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Kodaikanal's Garbage Dump Problem: So Huge, It's Visible From Space

Kodaikanal has just 40,000 locals, but data shows an average of 80 lakh tourists visit the hill station every year.

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Climate Change
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What comes to your mind when you think of a wildlife sanctuary situated at 2000 metres above the sea level? Forests, meadows, wild animals, chirping birds and the smell of flowers perhaps?

Well, if you walk through the forested trails of Prakasapuram village in the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary of Tamil Nadu, the first thing you notice is the pervading stench of garbage. Then, you can spot rotten animal carcasses, burning fumes and a few trucks dumping garbage on a big mountain of unsegregated trash.

Kodaikanal has just 40,000 locals, but data shows an average of 80 lakh tourists visit the hill station every year.

Satellite view of the garbage dump area in the forest 

 

This huge putrid garbage dump right in the middle of the pristine Shola forest has grown so big that now it’s visible from space. Oozing toxic leachate into the nearby forest and springs, it stands as testimony to the crippling solid waste management system of the princess of hill stations - Kodaikanal.

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A Decades' Long Fight

But this did not happen in one day. “Earlier, there was one dump in Shenbaganur, right in the heart of human habitation. After protests by the citizens, the authorities closed that, and without taking any clearance from the forest department, shifted it to the current location in the middle of a Shola forest,” says Meenakshi Subramaniyam, who filed the first writ petition against the municipality in the Madurai bench of Madras High Court, on the behalf of an NGO called Shelter Trust, back in 2001.


Recalling what motivated her to knock on the gates of the court, Meenakshi says, “I went for a walk one day and was horrified to see what had happened there. Instead of song birds and Shola life species, it was filled with hundreds of crows.”

Twenty one years ago, many letters were written by the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal to the authorities for segregation at source. “In those days, land was used to build illegal temples, churches, guesthouses etc. We had asked to allot a piece of land in every ward for waste processing too, but nothing happened,” says Meenakshi, expressing her disappointment.

Finally in 2008, the High Court passed an order, refusing to put a stay on garbage dumping as requested by the Shelter Trust. Instead, it gave directions to local authorities to follow the solid waste management rules and make sure the forest is saved. “So far no solution has been found. All the proposals are just on paper,” says Dhanpal Thanabalagan, the lawyer who had filed the case.

The Impact

Today, the dump is way bigger than what it was twenty one years ago. “The biggest problem is tourism-generated waste. There’s no knowledge of how many tourists are coming in, what quantum of waste they generate and where this waste ends up,” says Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy, who works with Kodaikanal International School’s Social and Environment Experience Department (SEED), and is currently working on a decentralised waste management program with 23 schools in the area.

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“Kodaikanal has just 40,000 local residents and the government data shows an average of 80 lakh tourists are visiting the hill station every year. When it comes to this informal floating population, there’s no system in place to process their waste. It adds a lot of burden to the waste management system which is already crippled,”
Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy
Over the years, the municipality has taken some steps to improve the system and building a retaining wall was one of them. However, the problem aggravated in 2018 when this wall broke, spilling tonnes of waste directly into the adjoining forest.

This results in toxic chemicals leaching into the streams which ultimately meet a river downhill. These streams are not just the source of drinking water for the people of Perumalmalai village but also for the wild animals like deer, bison, and wild boar which inhabit the sanctuary.

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“It’s important to assess the water quality of that area, as many hazardous substances like batteries, tubelights, polythene and glass bottles are also seen publicly dispersed. There are high chances that the groundwater and the soil of the nearby shola forests are contaminated,” says Lekshmi Raveendran, an ecologist who runs the NGO - Society for Ecology, Environment and Community Outreach.

The local farmers are clearly frustrated too. For them, the problem is not just the dump and its stinking smell but what it attracts: flies. “Usually, farmers spray pesticides just three times in a season but farmers around the dump are spraying 17 times in one season i.e., 90 days, because the flies generated at the waste dump are always all over the farms. They aren’t eating food, they are eating pesticides,” says Dr. Ramamoorthy.


MRP Karthik, whose land is the buffer zone between the dump and the forest, usually grows carrots, potatoes, garlic and some fruits in his farmland. He says, “The flies keep buzzing all over the fruit trees and the leaves go pale. The produce is less and the fruits also turn out to be tasteless.” Karthik’s family has seen the garbage piling higher and higher over the last 25 years.

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Call for Action

His neighbour, Avijit Michael - an activist - is not taking things lying down. “The piece of land I bought in 2011 is very close to the landfill, and for me, it is a personal project to look at tackling solid waste management at a small town municipality level,” says Michael, who filed numerous RTIs on the subject, met the officials and has now sent a contempt of court notice to the municipal authorities for not following the High Court judgement of 2008.

Ready to file a fresh petition in the Madurai bench of the Court this summer, Avijit explains how he approached the issue after he moved to Kodaikanal in 2011.

“After the 2008 judgement, people had moved on and there was no follow up on citizens' end. When I moved in, I collected old documents and started my work on developing a campaign. We submitted a proposal to the Chairperson of the municipality in 2013, and over the years they worked on improving the system. Putting a shed, purchasing machinery for segregation and raising a wall were all part of it,” he says.

Michael’s NGO, Jhatkaa.org, and some locals crowdfunded to donate gloves and boots to the sanitation workers, trained them and also conducted awareness drives across the town last year.
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However, a fresh petition in the court is on the way because the spillage into the forest hasn’t stopped. “My proposal is that they clear the spilled waste into the forest, and cap the old landfill as per solid waste management guidelines. That would be 80% of the system side of the job done. Then it comes to awareness and education of the locals.”

When asked what needs to be done to tackle this crisis, Dr Ramamoorthy says, “Everybody needs to play their part, from the waste generator to the collector and the tourists. The town needs a 5-10 year action plan and a waste management task force. It should have some residents, doctors, ecologists, sanitation workers, waste experts and people from the municipality." He adds,

"A decentralised, source specific waste model needs to be developed keeping the community in mind. We also need to improve our recycling infrastructure."
Dr Ramamoorthy
Kodaikanal has just 40,000 locals, but data shows an average of 80 lakh tourists visit the hill station every year.

Massive slide of non-degradable waste into the reserved forest area 

(Photo: Rashmi Mishra) 

Today, unregulated, hazardous trash heaps in metropolitan cities like Delhi are towering examples of India’s growing waste crisis. Kodaikanal’s waste dump shows how the solid waste and lack of its segregation is now destroying our fragile mountain ecosystems too.

While individuals and NGOs are putting in efforts in bits to manage the crisis, it’s high time the hills adopt a tailored solid waste management system, that includes small scale, village-community level solutions. The state also needs to develop a module for the waste challenge posed by tourism, which is humongous and will only grow in future.

Rashmi is a Delhi based campaigner working in the areas of air pollution, climate change and gender justice at Jhatkaa.org . She’s interested in writing about risks possessed by the climate crisis in rural India. You can reach out to her on Twitter (@donotrushmee) and Instagram (@_rushmenot).)

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