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.”