A dump in Mint Street, Chennai

It was only a month ago that Madras Musings, in its editorial, commented on how the Buckingham Canal was soon going to be subject to a series of cosmetic fixes wherein the banks of the waterway were to be beautified, with no commitment on what was to happen to the water itself. And then last fortnight we looked at how the city had failed when it came to waste segregation, this having been caused by a deadly combination of citizens’ apathy and weak political will. The journey of superficial solutions continues with the latest being the afforestation plans for the Kodungaiyur and Perungudi dump yards.

Ever wondered as to where all the garbage that we generate ends up? The city creates 5,400 MT of rubbish each day and practically all of it, unsegregated, ends up in dumps at Perungudi and Kodungaiyur. Once the outskirts of the city and therefore sparsely populated, they are now very much urban spaces with entire housing colonies built up all around them. A visit to these places by every Chennai-ite is strongly urged just so that they get an idea of what are the consequences of rubbish being dumped without any segregation. Burning of waste goes on all the time here leading to air pollution, toxic gases are released, and a permanent stench pervades the place. At Perungudi there is the greater threat of pollutants gradually permeating the Pallikarani Marsh and therefore contaminating subsoil water as well. 

This most unscientific method of waste disposal has for some years been sub judice, the residents of the area protesting over the continued inaction. Early in 2020, the Government of Tamil Nadu informed the High Court that it would sanction Rs 400 crores for the biomining of the Perungudi yard – a process by which bio-organisms are released into the accumulated garbage to break down what is bio-degradable, leaving behind what is not. This way, the Government assured the court, around 150 acres of the yard could be restored and converted into a water body while the rest, and here is where there is a catch, would continue to be used as a landfill. The question of what would happen to the residue waste after the bio-degradable component is done away with remains unanswered. 

Tenders were floated for the biomining process to begin in Perungudi but the pandemic intervened and matters got delayed till early this year, when the process was begun at the site. Now it would appear that the idea of creating a water body has been abandoned and thoughts are veering towards afforestation. It is also expected that Kodungaiyur will soon see the same scheme being implemented. 

All of this is to the good, but several doubts remain. Historically, the biomining scheme has not been seen to completion in many cities of India, despite being launched with fanfare. Chennai still does not have a comprehensive scheme for becoming a zero-waste generator though it remains one of the high ideals the city’s administration keeps talking about. The bigger problem remains that of non-segregation of waste at source. To circumvent this, there was talk of floating tenders for locality-based solid waste incinerators. It is not clear if this project has got off the ground. In the absence of these, what is to happen to the waste that will be generated in the years to come? Surely the administration does not propose to open more and more dump yards at greater distances from the city? Unless and until the civic body comes out with a comprehensive plan beginning from generating to eventual disposal in a scientific manner, there can be no satisfactory way ahead. Otherwise, we will only see piecemeal efforts with limited outcomes.