Raising a Stink

How people power forced a waste-management revolution in Kerala

People in the Vilappilsala village protest against Thiruvananthapuram Corporation’s waste-treatment plant in the area. The agitation would go on to change the power dynamic between cities and villages in Kerala. COURTESY MADHYAMAM
People in the Vilappilsala village protest against Thiruvananthapuram Corporation’s waste-treatment plant in the area. The agitation would go on to change the power dynamic between cities and villages in Kerala. COURTESY MADHYAMAM
01 May, 2017

IN FEBRUARY 2012, trucks of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation, loaded with garbage, made their way out of Kerala’s capital, with several hundred policemen in tow. The garbage was to be dumped at a site in Vilappilsala village, about 15 kilometres outside the city.

At the Vilappilsala panchayat limit, the trucks were confronted by around 5,000 protestors, mainly women and children, led by the local panchayat’s president, Sobhana Kumari. They had formed a human wall several hundred metres long. The policemen, deployed to disperse the residents, lathi-charged and lobbed tear gas, but the protestors refused to make way. Kumari and others were arrested. Prohibitory orders under Section 144 were imposed in the panchayat. But the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation had to take its trucks back.

It was a do-or-die situation, Kumari told me when I met her in December, and her side had prevailed.

The confrontation was the result of a conflict that had been brewing for several years. In 2000, the city of Thiruvananthapuram, formerly known as Trivandrum, contracted a private firm to run a waste-treatment plant on land that the city had bought in Vilappilsala. Initially, the plant ran efficiently—but problems emerged after a few years. All the waste provided to the firm was not proving viable for the firm to process. Thus, only a third of it was being turned into fertiliser. The rest was being dumped, untreated, in an adjoining valley. Soon, the valley was covered by a heaving mountain of garbage. Many of the people who lived around it sold their plots to the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation and left. Their lands were absorbed into the landfill. The mountain grew. The stink could be whiffed up to three kilometres away. Outsiders avoided visiting the area because they would have to bathe immediately afterwards. Young people in the locality found that prospective partners were reluctant to marry them.

In 2008, the corporation took over the plant from the private firm, and transferred operations to a non-governmental organisation—but conditions did not improve. Children developed respiratory problems and skin diseases. Some even had swollen limbs. Many could not go to school. Agricultural land was becoming unusable, and livestock were falling ill. Worst of all, the creeks that supplied the village water became black with leachate, a tar-like substance that oozes out of untreated waste. As matters got worse, the Vilappilsala panchayat approached the corporation with its constituents’ concerns.

In 2009, the corporation contracted a firm to cover the garbage mound with earth and grass and create a moat to prevent pollutants from leaching into the water supply. But the garbage kept coming and kept piling up—300 tonnes of it a day, the refuse of the million people who lived in the state capital. A local organisation, the Vilappilsala Janakeeya Samara Samithi, had been fighting for the rights of the villagers. Now, the residents wanted the city to stop dumping in their village, period.

Sobhana Kumari became a councillor and the panchayat president for the first time in 2010. That year, her ward seat and the panchayat president’s position had both become reserved for women. Kumari had been a Congress party worker and the chairperson of the local Kudumbashree programme—a massive women’s employment and self-help programme in Kerala. She decided that the health problems of the people living next to the landfill were going to be one of her central concerns as panchayat president.

These residents had been struggling since 2006, Kumari told me when we met in Vilappilsala. “We felt there was no option but to fight.” At the time, the panchayat was controlled by Kumari’s party, the Congress, but there were panchayat members who belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI(M) led the ruling coalition in the state government and also controlled the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. “All people rose above party for this issue,” Kumari said, “We transcended parties to fight the corporation.”

After Kumari took charge, she started fresh talks with the corporation about the waste plant in her panchayat. The city promised to supply clean water in tankers to the villagers to alleviate health concerns. It also offered jobs at the plant to locals. But the panchayat’s stand was simple. “We wanted the factory shut down,” Kumari said. As she told me, the corporation did not yield. “They said moving the factory was impossible.”

Instead, the corporation proposed a new leachate-treatment plant to solve the water-pollution problem. The panchayat was not interested. The previous technical fix, of building a moat to prevent leaching in 2009, had turned out to be a temporary measure, which failed to fix the problem because more garbage continued to be dumped at the site. The panchayat stood by its demand to shut the factory down. Thiruvananthapuram, the villagers said, should no longer dump its waste in their backyard.

This was when people became enraged, Kumari said. An indefinite hartal was called across the panchayat. Protestors shut down schools and colleges and blocked roads. Political activists patrolled the streets. RAM KUMAR / DOOL NEWS

But the trucks kept coming. In 2011, a Congress-led United Democratic Front coalition came to power in the state. Kumari, who hails from a Congress family, approached her party’s state leader and the new chief minister, Oommen Chandy, to resolve the conflict between the city and the panchayat. Chandy agreed that the plant should be removed and asked for six months to find an alternate site for it, she said. But the time expired and no new site was found.

In December 2011, the panchayat leaders and affected villagers staged a sit-in by blocking the road leading into the panchayat from Thiruvananthapuram. Trucks full of garbage had to be sent back to the city. The battle had begun.

For the next ten months, Vilappilsala came under siege. The corporation filed a petition with the Kerala High Court. The court ruled in the corporation’s favour, ordering that garbage trucks would continue to dump in Vilappilsala, with the state providing police protection, and even mobilising Central Reserve Police Force personnel if necessary. The panchayat appealed the ruling in the Supreme Court, but the court only reduced the limit of garbage that could be sent, from 300 tonnes to 90 tonnes a day. The city had the authority to run the plant, the court said. Thus, it was with the backing of the court and the police that garbage trucks had attempted to return to Vilappilsala in February 2012.

Chandy’s government told the corporation to wait four months before sending any more trucks. After four months, the corporation again brought up the plan to introduce a leachate-treatment plant at the site. In August that year, the city sent machinery to install the plant, but when the truck with the machinery reached the panchayat, it was met with thousands of local residents, many of them women and children, led by panchayat members. The police started arresting and removing the protesters to allow the truck to pass. In response, the residents lit bonfires on the road to block the truck and the police. To douse the fire, police used water cannons. The protesters fought back with stones. The battle went on for two hours before the district administration finally withdrew the police. They left the machinery at a local police station and retreated. The panchayat thought the battle was over.

Then, one rainy October night, at around 3 am, Kumari got a call. “Corporation people had gone in the middle of the night and fixed the machine there” at the plant, she said. “They then filed a status to court that there was no more water-pollution problem.”

This was when people became enraged, Kumari said. An indefinite hartal was called across the panchayat. Protestors shut down schools and colleges and blocked roads. Political activists patrolled the streets. Running out of options, Kumari started an indefinite hunger strike. By then, the movement, which was being beamed on 24-hour television news networks, had garnered popular support across the state. Well-known intellectuals, such as the activist and poet Sugatha Kumari, went to Vilappilsala to show solidarity with Kumari. After four days, her health deteriorated and police arrested and hospitalised her. Four other panchayat members, of different political parties, continued the strike, until, finally, a deal was brokered by mediators. The corporation would not reopen the factory, and could not use the site for dumping. A panchayat had taken on a city, and won.

Sobhana Kumari, Vilappilsala’s panchayat president, successfully led the protests against Thiruvananthapuram’s waste being dumped in her village. STEEVEZ RODRIGUEZ FOR THE CARAVAN

Meanwhile, a case between the corporation and the panchayat, which was ongoing in the high court, was moved to the National Green Tribunal in Chennai. In 2015, the NGT ruled that the plant was polluting the local water supply and was injurious to health, and that it should be dismantled.

Vilappilsala’s struggle was the biggest mass movement in Kerala since the one in Plachimada village, where locals had successfully thrown out a Coca-Cola bottling plant that was polluting the water supply. But while Plachimada’s struggle was to defend local interests against those of international capital, Vilappilsala’s was one to assert political equality between villages and cities.

ACROSS THE WORLD, the most common way to dispose of urban garbage is to dump it in landfills. In the United States or Canada, which have vast open spaces, more than half of all garbage ends up in rural landfills. Even when the garbage is sorted at its source, unrecyclable materials are sent untreated to landfills. Elsewhere, as in Germany, waste is sorted and then the unrecycled waste is burned to ash in incinerators before being sent to landfills. These dumping grounds often cause grave problems for towns and villages located near them.

In 2006, a shipbreaking yard in Gujarat’s Alang denied entry to a French warship because it was believed to be carrying hazardous waste. AMIT DAVE/ REUTERS

The use of landfills has become better regulated since the 1970s, when the environmental movement emerged and forced governments to limit and control these sites. In the US, as marginalised groups became more powerful and fewer dumps were permitted next to populated areas. The term “Nimby,” an acronym for “not in my back yard,” emerged to describe protest movements against proposed landfills or waste-treatment plants. In time, some began using “Nimby” pejoratively, to describe people who objected to the setting up of unpleasant and hazardous projects in their own neighbourhoods, but had no objections to them being set up elsewhere. As these protests gained prominence,  in many cases, the Third World had to host what the West did not want in its backyard. By the 1980s, millions of tonnes of waste were shipped from First World countries to the Third World to be dumped. The most infamous case of this involved the US city of Philadelphia, located in the state of Pennsylvania. The city had been dumping ash in neighbouring New Jersey, until that state protested. In August 1986, 14,000 tonnes of ash were loaded onto a ship to be dumped abroad. In January 1988, roughly 4,000 tonnes of this were dumped on a beach in Haiti. When other countries refused to accept the rest, another 10,000 tonnes were dumped, secretly, into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The case led to the creation, in 1989, of the Basel Convention, which seeks to limit the transport of hazardous waste across international borders. This treaty has seen multiple violations since, as electronic and other forms of waste from the West continue to be dumped in West Africa, South Asia and China.

Shipbreaking yards in the Third World can often be used to offload hazardous waste. In 2006, the Clemenceau, a French warship carrying tonnes of asbestos was denied entry to a shipbreaking yard in Gujarat’s Alang because it was believed to violate the Basel Convention.

The transfer of the First World’s waste problems to the Third World is often called “toxic colonialism.” In India, cities and states impose a similar process on their neighbours or parts of themselves. But as recent events in Kerala show, when people on the periphery are able to exercise political power, they stand up against their homes being turned into dumping grounds for other people’s rubbish. The movement that Sobhana Kumari led in Vilappilsala changed the power dynamic between villages and cities across Kerala. It caused a cascade effect statewide. Within months, almost all panchayats that had municipal waste-treatment plants or dumping yards in their jurisdictions launched political movements to get them shut down.

As for Thiruvananthapuram, when it violently fought the panchayat in 2012, its municipal body argued that the closing of the Vilappilsala site would be catastrophic for the city’s million residents. It was not. Four years later, it is the only Indian city of a million or more people that has neither a centralised waste-treatment plant, nor any landfill site. Faced with a shift in power, the city had to innovate.

ABOUT 130 KILOMETRES north of Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha is a picturesque city on the Arabian Sea, often called “the Venice of the East.” It is shaped by two central canals that lead from the sea into an elaborate network of man-made and natural channels and waterways. These are called the kayal, or Kerala’s famed “backwaters.” Each year, thousands of tourists from all over the world come to the city to take houseboats through them.

Alappuzha had been dumping its garbage in Sarvodayapuram, a village within the Mararikulam South panchayat. A conflict developed between the municipality and panchayat that mirrored the one in Vilappilsala. A waste-treatment plant had been built in Sarvodayapuram and was run by a contracted firm that failed to process all the garbage that was sent there daily. The unsorted waste was dumped on site, causing a stench, leakage into the water supply and health problems for local residents.

In 2012, inspired by the success of Sobhana Kumari’s campaign in Vilappilasala, the panchayat leadership in Mararikulam South also decided to act against the dumping. Locals blocked roads and threw stones at garbage trucks coming from Alappuzha. When this happened, the municipal government stopped collecting garbage in Alappuzha. Hills of trash formed at many junctions of the city.

Both the municipality and the panchayat were then controlled by the CPI(M), but party discipline could not paper over panchayat defiance. As in Vilappilsala, the issue transcended partisan politics.

Sarvodayapuram and Alappuzha fell within the assembly constituency of TM Thomas Isaac, the current finance minister of Kerala, who had also held the post in the previous CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government. As the area’s MLA, Isaac was particularly well-placed to tackle this problem.

“I think it was very good that the rural areas said ‘No, we won’t accept your waste,’” he said, when we met in Kochi in January. “So you have no choice. If centralised processing is not an option, then what other option do you have? You have to decentralise, either in the house or in your neighbourhood.”

He proposed a series of small steps to decentralise waste management in Alappuzha. His emphasis was on residents sorting garbage into organic and man-made waste at home, and then treating the organic waste at the source. He also proposed neighbourhood-level units to process organic waste into compost. Man-made waste would be collected by municipal workers on a weekly or monthly basis. There would be no daily garbage collection, no centralised waste processing and no landfills.

I asked Isaac what gave him this idea. “I have always been a believer in decentralisation,” he said. “Anything that can be done at the lowest level should be done at the lowest level. Delegation should be the opposite: not what the top gives, but whatever can be done at the lower level should be left to them. Only the residuals should go up. It’s called the principle of subsidiarity.”

Isaac is an economist by training. For many years, he was a faculty member at the Centre for Development Studies, a research and policy think tank in Thiruvananthapuram. He had done his PhD at CDS as well, writing his thesis on the unionisation of the coir industry in Alappuzha in the years between the First and Second World Wars. Since then he has authored several books, in English and Malayalam, on workers’ cooperatives, local government and decentralised waste management.

When we met, he was rushing from one event to another. We kept talking through a lunch of rice and fish curry, and then I accompanied him to the Ernakulam Junction train station, where he was to take a train for Kollam. At the station, police officers straightened up to salute him. Ordinary citizens came up to say hello, share a few words or shake his hand. A senior station official came out to invite him to a new air-conditioned waiting lounge. “That’s okay, sir, I don’t want it,” Isaac said in Malayalam, before continuing to speak with me in English. We crossed a bridge over some tracks  to his platform, settled on a concrete bench next to a family with a child, and continued our conversation until his train arrived.

When he speaks, Isaac seems like a university professor, rather than a politician. In the last two decades, many LDF policy innovations, from the campaign for decentralised waste managements, to programmes for organic farming and palliative care, have had Isaac’s imprint. In Kerala politics, he has always been associated most with the People’s Planning campaign of the mid 1990s, in which he played a key role.

The campaign brought to life the principle of subsidiarity that Isaac mentioned. In 1993, the Congress-led central government passed these amendments, which brought forth a new layer of government: the district, block and gram panchayats. The statutes ensured regular elections of panchayat members, with 33-percent reservation for women, and reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their presence in the local population. The idea was to move power away from state governments and unelected civil servants and into the hands of elected local bodies.

The new laws broadly expanded the powers of democratically elected village bodies in relation to state governments. But some intellectuals, led by KN Raj, the director at CDS, felt that they did not go far enough. They saw the Panchayati Raj Act as an opportunity to institute real bottom-up democracy. In 1996, a CPI(M)-led coalition came to power in Kerala and passed sweeping reforms that expanded the centre’s legislation. Isaac, then a professor at CDS, joined the state planning board, and was put in charge of the decentralisation campaign. The state government also passed a radical law which stated that alllocal governing bodies, be they panchayats, municipalities or corporations, were to be given equal powers.

Kerala’s key innovation was to take planning outside the closed chambers of the state planning board and to the panchayats. Planning thus far had been a highly centralised process. In both the union government and state governments, it was conducted by unelected bodies, called the planning commission or the planning board. The goal of the People’s Planning campaign was to shift planning to the panchayat level. It recruited ex-bureaucrats as well as local people with technical know-how, such as retired school teachers, health workers and engineers, to draft plans. They drew on ideas of participatory planning and budgeting that had emerged in Porto Alegre in Brazil, where local communities, along with local experts, deliberated over and determined annual budgets.

The Kerala Shasthra Sahithya Parishad, the leftist grassroots organisation that had spearheaded a statewide science and literacy campaign in 1989, now mobilised thousands of volunteers. Kerala’s first communist chief minister, EMS Namboodiripad, a man whose personal life was a model of Gandhian simplicity, was also a proponent of democratic decentralisation, which he believed empowered workers and peasants against elites. Namboodiripad, long after his political retirement, was made the honorary chairman of the guidance committee of the People’s Planning campaign. In each village, public meetings were held with the active participation of local people, to draft plans for village-level development. At the time, Kerala had three municipal corporations, more than 63 municipalities and roughly 990 panchayats. Three million people attended these meetings and assemblies, and 120,000 people participated in the planning process. Many of the plans involved water purification, improved health services, or the construction of “women’s roads,” which would enable women to travel to get water or firewood more easily.

From 1996, the state government devolved power over between 30 and 40 percent of the state budget to local governments (panchayats, municipalities and corporations). These reforms established a new structure of governance, which was based on rural and urban parity. Many critics pointed out that the money was not well spent, or not spent at all, because panchayats lacked the expertise to plan and administer complex projects. Others said that the planning campaign was unable to institutionalise its innovations once the initial euphoria died off. But one outcome of the reforms was clear nearly two decades later.

I asked Isaac if he ever imagined that democratic decentralisation would lead to the events that unfolded in Vilappilsala. “I did not think of this outcome,” he said, laughing. “But we did expect that rural areas and communities would be standing up. There is a tremendous confidence in the rural governments.”

IN ALAPPUZHA, for the first few months after the garbage trucks stopped running, the municipality buried garbage within city limits. But soon, these landfills became full. In 2013, under Isaac’s leadership, the municipality picked 12 out of the city’s 52 wards for a pilot project that focussed on at-source sorting of organic and man-made waste and the treatment of organic waste with pipe-compost units and biogas plants.

MR Prem, a schoolteacher, was a first-time CPI(M) councillor in one of the chosen wards. He himself was initially a sceptic. “How can a whole municipality’s garbage be handled like this?” Prem recounted wondering. “We didn’t think that a whole town’s municipal waste will go into composting. Where? How?”

Nevertheless, Prem and other local leaders went from door to door in his constituency to install pipe-compost units and biogas plants in people’s backyards. “Whenever Isaac came up from Thiruvananthapuram, he would also go,” Prem said. “And people would be in for a big surprise to see the ex-finance minister going to each household to talk to them about biogas.”

“Initially everybody laughed,” Isaac said. “They also had no choice.”

There are 52 wards in Alappuzha, each with about 1,000 households. In Prem’s ward, residents installed gas plants in more than 180 households, he told me. The gas plants look like oversized kettles as tall as letter boxes. The state offered them at a 75-percent discount. This meant that a portable biogas plant would cost the householder around Rs 3,400, from which they could get 1.5 hours’ worth of cooking gas a day. Prem himself installed a costlier, but more effective, fixed gas plant in his home. He gets 3.5 hours’ worth of cooking gas a day, he said—four hours’ worth on days when he also gets waste from the vegetable seller’s shop next door.

In his ward, the majority of people opted for pipe-compost units, which yield manure rather than cooking gas, and are cheaper to set up. He showed me the pipe-compost mechanism: nothing more than two thick white tubes as fat as drainpipes, planted into the ground, with holes at the top to allow for aeration. A user keeps dumping organic waste into one pipe until it is full, and then closes it in a month. In a month, the contents turn into manure. Meanwhile, the user can fill up the second pipe instead, and then keep alternating between them. Most people use the manure as fertiliser in their gardens. The pipes’ functioning replicates the manner in which composting has always taken place in the countryside, where people simply dump their garbage onto fallow land and let it rot into manure. The total cost of the pipes is about Rs 1,000, but in Alappuzha a combination of state and municipal subsidies brought the price down to Rs 150. The system is so low tech and user-friendly that it is a wonder that it is not used everywhere.

In 1991, the legendary Gandhian architect Laurie Baker published a book of sketches on Alappuzha, called Venice of the East, which described its potential as a tourist destination if its garbage problems could be managed and the canals cleaned up. COURTESY COSTFORD

Today, in Prem’s ward, 80 percent of all households have installed pipe-compost or biogas units. In the past, biogas plants and other such technologies have failed to be adopted elsewhere, even in other parts of Kerala, despite economic incentives such as subsidies. People perceived the initiatives to be impractical and cumbersome. The plants seemed difficult to operate and people worried that they would break down. One of the innovations in Alappuzha was to train Kudumbashree women, who formerly collected garbage from door to door, to repair biogas plants. Every ward now has technicians who can be called if a resident does not know how to use a plant or if one breaks down.

After the success in the 12 pilot wards, the biogas and pipe-compost programme was expanded to all 52 wards in the city. Moreover, the city installed aerobic composting plants in 14 sites. Each site has about ten concrete bins, which look like stables for farm animals, located inside a grill-enclosed shed. They are known as Thumburmuzhi bins, after the place in Thrissur district where they were developed, by a veterinary university, as a means to decompose animal carcasses. The municipality’s former sanitation workers, who used to load the garbage trucks that went to Sarvodayapuram, are now the technicians who run these sites. Each bin is first layered with organic waste and then with dry leaves sprayed with inoculum, a bacteria that hastens the composting process. The plants look like car sheds, and are set up along major roads in Alappuzha city and next to its canals.

Jayakumar C, a junior health inspector at the municipality, oversees the decentralised waste-management process in Alappuzha. Jayakumar patrols the city on his yellow scooter, wearing a yellow helmet, scouring the streets for any waste out of place. “Ten percent of people still dump in the street,” he said. “We have five autorickshaws go every morning to pick up waste that we find in the street. If we catch someone, it’s a Rs 2,500 fine.” The municipality also has a night-patrol squad: officials who drive around in an SUV after dark to catch illegal dumping along roads or in the canals. If they catch someone, they call the police. Most of the culprits are owners of restaurants, juice shops and fast-food joints, Jayakumar said. A first offence is punished with a Rs 2,500 fine; a second offence means an establishment’s licence is suspended, and it is closed for three weeks.

The city carried out a large-scale awareness campaign, among everyone from political workers, business owners and children. There were environmental clubs set up in schools. Through all these measures, the municipality’s main accomplishment has been to educate people on the importance of at-source sorting. A change of attitude has taken place in the city.

In 1991, the legendary Gandhian architect Laurie Baker, who lived in Thiruvananthapuram and specialised in construction from low-cost, locally available materials, published a book of sketches on Alappuzha, called Venice of the East. Baker described the city’s potential as a tourist destination if its garbage problems could be managed and the canals cleaned up. Even before the Sarvodayapuram shutdown, the dumping of garbage on roadsides and in the canals was common practice. The decentralised-waste campaign in Alappuzha brought about a cultural shift in how residents viewed their waste, and their city.

The change is apparent if you visit neighbouring towns in the district. Cherthala, 15 kilometres north, is a smaller town, with canals and temples, and an image of what Alappuzha was like before. Hills of white bags filled with garbage line the roads. Many of the canals are filthy. Cherthala resembles the Alappuzha described in Baker’s Venice of the East. By contrast, Alappuzha today is the kind of city Baker had hoped it would become: a destination for travellers from across the globe. The streets are clean and dotted with homestays. Tourists cycle through the city and ride on boats along its famed canals.

Last year, the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment rated Indian cities on the basis of cleanliness. The purpose of the exercise was to identify new approaches to waste management at the municipal level that were already working in Indian cities, and could be emulated. It aimed to save Indian cities from importing expensive technology and unsustainable waste-management ideas from Europe or North America—an approach the central government seems to be promoting through the Swachh Bharat Mission. In the CSE survey, Alappuzha was judged the cleanest city in India.

In January 2016, the smoke from fires that broke out at the Deonar landfill, the primary site for Mumbai’s waste, engulfed high-rise housing societies in the more wellheeled parts of the area, causing many schools to shut temporarily and creating respiratory problems for residents. SHAILESH ANDRADE / REUTERS

ALLAPUZHA'S SUCCESS raises questions about the efficacy of centralised waste management, a model followed widely in rest of the country, and indeed all over the world. In Kochi, Isaac had told me that he was against the very idea of a dumping yard. When I asked him if he thought a major metropolis such as Delhi or Mumbai could manage without landfills, he pointed to the examples of Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram.

“Why can’t Delhiites process their kitchen waste?” he asked. “It’s such a simple thing.”

In Delhi, India’s capital, as the CSE report recognises, no coherent waste-management programme seems to exist. According to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the city generates more than 9,000 tonnes of garbage per day. There are no efforts to segregate this waste at its source in any organised way. Rather, whatever is not picked off by ragpickers and scrap dealers ends up in four municipal landfills: one each in Ghazipur, Bhalswa, Okhla and a newly opened site at Narela-Bawana. Some of the waste at Narela-Bawana is processed, but at the other three sites all of it is simply dumped.

Landfills have a life expectancy, usually of between 30 and 50 years, and a height limit, usually of 20 metres. Once they exceed either, they are meant to be capped. Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla are all past their expiration dates, and over 40 metres high. The bottoms, or the boundaries, of these sites are not sealed, and so the leachate seeps into Delhi’s groundwater. The smells from these enormous open sites spread several kilometres in all directions, like foul spirits guarding the city’s northern, eastern and southern limits. Since most of the garbage is unsorted, an industry of ragpicking exists on these landfills, mostly run by children who traverse the hills of waste without gloves or any protective gear. Stories of children being attacked by rats and dogs are rampant. Worst of all, the sites are always on fire. Trapped pockets of methane from decomposing organic matter erupt in flames in unpredictable patterns. One Indian Institute of Technology study revealed that the burning garbage in Delhi’s landfills accounts for between 7 and 9 percent of the city’s air pollution.

The situation in Mumbai is even more infernal. The city produces roughly the same amount of trash daily as the national capital, the largest portion of which is dumped in one site, in Deonar, located in the M East ward in north-eastern Mumbai. Each day, 5,500 tonnes of trash is deposited here. The waste here rises to a height of 55 metres. The landfill has been in operation for 90 years. A 2016 IIT study found that there are tonnes of methane at the Deonar landfill. The gas causes regular fire outbreaks.

In January 2016, the smoke from these fires engulfed high-rise housing societies in the more well-heeled parts of Deonar, causing many schools in the area to shut temporarily and creating respiratory problems for residents. The fires made national and international news. NASA satellites showed images of thick smoke emanating from the dump. But many ragpickers in Deonar said that it was business as usual. The only change was that the wind had caused a whiff of their hard reality to drift into middle-class Mumbai.

Around 600,000 people live in Deonar. There is no boundary between the dump and the neighbouring slum. As in Delhi’s landfills, ragpickers work on the site without gloves or any other protection. According to the Mumbai Corporation’s own human-development report, published in 2009, the M East ward is by far the worst place to live in the city. Most of the adults here are illiterate and most of the children do not go to school. One does not survive very long in these conditions. According to the ward’s records, the average age of death is 39 years.

Even in some of India’s most prosperous localities, the situation is dire. For a year, I lived in Saket, a neighbourhood in south Delhi, which has three high-end shopping malls that stock luxury brands from all over the world. There were properties in our residential colony which were worth several crores of rupees, many of them homes of retired army men and bureaucrats. Yet within our colony, a stone’s throw from these pricey properties was an open garbage dump. Each day, two people would come with a rickshaw and collect the garbage from our door with their bare hands, no uniforms, no masks, no gloves. They would then cart it to the garbage dump, which was simply an uncovered hill of the area’s collective rubbish. The workers spent most of the day there, sorting the garbage—again with their bare hands—and then sold the recyclable materials. On school holidays, their children would join them. Around them, there was always an aggressive gang of dogs sitting in wait for a new stash of garbage, hoping for food. In the spring, the dogs had puppies and their population grew. By the winter, gangs of dogs roamed the colony and began biting passersby.

The men and women who collected our colony’s garbage were frequently berated by the residents. They arrived late, sometimes they arrived drunk, sometimes they did not arrive at all. On the days that they did not come, I would drop garbage off at the dump myself. Seeing them spend their days sorting through trash, I wondered what I would do if I had to live like this.

Thakazhi Pillai’s 1947 novel, titled Thottiyude Makan—translated into English as Scavenger’s Son—initiated a cultural shift away from the practice of manual scavenging in Kerala. COURTESY DC BOOKS

The incongruity of the malls and the multi-crore properties alongside the open dump reminded me of what the author Jane Jacobs once wrote about innovation in ancient Rome. The imperial capital, Jacobs wrote, was justly famous for its magnificent aqueducts but excrement still had to be carted out manually from private houses by slaves. The problem was not one of a lack of technology, but of a distribution of power. There was no pressure on Rome’s citizens to change the system. The work could be passed on to slaves, who had no power to effect any change. For Jacobs, the Roman case held an important economic lesson: for cities to innovate, oppressed groups have to have the power to force through ways to improve their own condition.

IF THE RADICAL SHIFT in Kerala’s attitude to waste management in the last few years can be attributed to a legislative measure—the Panchayati Raj Act—a similar upheaval in the state’s approach to manual scavenging was sparked by a novel written nearly 70 years ago.

Back then, most households, hotels and restaurants in India that had indoor toilets were serviced by manual scavengers. Latrines consisted of toilet bowls that collected excreta, were not connected to a septic tank or a sewer line, and had no water supply to flush the waste away. The “night soil,” as it was euphemistically called, collected in the trough, and the scavengers would go each morning from door to door with a broom and a bucket, cleaning out the excrement from the latrines. This practice has still not disappeared from homes in many parts of north India, even though it was outlawed across the country in 2013. In the Indian Railways manual scavengers remain a part of the workforce, collecting excrement that drops directly onto tracks from moving trains.

Until the 1950s, all municipalities in Kerala engaged manual scavengers. In 1947, a young writer named Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai published a novel that changed this. Pillai eventually won a Jnanpith award, and is remembered today as one of the canonical writers of twentieth-century Malayalam literature. His book, titled Thottiyude Makan—translated into English in 1993 as Scavenger’s Son—describes the lives of manual scavengers in Alappuzha in minute detail, including their morning routines of collection. A work of social realism, it was one of the first novels in Malayalam to feature the poorest of the poor as central characters.

In the years between the First and Second World Wars, Alappuzha was the centre of a trade union movement in Kerala. The Travancore Labour Association had begun organising coir workers across caste and community lines in the 1920s. Gradually, union members took on issues of caste, such as entry rights into temples and untouchability, and spread their organising to other industries across Alappuzha district. Pillai was writing in the context of these changes.

Scavenger’s Son is the story of three generations of scavengers in Alappuzha municipality. The father dies in the first scene and for the first third of the book, the family struggles to find a way to dispose of the body. There’s a gruesome scene where his body is buried in the “night soil depot,” after which dogs dig into the earth and excavate his half-decomposed remains, and then gnaw at the rest of him. A blue fluid oozes out of the corpse and his son, Chudalamuttu, witnesses the scene. He determines that he will not suffer his father’s fate. He attempts to become a new sort of person, thrifty, clean, god-fearing and full of self-respect. Over time, he becomes a fixer for the municipality president, who rewards him generously for breaking up a scavengers’ union. Chudalamuttu gets married and has a son. He keeps saving money, dreaming of building a house with a boundary wall. He is determined that his son will not be a scavenger. He gives the boy a posh name, Mohanan, dresses him in nice clothes and admits him to a school attended by the children of the most powerful people in the city. He never even touches Mohanan because he does not want the boy to have his stench. It is as if the father believes that scavenging is a contagious disease that he could pass on to his offspring.

In the book, a deadly epidemic of something like small pox or cholera sweeps through Alappuzha every few years. In one such outbreak, both Chudalamuttu and his wife die on the same day, leaving Mohanan an orphan. The boy drops out of school and becomes a scavenger. Unlike his father, he joins a scavengers’ union and takes part in a strike, during which he realises, as he famously says in the last chapter to his comrades, “It is not the individual boss who is the worker’s enemy. It is the boss’s government.” He leads a peaceful demonstration of strikers, but is then carried away by personal feeling: wanting to avenge his father, whose lifelong savings the municipal president took away, he burns the president’s new mansion down. Police fire on their demonstration, killing most of the protestors, including Mohanan.

As critics noted at the time the novel was published, Pillai’s key innovation was showing characters never before seen in Malayalam literature. Scavengers were people no one wanted to see, who did work no one wanted to do. People did not want to look at their work, and kept a physical distance from their stench. The literary critic and communist leader Joseph Mundassery wrote, “Only the life of the scavenger is told; but within that echoes the whole range of bourgeois life in a modern town.”

The novel made people’s wilful blindness impossible. Soon after the book was published, scavengers’ unions were recognised in municipalities and cities across Kerala and manual scavenging was outlawed throughout the state.

In the 1950s, Alappuzha’s scavengers became waste collectors. More than 60 years later, after the 2012 agitations, the town’s sanitation workers became technicians, who now manage the 14 community aerobic plants and train people in how to handle their home compost bins.

Reading Scavenger’s Son today, the novel feels somewhat dated and didactic. Pillai himself moved away from this mode of narration, and from leftist politics, in later works such as Chemeen and Coir, which are classics of twentieth-century Malayalam literature. But Scavenger’s Son’s social impact is undeniable. The novel provoked a cultural shift in Malayali society. After its publication, people could no longer treat their excrement as someone else’s problem. They had to deal with their waste in their own homes. The novel showed that there was no real need for scavengers as such. As Mohanan says, theirs was a miserable occupation which had been created by governments. The same governments could put an end to it if there was sufficient social consciousness and political will. What happened with manual scavenging in the 1950s in Kerala, is now happening with the state’s waste management. When such a cultural shift takes place, what seemed normal earlier becomes denaturalised. And what seemed impossible seems necessary, even self-evident.

AS GROWING URBANISATION across India leads to more consumerism and waste, the question is whether its urban spaces will look more like Deonar or like Alappuzha.

In Thiruvananthapuram, the corporation stopped collecting garbage when the Vilappilsala site shut down in December 2011. Initially, there were large metal bins parked at various points in the city, where residents dumped their garbage. For the first few months, the corporation buried the waste from these sites on empty plots within city limits. Soon, it ran out of landfills. People simply littered on roadsides, producing mountains of trash-filled plastic bags. The open garbage attracted rats and dogs. There was widespread fear that a plague would hit Thiruvananthapuram, as it had Surat in 1994—fortunately, no such catastrophe occurred. For a few months, the city had collection points for organic waste which was dumped in pits in a 1,000-acre rubber plantation in a nearby panchayat, to make manure. By mid 2012, decentralised alternatives such as pipe-compost units and biogas plants were being introduced. Initially, they proved difficult for residents, who had not been educated in how to use them. Many complained that the units were messy, or that they smelled. Residents did not have the habit of sorting garbage at home. Moreover, the biogas plants would break down and the city did not have a good system for repairing them. While the corporation tried to deal with these glitches, garbage continued to be dumped in open spaces and burned across the city of Thiruvananthapuram.

In November 2014, the corporation started the Ente Nagaram, Sundara Nagaram—or My City, Beautiful City—campaign, run by Anoop Roy, a health inspector. The campaign drew on the holistic approach of the Alappuzha model by focussing first on a few pilot wards and going door to door. It adopted special kitchen bins, developed by a scientist in Coimbatore. These had the familiar shape of a dustbin, but contained ten kilograms of inoculum in a coir pit at the bottom. The bins were simple, clean and easy to use. The corporation launched a pilot project by distributing over 15,000 kitchen bins in 30 of the city’s 100 wards, Roy told me. A contracted NGO periodically replenished the inoculum. The processed waste became manure. Unlike in Alappuzha, where houses with backyards are common, a large section of Thiruvanathapuram’s population lives in high-rise apartments. The compact bins were an effective alternative to the pipe-compost and biogas units used in Alappuzha. The municipality also introduced “bio bins”—larger plastic bins for composting that could be installed on a rooftop or in a parking area to deal with the building’s collective organic waste.

Besides all this, the city also built 50 community biogas plants. These plants were prone to frequent malfunctions, after which people would simply dump their garbage next to them, creating a mess. Though the biogas plants are still functional, the city is not investing in them anymore. Now it has built 17 community aerobic-bin units similar to the ones in Alappuzha, where locals can bring their organic waste. Citywide, it has also installed 87,000 pipe-composting units, and more than 2,500 portable biogas plants in households, and introduced myriad disaggregated schemes to deal with waste from commercial establishments. Waste from chicken shops, for instance, is processed into fish food.

In the ten days that I spent in the state’s capital in December, although I did notice a few isolated areas where unsorted garbage was piled in the street, and, more commonly, where garbage was burned illegally, these problems were by no means widespread. Thiruvananthapuram is a clean city relative to most Indian metros, including Kochi, Kerala’s business centre, which still has a traditional door-to-door garbage-collection system.

Currently, the 30 wards that were part of the kitchen-bin campaign are producing zero waste, Roy told me. The challenge in the remaining 70 wards is that people are not sorting at source. “They are still burning garbage,” he said. Though the police have started handing out notices to those who do this, they have not introduced any kind of punishment yet. “We want to educate people first to not do this,” Roy said.

The programme is now targeting students, hoping they will be catalysts for behavioural changes in the household. Isaac wants to turn every kitchen bin in the city into a science project, with students observing the bins in their houses and writing reports. “I will spend one crore so that every kid who writes a project on the kitchen bin in his house will get a book,” he said. “They will want a kitchen bin in their house just so that they can write a project.” Isaac said that the sum devoted to giving children’s books as prizes will be money well spent if it can provoke the kind of cultural shift that Pillai’s novel started. “How much is the cost of a centralised plant?” he asked. “It costs hundreds of crores.”

Recently, in what seems to be a natural progression from events in Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram, the Public Policy Research Institute, the state’s government think tank, called for an end to centralised waste management in Kerala. The institution noted how the Kerala experience shows that private firms contracted to run centralised treatment plants fail to make waste treatment profitable and clean. Moreover, the institute said, technology-intensive solutions—which are being adopted widely across urban India—are too expensive for most Indian municipalities and corporations. As a result, new solutions have to be imagined.

The state government has now adopted a policy of decentralised waste management for all municipalities. It has sent guidelines to all cities and towns on how to segregate garbage at home, and how to collect and recycle man-made waste that cannot be composted. Keeping with Kerala’s tradition of decentralised planning, the municipalities will develop their own solutions and policies based on these guidelines, rather than being forced to adopt a uniform state model. In December, the state government launched the Haritha Keralam, or Green Kerala, mission, which includes waste-management projects headed by K Vasuki, an IAS officer. The mission aims to craft integrated policies on water management, waste treatment and organic farming. The three issues are connected, Vasuki told me, as untreated waste invariably ends up polluting the water supply and because converting organic waste into compost can be a step towards invigorating urban organic farming.

Kerala’s finance minister, Thomas Isaac, wants to turn every kitchen bin in Kerala into a science project, with students observing the bins in their houses and writing reports. STEEVEZ RODRIGUEZ FOR THE CARAVAN

Currently, though treating organic waste at home is becoming increasingly common, there is not a widespread solution for processing dry waste. Many municipalities contract Tamil Nadu firms to cart away non-biodegradeable refuse. Once the waste is transported to Tamil Nadu, its management is sub-contracted to informal firms and dealers who sort and recycle it. After this waste leaves Kerala and changes hands multiple times, its fate becomes unclear and it is possible that some of it ends up in landfills. The Kerala government plans to move away from this system of outsourcing management of man-made waste and establish recycling plants, especially to process plastic, in industrial areas in each district. Vasuki said that the challenge of managing plastic is also an opportunity: these factories can begin a new industry, and bring new jobs to the state.

It has been 70 years since Scavenger’s Son was published. The night-soil depot in the novel where Chudalamuttu’s father was buried is based on a real place. It was located in the village of Sarvodayapuram. When manual scavenging ended, the same site became Alappuzha’s municipal dump, over which local panchayat and municipality did battle a half-century later. The Alappuzha municipality still owns the plot of land. It has lain unused since the 2012 protests, but soon there may finally be a sense of closure. “We are thinking of turning the site into flats,” Prem, the councillor, said. “Or a stadium.”