The devastating fire at Kochi’s Brahmapuram garbage plant has done more than just leave hapless residents breathless; it has exposed dangerous chinks in Kerala’s waste management system. On 2 March, the 110-acre site caught fire due to extreme heat and excessive garbage accumulation. This resulted in Kochi being engulfed in extremely noxious fumes, which, according to the Kerala High Court, have turned the city into a “gas chamber”. Almost two weeks later, authorities are still in the dark about tackling the ballooning crisis, with the situation continuing to pose a grave risk to the city’s environment as well as the general health of its residents.
The Brahmapuram incident shouldn’t be seen as a garbage dump fire that went out of hand. Instead, it should be considered a symptom of Kerala’s chronic waste management crisis fuelled by a severe lack of appropriate disposal infrastructure, flawed regulations and poor public awareness about segregation and recycling. Reports indicate that the waste treatment plant has been operating over its capacity, turning, with time, into a hazardous dump yard at increased risk of catching fire. Such recurring incidents underscore the urgent need for comprehensive and swift action to tackle improper waste management in the state.
Kerala’s waste management woes
The Kerala government introduced its Solid Waste Management Policy in 2018 and recently declared its vision of making the state garbage-free by 2026. According to the Kerala State Environment Plan 2022, the state produces over 11,449 tonnes of solid waste daily, with 3,452 tonnes generated in urban areas and 7,997 tonnes in rural areas. However, the Kerala government has informed the state assembly that treatment facilities can only process 3,205 tonnes of solid waste per day. Bridging this large gap in daily waste management would require significant capital investment and capacity building, such as constructing new state-of-the-art waste treatment facilities.
Improper segregation practices have also significantly challenged the state’s waste management goals. According to the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), less than 10 per cent of the garbage generated in the state is segregated at the source, making it difficult to manage and treat.
The Haritha Karma Sena, functioning under the Kerala government’s poverty-eradicating Kudumbashree Mission, collects and segregates dry, non-biodegradable waste from households and sends it to shredding units for recycling. This is in accordance with Kerala’s 2016 Solid Waste Management Rules and aims to reduce the adverse impact of improper garbage segregation on the environment. Despite the government’s claim of achieving 70 per cent door-to-door collection in urban areas, the efforts of the Haritha Karma Sena volunteers have been largely inconsistent. While some are punctual and collect trash regularly, others may not do so for days or even weeks. This results in households being left with huge piles of waste to manage on their own, which can be challenging, particularly for those who lack the necessary resources and knowledge.
As a consequence of this inconsistency, illegal dumping of solid waste on streets and vacant spots has become common in the densely populated neighbourhoods of Kochi. A lack of monitoring has also made it difficult to assess the impact of this initiative.
While local authorities can impose spot fines to punish offenders, the real solution lies in closing the gap between monitoring and evaluation of waste collection processes and ensuring that volunteers carry out their duties as expected.
However, allegations of corruption in the monitoring and enforcement of Kerala’s solid waste management policy only add to the problem. For instance, in the case of Brahmapuram, the Kerala government and Kochi Corporation allegedly went to great lengths to award a bio-mining contract to close relatives of a Left Democratic Front (LDF) leader. For the uninitiated, bio-mining is the process of extracting economically viable metals from legacy waste at junkyards. It was alleged that the company was granted additional time to remove the plastic waste converted into Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), which violated contractual commitments.
The road ahead
An isomorphic mimicry of good waste management practices from other parts of the world may not lead to desired outcomes if it overlooks the local setting’s contextual nuances and cultural specificities. Therefore, to ensure waste management practices are effective and sustainable, engaging in problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) is crucial. This approach entails an ongoing, collaborative effort to understand and address Kerala’s underlying problems through experimentation, learning, and continuous feedback and adjustment. By prioritising local knowledge, engaging diverse stakeholders, and embracing adaptability, PDIA can facilitate the development of solutions tailored to Kerala’s unique challenges and opportunities, which can be sustained over time.
The Solid Waste Management Policy is an important starting point. It brings together various government agencies, including the local self-government department, Haritha Karma Sena, Clean Kerala Company, and the Solid Waste Management Project, to promote sustainable waste management practices, reduce trash generation, and ensure environmentally friendly garbage treatment and disposal. However, the effectiveness of this policy relies on strict adherence by all stakeholders, including government officials, individuals, communities, and organisations.
The policy should further prioritise the safety and health of citizens and the environment and promote responsible consumption and production practices. It should also focus on increasing the pace of building better waste treatment infrastructure and establishing proper waste segregation practices at the source. In addition, it should ensure worker safety and monitor and enforce compliance with waste management regulations.
Another solution to the waste management crisis is adopting the circular economy model, which aims to minimise waste generation and maximise resource efficiency. This model promotes the reuse, repair, and recycling of materials and products, reducing the need for raw materials and minimising waste generation.
The Brahmapuram fire has galvanised the public, calling on all stakeholders to unite and take concerted action to reduce waste generation, increase recycling and composting, and promote responsible waste disposal. Kerala’s public discourse must prioritise waste management as much as it does healthcare and education. Responsibly navigating the path ahead will mitigate the risk of waste crisis and lead to a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable future for the state.
The author holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from University College London and is presently associated with the Indian National Congress in Kerala. He tweets @georgelawrnce. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)