Why Chennai’s Perungudi residents put up with a toxic environment

Environmental activists urge the government to at least use a scientific method to segregate the waste, and stop any further dumping of garbage in the Perungudi region.

On the night of April 27, even as thick waves of smoke were billowing across the neighbourhood of Perungudi, Malarvizhi thought nothing of it. “Fires are a routine affair here. So even though I felt the heaviness of the smoke, I just closed the windows and went to sleep,” she recollects. But it was when she woke up the next morning and looked outside that she saw it. “Huge plumes were emanating from a raging red fire in the dumpyard. It was the first time I was seeing something like that,” she says.

After a massive fire broke out a week ago in the 225-acre landfill of Perungudi, a suburban locality in Chennai, it took three days of struggle for the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) to douse the unrelenting flames. The municipal dumpyard, which is spread across a 6-km radius, was overflowing with around 3.63 million cubic metres of waste when the incident took place. “Smoke and fire are an annual event in the yard. The fire was more rampant this time, so people are suddenly discussing it,” says Malarvizhi, who is a Tamil Nadu Science Forum volunteer. “Officials often claim that they have stopped dumping waste in the yard. But the size of the garbage mounds have not reduced in all these years. After years of struggle, at least the horizontal expansion of this dumping reduced. But the waste continued to mount vertically.”

Though the fire has been doused, the alarm is still palpable. Several environmental activists, who have continuously raised their voice against the location of the Perungudi landfill and the resultant groundwater contamination, are now urging the government to at least use a scientific method to segregate the waste and stop any further dumping of garbage in the area.

Malarvizhi is also concerned about the health situation of those residing near the landfill. The fire induced heavy smoke and caused breathing difficulties to the nearby residents. When TNM visited Perungudi, Seevaram, Kallukuttai and nearby sites, people shared how the dumpyard and the sewage water treatment plants impacted their daily life

“More than 50 trucks of waste are being dumped in this yard every night. The problem is not the yard itself. But the dust produced by the lorries that come and go, carrying solid waste as well as sewage water, creates many issues for us. Besides, the road to reach our residence has been destroyed because of the frequent visits by these trucks. Some action should be taken to renovate this road properly,” says 61-year-old Rajendran, who resides in the Seevaram locality of Perungudi. “The smoke and fire were not a cause of trouble for us. The wind mostly carried the smoke towards the Velacherry, Kalkutta and Taramani regions,” he adds.


The ‘saviour’ wetland

Jayalakshmi (55), a resident from KPK Nagar of Kallukuttai, says she had not seen the smoke during the evening of April 27. “On the morning of the next day, however, the sky above our heads was covered with thick smoke. I ran to our balcony to understand what was going on. The smoke was heavy. Fortunately, it did not impact our residential area much,” she says.

Jayalakshmi points out that a few people in the area had faced breathing troubles and suffocation after the fire broke out. “But there was no serious concern. This wetland is a saviour for us, you know,” she says as she points towards the adjacent water body, which acts as a natural barrier between the dumpyard and the Kallukuttai residential area. When asked about the quality of the groundwater in the region, she says that the water fetched from the ground would stink during summertime. “But it is quite okay throughout the rest of the year,” she adds.

K Raniammal (74), who relocated from Seevaram to Kallukuttai along with her family 26 years ago, says she was standing on the banks of the swamp when the fire broke out, wondering if the flames would leap forward and eat them too. “This dumpyard existed even before we started our lives here. The government allotted us this place to live. Our people worked hard and cleared these thorny bushes to make homes for us here. We thought that would be our last struggle. But now, we can’t even remember the smell of fresh air anymore. They began to release the sewage waste to the open water body, and that smell has stayed in our lives ever since. Initially, we weren’t even able to breathe properly. The foul smell from the yard that comes out when they dig the waste or the leachate is the primary trouble we face,” she says. Another resident, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells TNM that they did not want to speak out about the issues they are facing because their residential area is located adjacent to the wetland. “The fear that we can be evicted any time prevails among us. So we are used to living with these problems,” adds the Kallukuttai resident.


When adaptability becomes the problem

The problem with people is their adaptability, says Geo Damin, who is a member of the Tamil Nadu government’s solid waste management committee and a volunteer for the environmental organisation Poovulagin Nanbargal, over a phone call. “Even if they feel uncomfortable with their state of residence in the beginning, they would eventually adapt to the surroundings and get accustomed to their situation. The contamination of groundwater is a huge threat faced by this area. In fact, the residents know that the water from the ground is undrinkable and hence they have stopped relying on it. They now depend on the next metro water truck to get water for their daily needs,” he says.

The environmentalist adds that the residents cannot be blamed for not acknowledging these underlying issues. “They constantly inhale toxic air, but they are unaware of it,” he says. Besides, it is not just the people living near the landfill who are affected, he points out. “All of these groundwater routes are interconnected. The Pallikaranai marshland is the aquifer for almost the entirety of south Chennai. So the situation not only affects the people in Perungudi, Kallukuttai and Velachery regions, but the residents of a much larger portion of the city. The issue is worsening and should be resolved using scientific solutions,” he adds.

Following the blaze at the dumpyard, the Tamil Nadu government has yet again proposed biomining as a solution, stating that it will help reclaim the Pallikaranai marshland. Biomining is a process by which garbage is treated with bio-organisms, or natural elements like air and sunlight, so that the biodegradable elements in the waste break down over time. When asked about the efficiency of this method, Geo says it is only suited for a day-to-day clearance system. “We cannot use the same methodology for solid wastes that have been dumped without segregation for 30 years. We put sanitary napkins, diapers, expired medicines, cosmetic tubes, unused bulbs, batteries and even mobile wastes in the same garbage bags, and call them all ‘household waste’. But they are not household waste.” In Perungudi, organic matter segregation by biomining will not give results unless the segregation is done in a proper way at the source point, he says. “The intention and initiative by the government was good, but the methods we have chosen are not efficient, or even sufficient for the amount of waste that we dump in both Kodungaiyur and Pallikaranai sites,” he adds.

Geo points out that even in some places where proper segregation is carried out, the toxic waste eventually does end up harming people. “The non-degradable wastes are further segregated into recyclable and non-recyclable, and the recyclable wastes (like plastics, metal scraps, paper, bottles etc) are moulded into pellets and sold to the cement plants. During the incineration process, these pellets emit toxic gases since the cement factories are not designed to reuse such pellets. There are no guidelines or regulations to monitor the safety of these operations. So one way or the other, this is harmful,” he explains.

“Civil societies have started to discuss all this. What the government can do now is to sensitise people to the issue, educate people and utilise all existing infrastructure for problem resolution. If we cannot efficiently manage the waste from the existing Chennai metro area, how will we manage the waste from the ‘expanded’ Chennai in future,” asks Geo.


Unscientific landfill

G Janardhan, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, National Institute of Technical Teachers Training and Research, points out that the Perungudi dumpyard is not even a landfill. “At Perungudi, we simply dump waste in a low-lying clay area. It is not scientifically designed. We only have two scientifically constructed landfill sites for dumping hazardous waste in Tamil Nadu. They are in Gummidipoondi and Virudhunagar. There, we have a liner between the waste and the surface to collect the leachate, thus preventing contamination. Besides, the garbage is usually covered with soil to expedite the composting process,” he says. He further states that there are no robust regulations or monitoring measures at the Kodungaiyur and Pallikaranai sites, because those are just dumpyards. “The social and cultural aspects of the locality also play a major role in how a dumpyard site is chosen.”

Municipal solid waste (MSW) was formerly considered manageable and not harmful, and hence a liner was not considered a requirement, Janardhan says. “Earlier, MSW used to have more than 60% organic or biodegradable content. In the current day scenario, however, all kinds of garbage is mixed. This heterogeneous constitution of the waste is what creates the problem,” Janardhan says. The GCC thinks the dumpyard doesn’t allow the leachate to seep through and penetrate into the interlinked groundwater nexus, he adds. “Any land with a solid surface won’t allow the water to leak into the ground. But the leachate causes an increase in the acidic level of the dumpyard. This causes the characteristics of the soil to change, triggering contamination. The degradation of groundwater quality is one of the primary issues faced by residents in the Perungudi area. But all of them have resorted to using canned water and stopped worrying about the groundwater quality,” explains Janardhan, whose team has been collecting waste samples from Perungudi and neighbouring residential areas for more than a decade to study the region’s land use and groundwater contamination.

When asked about the efficiency of the biomining methodology, Janardhan echoes the thoughts of Geo Damin, adding that further tests have to be carried out on the samples collected from Perungudi to figure out what methodology can be used to reduce the severity of the situation. “The ‘polluter pays’ principle should be followed from the grassroot level to reduce the usage of plastic bags in our daily lives. Common citizens should be encouraged to use cloth bags. In many countries, shops pay money to the customers who carry their own cloth bags for purchase. We have to think from the grassroots level to bring massive change,” he opines.

Geo Damin is of the opinion that integrated solid waste management is the only long term solution. “Our economy should be transformed into a circular model, in which the things we use would have additional purposes or can be used by recycling, sharing and leasing, etc. This would reduce the amount of waste ending up in these landfills or dumpyards. Zero waste means zero landfills and zero toxic emissions from the yards. Through exploring alternative solutions of disposal, this zero landfill principle helps people understand the value of what they are throwing out, and to think twice before doing so. This is applicable not only for individuals, but also for companies, factories and large scale industries,” he says.

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