste-to-energy project and go back to the basics of waste segregation at source, encouraging composting, expansion of materials recovery facilities, resource recovery, recycling hubs, reuse markets, community composting units, and setting-up common facilities for waste management,” Nair continues.
Furthermore, she says the government should integrate waste pickers in the waste management system, reduce SUPs through the green protocol, and elevate Solid Waste Management to be an environmental service and climate campaign focused on responsible consumption and better resource use and management.
By Radhika Sikaria
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