We are not the city’s dumping ground: Tribals protest against an energy plant in Kerala

Since 1 July 2018, tribals and environmentalists have been protesting against a proposed waste-to-energy plant in the Peringamala village in Thiruvananthapuram​. Rejimon Kuttappan
10 October, 2018

Sreelatha Santhan, a tribal woman, lives on a hilltop in Peringamala valley, 50 kilometers away from the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. The hilltop comprises dense forests, verdant rolling hills, elephant corridors and rare species of plants. On 1 July 2018, Santhan left her hut and walked a distance of around 100 metres to a makeshift tarpaulin tent, which has become the site of a sit-in protest by tribals and environmentalists against a waste-to-energy plant proposed to be set up in Peringamala. “We were born on this virgin hilltop forest. This is the land where our forefathers lived. We know how to not harm it,” Santhan said, sitting on a desk made of bamboo sticks inside the tent. “We don’t want urban waste dumped here. We will die to protect it for our children.”

Peringamala is a part of the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognised region of tropical evergreen forests in the Western Ghats. It was listed as an ecologically sensitive area, in 2013, by the Kerala State Biodiversity Board. In September 2017, the state government issued an order stating that six waste-to-energy plants will be set up in Kerala. The order came a year before Kerala even had a solid-waste management policy.

On 21 July this year, a paper was placed in the state’s legislative assembly, detailing how the proposed Peringamala plant will operate—waste from the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram will be collected and transported to the Peringamala hilltop. It will then be dumped at a state-run agricultural farm in Peringamala, and converted into electrical energy.

The Peringamala plant will be set up near a tribal settlement in the area. According to Kerala State Industrial Developmental Corporation, the public-sector undertaking entrusted with creating the project, the proposed plant would process around 200 tonnes of waste to generate five megawatts of electricity per day. It will be constructed on 15 acres of a government-owned agricultural farm located in ward seven of the Thiruvananthapuram district. The area has 19 such tribal hamlets, and according to the 2011 census, it is home to around 20,000 people, whose lives would be directly impacted by the plant’s construction. Despite incessant rain, at least 200 tribal residents and environmentalists have been protesting against the creation of this waste-to-energy plant for over three months.

Due to poor urban planning, waste generated in the city will be processed in the tribal-dominated rural area. Local residents and environmental experts have claimed the plant will be harmful for rich biodiversity of the region—it will pollute the drinking-water supply, harm Peringamala’s rare and endangered medicinal plants, and cause diseases. The officials at KSIDC have been giving vague reassurances to the residents—they say advanced technology will be used to make sure the plant doesn’t harm the environment, but do not appear to be aware of the specifics of the plant. Meanwhile, the district panchayat authorities claimed that they have not received official communication notifying them of the government’s plan to construct the plant. “Do we want to kill the entire ecologically sensitive area?” Nissar Mohammed Sulfi, an environmental activist from the village who is coordinating the resistance movement, said. “Our village is not a waste dumping backyard for urban people.”

Since 1 July, many protestors have refused to leave, taking turns to man their makeshift tent on Peringmala hill. Radhamani Kani, a 53-year-old tribal woman, said, “If we leave, they will roll in the tree cutters and earth movers. We won’t allow that.” Kani is a daily-wage labourer who earns Rs 350 per day under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. For her, participating in the protest has meant giving up that income. “It’s a difficult situation. But there are some good people who have expressed solidarity with us. They bring rice and vegetables to cook food.”

According to the local residents, no public consultations were done for the project, in violation of environment ministry rules. Sarasamma Kani, a 73-year-old tribal woman, said, “When the trees began to be cut, we didn’t know why they did it.” In June, she added, a few acres of land were cleared on the proposed plant site. “Later, people who know how to read and write in the valley town told us that a plant that will convert waste into energy is going to come in our forest, where our forefathers lived, where we and our children are living.”

Peringamala is home to over 2,000 diverse plant species, of which 400 are endemic and 50 classified as endangered. M Kamarudeen, a botanist and the coordinator of Peringamala’s biodiversity management committee, also pointed to the presence of a freshwater swamp forest. It is a unique and threatened mangrove ecosystem, present only in two places in India—Karnataka and southern Kerala.

Kamarudeen added that the area is home to the Kani tribe healers, a traditional community dependent on the Peringamala’s rich diversity in medicinal plants for work. In 2015, the area was also selected for implementing the Grameenam project—a government scheme to encourage conservation and cultivation of these medicinal plants to improve rural livelihoods. He said, “Why would the government want to set up the project in such a sensitive land?”

Environmentalists and residents also emphasised that Peringamala is the source for two important rivers—Vamanapuram and Kallada. The Chittar—a tributary of Vamanapuram—flows near the plant’s earmarked area. Sulfi, who is coordinating the resistance movement, noted that there are 45 drinking water units, including 12 direct ones, situated in the river. “Do we want to pollute that river?”

On 21 July, more than three thousand people held a protest march from the Peringamala village’s hilltop to their panchayat office, demanding for the plant proposal to be discussed in the next panchayat meeting through a written submission. They were supported by political parties in the opposition such as the Indian National Congress, the Communist Party of India, and the Indian Union Muslim League. “But the panchayat ruling party, the CPI-M, refused to discuss it,” Salim Pallivila, a Congress member, said. “It was very sad to see their attitude.”

While the opposition blames the panchayat for inaction, the Thiruvanathapuram district panchayat authorities claim to be helpless as they have not received any official notification about the plant. A Shailaja Beegam, the panchayat’s vice president said, “We have not received even a single paper regarding the plant from the government. So, we can’t do anything.” Even Suresh MS, an agriculture officer at the district agriculture farm where the plant is to be set up, claimed the same, “What I know about the proposed plant is all from media.”

Even further back, in 2000, a similar project came up in Vilappilsala, a village 33 kilometers away from Peringamala. The then ruling Left Democratic Front government had selected the village as a site to process waste generated from Thiruvananthapuram. But the city corporation generated much more waste—300 tonnes—than the installed 157-tonne capacity of the plant. The excess garbage was then dumped in the village, turning it into an uncontrolled dump site giving way to major health hazards. “People’s health was hit, water sources were polluted and there were even cases of people saying no to marry girls from our area,” S Sobhana Kumari, the then panchayat president in Vilappilsala, said. This gave way to a large-scale protest movement in 2011. “We were beaten up. Many were jailed. However, we didn’t step back.” The state government was finally forced to close the site. Kumari is currently part of the Peringamala protest movement and thinks it’s “moving in the right direction.”

In July 2018, the Supreme Court rapped 10 states and two UTs, including Kerala,for failing to create a state policy for solid-waste management that complied with the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. The rules stipulate formulating a state policy within a year after the formulation of a national policy for waste management. The apex court imposed a fine on the state. It was only two months later that Kerala created its policy. However, the Kerala government had ordered the creation of six waste-to-energy plants in September 2017, a year before the policy was made. The Peringamala plant is one of the six such plants to be created.

But experts have long suggested that waste-to-energy is not the most viable method of waste disposal. In 2015, The Energy and Research Institute in Delhi released a report  on the management of urban and industrial waste in India. The report listed a hierarchy of practices for waste management, with the first being the most preferred, and the subsequent strategies to be used if previous ones could not be implemented. It ranked waste-to-energy as the second last option, and “dumping of waste into landfills” as the last, only to be adopted if none of the earlier methods are feasible.

But the ministry of new and renewable energy has designed schemes to promote waste-to-energy projects in India, offering financial incentives and subsidies as high as Rs 1.5 crore per megawatt of electricity generated. The general manager of KSIDC, Unnikrishnan, said bidding has also been opened for a similar plant in the coastal city of Kozhikode.

According to a 2016 press release by the ministry, there are at least 53 waste-to-energy projects in India, in different stages of tendering, commissioning and construction. Of these, only five are currently operational or under trial run, including a major plant at Timarpur-Okhla in Delhi. The plant used 1,300 tonnes of municipal solid waste to produce 16 megawatts of electricity. In 2016, residents near the plant had complained about negative health impacts. The National Green Tribunal refused the appeal to relocate or shut down the plant, saying that it was “nonpolluting.” However, it ordered an environmental compensation of Rs 25 lakh, noting that the plant’s smoke emission had earlier exceeded the prescribed standard.

Environmental activists are also concerned about the dangers of using the village as a dumping ground for the city’s waste. According to PV Rajagopal, an activist and the president of EktaParishad, a social justice and land rights focused NGO in Delhi, “The government has failed to manage waste from city,” he said. “Now, they want to get rid of it. What is the easy way? Just dump it in villages.” He added that government must rethink the current flawed development model, and institute better urban planning.

“Why do they want to pollute this pure land?” Adarsh Pratap, a green activist in Peringamala who is associated with the United Nations Forum for Climate Change, asked. “We don’t want the coming generation to be born mutilated. We won’t allow this to happen. We are not the city’s backyard.”