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The contemporary focal debate around the issues of urban development and protection of the environment has been given close attention by most stakeholders. There are several challenges in the area of waste management, especially what is called legacy waste, or waste accumulated at dumpyards over decades, across every city, town, small town, and even villages now. Legacy waste was, however, never taken seriously by governments, policymakers, academia, industries, and local bodies’ administrations, responsible for its presence.

Of late, the impact of such waste mountains and lakes has become stark as they have severely contaminated the water and air around them even as recent smart city initiatives sought to reduce environmental degradation and recover land for alternative uses. India has a total of 3,075 such dumpsites. Policy action plans were mooted to clean up these dumpsites at the earliest to prevent environmental degradation through circular economy action plans.

The solid waste generated is two types — one is a fresh waste, generated on a daily basis and either processed or dumped in landfills; the second is the dumpyards themselves which have been used for many years for simply dumping the solid waste without any processing systems.

As per a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (2020), Tamil Nadu is the fourth biggest state in India which dumps more than 2 lakhs tonnes of municipal solid waste without processing or treatment in 140 dumpsites every year. During the last few years, as part of the smart city missions or sanitation drives under the Clean India mission, a few measures were undertaken in states like Tamil Nadu which is the among the most urbanised in the country, to prevent or reduce the degradation of the environment due to air, land, water, waterbodies and groundwater pollution caused by the legacy waste.

As per the latest report (22.06.2022) submitted by Tamil Nadu government to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), there are 271 dumpsites in the state with an estimated quantity of legacy waste of 207 lakh cubic meters. Biomining projects were initiated for 269 sites consisting of 19 city corporations, 95 municipalities, and 121 town panchayats. As per the report, 69 dumpsites were cleared of 32 cubic meters of legacy waste, and a total of 360 acres of land was reclaimed. Several thousands of crores were spent on these biomining projects.

As per a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (2020), Tamil Nadu is the fourth biggest state in India which dumps more than 2 lakhs tonnes of municipal solid waste without processing or treatment in 140 dumpsites every year

However, there are several smaller dumpsites spread across cities, towns, and small towns which have not been included in the government’s official data. Also, the field-level observations across the state noted that there was no proper project management system in Tamil Nadu to effectively monitor the expenditure and timely completion of the reclamation projects and measure the outcomes. Gross mismanagement of funds approved and delays have been reported by the media.

The NGT has penalised local bodies, especially 15 city corporations of Tamil Nadu for violation of environmental protection provisions and failure to implement various environmental safeguards envisaged in the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. The quantum of environmental compensation imposed by the NGT (2020) was Rs.5.86 crores. Several municipalities were also given showcase notices for non-compliance with the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rule, 2016.

According to the Annual Report (2021) of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), 6.81 lakh cubic meters of legacy solid waste were processed through biomining projects in 23 dumpsites covering 14 districts in Tamil Nadu. Of this Thanjavur district’s share is highest at 30%, Chengalpattu has 17%, Cuddalore has 8%, Salem has 7%, Chennai and Tiruvalluvar each have 6%, Erode, Tirupur, and Coimbatore has each 5% (data source: TNPCB Annual Report, 2021).

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Further, biomining to reclaim land is underway at 129 dumpsites and 58 dumpsites were proposed to be covered under the initiative. Biomining is the treatment of solid waste material with microbial activity, essentially segregating the waste to reuse wherever is possible and using the remaining waste as landfill.

The major issues involved in biomining projects include the method of quantifying the legacy waste, DPR preparation, a centralised project approval system, and strict timeline for implementation, etc. Most of the projects of biomining have either been delayed or remain incomplete for years due include non-compliance in waste stabilisation, inadequate waste screening equipment, and poor method of leachate treatment, etc. For instance, regarding the ongoing 129 biomining projects in local bodies, the implementation status varies from zero progress to 99.90%. There are cases even without any status of progress of project implementation.

In the case of 58 proposed biomining projects, in about 10 dumpsites fresh solid waste continues to be dumped alongside the existing legacy waste which will create confusion on the project implementation. It is also likely that the project will be delayed with fresh waste entering every day amid ongoing legacy waste processing and treatment to clean up.

Tamil Nadu was the first state to initiate the concept of biomining of legacy waste at Kumbakonam municipality in 2015. The Kumbakonam municipality had faced continuous fire at the three decades old dumpsite spread over 10.5 acres in Thepperumanallur village. The estimated quantity of waste at the site was about 3.5 lakh tonnes, of which 1 lakh were cleared in record time and five acres of land was reclaimed.

However, the biomining implementation across the state has been patchy. Some of the major legacy waste sites in Chennai which have been debated and discussed for years include 15 acres of the Pallikkaranai wetland dumping yard, the dumping yards at Athipattu, Sathangadu, Perungudi, and Kodungaiyur. The frequent fires at the Perungudi dump have been a health hazard for several years now. The state government proposes to complete the biomining and reclamation at both Perungudi and Kodungaiyur by the end of 2024.

Most of the dumpyards in Chennai were listed for biomining projects but the delay in implementation has sparked concern. Earlier this year in March, Chief Secretary V Irai Anbu inspected the Perungudi and Pallikkaranai biomining project sites and urged the local body and contractors to complete the project on time. However, the projects are still incomplete.

Tamil Nadu was the first state to initiate the concept of biomining of legacy waste at Kumbakonam municipality in 2015. The Kumbakonam municipality had faced continuous fire at the three decades old dumpsite spread over 10.5 acres in Thepperumanallur village. The estimated quantity of waste at the site was about 3.5 lakh tonnes, of which 1 lakh were cleared in record time and five acres of land was reclaimed

Similarly, the legacy wastes dumped in the Vellalore dumpyard in Coimbatore have festering for years. In 2020, a biomining project was implemented to clear about 9.5 lakh cubic meters of waste spread across over 60 acres. Two years later, only 40% of the project has been completed with the deadline pushed to March 2023. Meanwhile, the Coimbatore City Corporation spends huge sums to control the fires that break out in the dumpyard, and send clouds of noxious fumes into the city, despite an NGT order to clear the mini mountain at the earliest.

The biomining project at the dumpyard spread over 47.7 acres in Ariyamangalam under the Trichy City Corporation has also been delayed since 2018. The delays in biomining projects have been recorded across the local bodies including municipalities and town panchayats in Perambalur, Rajapalayam, and Thanjavur districts.

Given this record, the present government’s proposal of completing the entire biomining of 200 dumpsites by December 31, 2024 may not be feasible at the current snail’s pace of work. It would be better for the NGT to appoint an inclusive committee with diverse representatives who can monitor and review the progress of the biomining projects across the state and report to the government to take necessary action to avoid delays and cost overruns.

(The author is an economist and public policy expert)


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