This piece was printed in the Februrary 2013 issue of the magazine ‘One India One People’ in it’s environment section.

Living on the periphery of a metro’s garbage dump yard entails a life that is intrinsically linked to other people’s waste. Life near Chennai’s Kodungaiyur garbage dump yard is no different. Kids drop out of school to look for usable materials in the waste while men turn to alcohol for solace. Disha Shetty brings you a slice of life from Kodungaiyur garbage dump yard, a part of Metropolitan Chennai.

When you clean your houses you smugly dispose the garbage into the dustbin. That garbage is then collected by the municipal corporation of your city, if you are living in a metro, and then transferred to another location.

But where is that other location? Where does the journey take your city’s garbage to? Who bears the onus of ensuring that all the toxic waste does not enter your ‘clean’ environment again?

Gokul picking out iron from garbage
Gokul picking out iron from garbage

If you are living in Chennai, the garbage from your home most likely ends in a place like Kodungaiyur. Kodungaiyur in northern Chennai is one of the areas where the city sends its garbage packing to. Here people who have no choice or the economic clout bear the brunt of someone else’s toxic waste. Then there are those who try to make a living out of scavenging your waste. At garbage dump yards like this your garbage becomes the source for somebody’s livelihood.

Living on waste
Amongst the scavengers who look for recyclable materials in dump yards like the one at Kodungaiyur, many are children between the age of 8-18. Gokul is one such 14-year-old boy. He speaks fluent Tamil, is boisterous and like most children working in the dump yard, is an orphan. He wakes up at 5 am and makes his way to the garbage dump yard that is a stone’s throw away from his house in Panakkara Nagar slum.

He spends his days looking for scraps of metals and plastic in the mountains of garbage that Chennai city generates on a daily basis – 3,000 tonnes of it to be precise. He mentions as a matter of fact that he had to drop out of his school when his father died a few years back due to excessive drinking. Scavenging garbage is the only thing he and many others in Panakkara Nagar know.

The scavengers look for metals like iron, aluminium and copper that can be recycled. There are different prices set by the market forces for different metals. For every kilogram of copper, they earn Rs 350 while iron is sold for Rs 18. One kilogram of plastic collected from the dump yard, referred to as ‘masala’ fetches them around Rs 30.

Karthik is a teenager studying in class 12 and wishes to pursue medicine. In spite of working in the garbage dump yard he is one of the few who have managed to continue their education. Many others are not so lucky. They find themselves uncared for much like the city’s garbage that they live next to. On rainy days they wade through water mixed with garbage and sewage. On sunny days they head to find pieces of scraps that will buy them their daily bread and butter.

Not on my land!
The conflict between the residents living near a dump yard with the local municipal corporation is common to all metros because of the health hazards. However, the local corporations fail to come up with an amicable solution to the problem. In Chennai, the residents in Kodungaiyur have been protesting that the garbage dump yard be shifted away from the place. They complain of severe respiratory problems due to the close proximity of the dump yard to residential premises. Their fear for their health is not unfounded.

Community Environmental Monitoring, a Chennai-based environment NGO along with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) had sent samples taken from Kodungaiyur in April 2012 to test at the Colombia Analytical Services in California. Residents complained of problems due to the thick smoke that was coming from multiple sites within the dump yard. Garbage was regularly burnt to accommodate newer waste materials that a metro like Chennai continued to churn out.

The results showed the presence of 19 chemicals. Three of these chemicals namely 1-3 Butadiene, Benzene and Chloromethane are known carcinogens. The level of these carcinogens was found to be higher than what the US Environmental Protection Agency considers to be safe. Fifteen of the other 16 chemicals targeted the respiratory system, which explained the symptoms experienced by the residents.
Living with splitting headaches and the stench of garbage is a part of the daily life of Kodungaiyur residents, a part that they hope to get rid of.

The problem
Interacting with these kids threw up startling facts. Gokul said, pointing to a groundnut plant that grew on a mountain of garbage, that he ate them. He explained, “Depending on the season, plants like tomato and groundnut grow on fresh garbage which we eat.” ‘Fresh’ garbage was used in reference to organic waste that had been recently dumped. This waste would disintegrate in a short time during which small plants grew on it.

How can metal be sorted from the humungous pile of garbage that is dumped in the yard one might wonder. Karthik’s reply gave an ingenious solution to that query. He said, “We burn the garbage to locate metals. When there is metal inside a pile of garbage the colour of the flame changes. Depending on the colour we can identify which metal it is.”

A child segregating metals that are of value
A child segregating metals that are of value

So what is going wrong here? According to Dharmesh Shah, India coordinator for GAIA the problem is our production system which creates waste that cannot be easily disposed off. He says, “Our approach to the whole issue is wrong. Which community will be okay with living with a garbage dump? Landfills can never be a permanent solution.”

Landfills make the land untenable for any other purpose. There is a risk that the ground water can get dangerously polluted if toxins seep deep into the earth. At Kodungaiyur, garbage was regularly burnt to make space. The residual ash is highly toxic as it contains the remnants of concentrated chemicals. The huge risk to the environment and human life is obvious.

To weed out the problem from its roots Shah believes that it is essential to hold the producers responsible for their products.

Sights and smell of garbage dump yard
Kodungaiyur is one of the three garbage dump yards that Chennai’s waste finds itself at. The other ones currently in use are in Perungudi and Pallikaranai. Four more sites have been identified for what the Chennai Corporation calls ‘Solid Waste Management’ project. In a layman’s term – a garbage dump yard.

Ideally every time garbage is dumped it is supposed to be covered with a layer of soil. At Kodungaiyur the sight that greets the eyes is of hills of garbage that are several feet high. Corporation workers who are in charge of ensuring that the dumping process takes place smoothly are expected to report to work at the crack of the dawn. On most days activity starts early and smoke emanating from burning garbage engulfs the surrounding area.

At the garbage dump yard one can see bio medical waste being openly burnt. Gokul and Karthik pointed out to a pile of metal rejects that had come from hospitals. This formed a part of many such hazardous items found here. The scavengers worked without any protective gear. Karthik said that 50 families living in Panakkara Nagar directly depended on the garbage dump yard to make their living. Many others worked in the associated recycling industry.

Corporation dithers

Following a court order the Chennai Corporation has given instructions to stop the burning of the garbage inside Kodungaiyur. On the other hand four new sites have been identified for its ‘solid waste management’ project. One of the locations is in Kuthambakkam, a place that its ex-Panchayat leader Ramaswamy Elango has converted froma backward to a model village with focus on self sufficiency.

The question that Kuthambakkam’s residents now ask is: Is it right to simply shift the waste from one person’s backyard to another?

So what are the alternatives?
Experts agree that segregation of garbage is an important step that has to be taken even though the logistics of implementing it can be cumbersome. Shah says, “The segregation of garbage has to happen at the source itself. Once that is done the wet garbage can be disposed in an open unused land as close to the source as possible.” The pits where the garbage will be dumped can be converted into sources of biogas generation.

Bangalore’s city corporation in October 2012 made it compulsory for residents to segregate waste at source. This will also ensure that recyclables do not find themselves into the organic garbage. In Pune, the city corporation roped in rag pickers in a venture where it partnered with a social enterprise called SWACH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling). This initiative not only ensured that corporation saved money in the collection of garbage but helped the rag pickers earn a better living as well.

For a place like Kodungaiyur which has been witnessing massive protests from the residents the only alternative is to carry out bio mining. Shah says, “The waste can be excavated for useful metals and the rest can then be sent to a quarry.” Bio mining though would entail high costs.

Etching out an existence
All was not grim though at Kodungaiyur. Gokul cheerfully narrated, “Once a man actually found gold while looking for metals. He did not know what to do with so much money so he went to an alcohol shop and offered to buy it!” The other kids with Gokul and Karthik roared with laughter at the story and continued pointing out to different aspects of their ‘workplace’.

The story however highlighted another social issue that India’s poor grapple with- alcoholism. Almost all the children had firsthand experience with alcoholic fathers and alcoholism only added to their woes.

As I left Kodungaiyur the group of boys had an advice to give me. Drink complan and exercise more they said referring to my short frame. Poor and devoid of education they certainly were yet they have learnt how to make the most of the waste that has come their way.