Friday, 12 December, 2008

Swamped by waste

The expanding girth of our cities has devoured in its wake every landform like villages, lakes and farmlands that supported in the first place, the existence of these urban centres. Pallikaranai is one such sad story of a fresh water marshland that humans, birds, animals all depended on for their sustenance until the rapid growth that Chennai witnessed, needed a dumpyard for the thousands of tonnes of waste that the burgeoning metropolis manufactured daily. The tragedy of Pallikaranai was compounded by landfilling that converted several hectares of land on its fringes into affluent settlements for the upwardly mobile population of the city.

Once spread over 5000 hectares, Pallikaranai Marsh is home to 61 species of water plants, 110 species of birds, 21 species of reptiles and 46 species of fishes besides being a source of drinking water for the people in surrounding villages. Dumping at Pallikaranai began in 1985 on a small scale but now extends to atleast 700 acres. And guess what the citizens of Chennai contribute for the upkeep of this dumpyard - 2500 tons of garbage daily! The cast of characters in the epic struggle at Pallikaranai includes naturalists, resident associations, corporation officials and ragpickers. Each has a stake in what becomes of Pallikaranai for different reasons. Naturalists are protesting environmental damage, resident associations complain of health problems, corporation officials struggle with finding an alternate dumpyard while for ragpickers it is a question of livelihood.

With the fresh water habitat declining in area and quality, migratory birds which had made Pallikaranai their temporary abode for ages have stopped coming back. Poisons emanating from non-degradable wastes like plastics, heavy metals, etc have seeped into the soil posing enormous threat to the ground water system of Chennai. The filling of land around the boundaries of the marsh have severed this ecosystem’s connection with the Bay of Bengal and during heavy rains the several arteries that once acted as a channel for flood water are now choked causing flooding in nearby areas like Velachery. Environmentalists like Nityanand Jayaraman and A.Murugavel say that the Chennai Corporation recent decision to restrict dumping to 200 acres won’t help but were hopeful that their agitation for zero-dumping at Pallikaranai will succeed.

Residents in and around Pallikaranai were the first to start agitating against the dumping and burning of garbage but their struggle gained force only when the environmental angle got highlighted. Today 793 acres of the marshland have been classified as reserve forest area. Residents complain of unbearable stench, lung-choking smog, mosquito menace, respiratory diseases like asthma and sadly studies conducted have discovered even toxins in breast milk, caused by the rampant dumping and burning of organic and inorganic wastes. From the IT companies that have set up shop in the area through upper middle class residents of recently constructed apartments to the poorer residents of the old villages around the marsh, everyone wants the dumpyard to close down, but is the corporation listening?

Corporation officials blame the continuation of dumping at Pallikaranai on the unavailability of another place to dump and the low capacity of the Perungudi recycling plant to handle all of Chennai’s wastes. Their efforts for segregation of waste at source and for localized disposal of organic wastes have just taken off and may take years to yield results. They also conveniently pass on the blame of the burning at Pallikaranai to the ragpickers, and say that they are being demonized for no crime of theirs. While corporation officials say that ragpickers burn the garbage to unearth the metal scraps that earn them more money, Exnora International, a group that works with ragpickers says that the dumpers have orders to burn the garbage so that more of it can be accommodated. Moreover, the ragpickers collect not just the metal; anything from plastic to rubber is of value to them. Finally, ragpickers do the work that everyone from the waste producer to the collecting and disposing agencies are supposed to be doing: retrieving anything and everything that can be recycled!

The last act in this long winding drama surrounding Pallikaranai saw the Madras High Court on November 17 step in and serve show cause notices to Chennai Corporation on why contempt of court proceedings should not be initiated against it. The burning stopped but residents are wary of a return to old habits. The environmentalists’ demand for making the entire Pallikaranai Marsh a reserve forest area is yet to be addressed. The court’s concern for citizens’ health rather than the environment is obvious when it wanted the burning to stop but through the order obliquely allows dumping to continue. Ultimately, the struggle to save Pallikaranai must begin from Chennai’s homes. For long we have blamed civic authorities for their waste disposal practices; it is time we waste producers are held accountable too. It is an irony of our progress that a once picturesque area like Pallikaranai has today become an eyesore. Nature can regenerate; Pallikaranai can still save itself. But only if we want it to. Only if we keep our hands off.

P.S - Feature written for college newspaper.