With inputs from Reena Raghavamoorthy and Azad Reese
As the restrictions associated with the second Covid-19 lockdown ease up, signboards have been put up across Kodaikanal town warning of hefty fines. The signs are specific: Brown paper covers with lamination? NO. Plastic tea cups? NO. PET water bottles under 5 liters? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Plastic Sheet used for spreading on the dining table? FORGET ABOUT IT. Cans of soft drinks are now sold instead, and that is another story–but for Kodai, the plastic ban is a valuable move forward.
‘A plastic ban with strong penalties will raise mass awareness. What is prescribed in policy today, will soon become a regular practice tomorrow,’ says Dr R Rajamanikam, Project Coordinator, Centre for Environment & Humanity (CEH) at Kodai International School (KIS).
Tamil Nadu announced a statewide plastic ban, effective from January 1, 2019, which led to the ban of 14 specific items. Later in May 2019, the high court intervened again during a petition regarding the growing concern over invasive and exotic trees threatening indigenous species. ‘As an additional concern over mounting plastic due to unempathetic tourists in ecologically sensitive areas, the high court issued an order to disallow plastic items at the entry points across all checkposts especially in the Nilgiris district, advocate T Mohan told us. Following this order, the Kodaikanal Municpality issued a ban adding several more items on February 1, 2021. The list of banned items consists of 21 items, all containing plastic, and the fines start at Rs 200. A half kilogram of these items, if seized, could cost you a penalty of one thousand rupees. A total of 2.5 lakh rupees has been collected as on July 1st, 2021, which goes into the Municipality General Fund, according to the Kodaikanal Municipal Office. ‘Seized items like plastic bottles and such items are being sent to a bottle crusher [where they crush the bottles to decrease the volume before further transport] near Silver Cascade waterfall.’ says Senior Sanitary Inspector V Subbaiah.
The idea of a plastic ban is not new to Kodaikanal. The first one was announced back in 2000, after the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management & Handling) Rules, 2000 was in place. ‘Back then, there was garbage just piling up on the streets and right in front of Meenakshi Store [a popular grocery store in Anna Salai]. But after so many petitions, [a] push from various citizen groups, government orders, and the high court interventions, one can say that things have improved albeit with a lot more to do,’ says Mark Antrobus, President of the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC). These days, sanitary workers clear the main streets on a daily basis.
The Kodaikanal Municipality is happy to engage with the public in order to achieve the goal of a cleaner town. ‘There are many people from local groups and organisations who send us complaints about these illegal items, and we take action accordingly,’ says Subbaiah.
Compost yard or dump site
A Kodai Chronicle investigation
According to the latest Kodaikanal Master Plan (updated in 2019), the town emits about 20 tonnes per day (TPD) with a local population of about 40,000; more than 65 lakh tourists have visited annually since 2015. Most experts claim that the municipal waste generation is possibly far more, possibly up to 10 times more. A study conducted by CEH found that 70-80 percent of the municipality waste is contributed by tourism and tourism-related industries (data gathered from hotels, restaurants, guesthouses, gated communities, schools and other institutions in town which are largely dependent upon tourism). However, this wasn’t reflected in the response of the sanitary inspector, who claims that there was a decline of only five tons per day (TPD) during the lockdowns last year.
Given this massive increase in tourism, waste generation over the last two decades is, indeed, likely to have grown.
According to the Master Plan, ‘solid waste generated within the municipal area [is] collected by four garbage vehicles and six mini vehicles and dumped in the ‘municipal compost yard’ located at S.No. 229 of Seeradumkanal village of Adukkam village panchayat, 12 kilometres away from Kodaikanal Municipality’, in Prakasapuram. Upon investigating the current status of this ‘municipal compost yard’, one of the officials mentioned that there hadn’t been any dumping of non-degradables at the site recently. However, on a visit to the site, The Kodai Chronicle noticed that was not the case: see the images below, taken during this second week of July.
In a public interest litigation, the SHELTER TRUST, a local non-profit, filed a writ petition in 2002, in order to stop the usage of this dump site. The site is at a slope, by the upper edge of the Tiger Shola Reserve Forest, and would therefore cause heavy seepage of toxic material in the case of poor infrastructure. ‘It is the case of the petitioner that the presence of untreated mixed garbage including plastics endanger the flora and fauna to the nearby forest areas and on account of plastics get scattered all over the forest area, a number of wild and endangered animals have died in the forest due to consumption of such plastics and on account of the dumping of untreated wet garbage, [a] lot of grey and silver biting flies get attracted to the site and these flies then feed on wild animals, causing their death.’
In their defence, one of the respondents (the then Municipal Commissioner) countered by stating that measures to comply with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board were being taken. Among many things, it included the raising of a retaining wall near the valley, a compost yard with proper roofing to be set up, and that it would not have any intake of non-degradables.
Segregation is the need of the hour, D Narayanan, the commissioner of the Kodaikanal Municipality, told Jhatkaa.org’s Avijit Michael, who has been calling for action with letters and an RTI. ‘Then we will process the legacy waste
In our pilot issue in June, we covered a break in the retaining wall of the Seeradumkanal dump (we referred to it as the ‘Prakasapuram dump there) due to the strain on the higher end, which is still not fixed, three years later. Unsegregated garbage has spilt into the reserved forest below it. Indignation on social media, at the time, and a petition that is circulating, mean that old and ongoing conversations are coming together online, as they often do these days.
Segregation is the need of the hour, D Narayanan, the commissioner of the Kodaikanal Municipality, told Jhatkaa.org’s Avijit Michael, who has been calling for action with letters and an RTI. ‘Then we will process the legacy waste,’ Narayanan said, explaining that he first needs to set up a processing facility for wet waste, then sort the dry waste, and clean up the forest.
According to section 20 (a) ‘Construction of landfill should be avoided on the hill’. It goes on to explain that a processing facility to collect the residue and inert wastes should be in the enclosed location and suitable land is to be identified for the landfill down the hill, within 25 kilometres. However, the current dumpsite plays the dual role of a processing facility and a landfill’
To label this facility a ‘compost yard’ is now far-fetched. Not only has it been used as the only dump site for Kodaikanal municipality,in the last two decades with heavy influx of tourism, the retaining wall is now broken. The ‘compost yard’ lies bare, while the dump has filled up over the years leading up to the collapse of the wall.In 2013, the Tamil Nadu government notified Kodaikanal as a Wildlife Sanctuary spreading over 60,895 hectares in Dindigul and Theni districts. The latest Municipal Solid Waste rules (2016) have categorised the plan for hilly regions specifically. According to section 20 (a) ‘Construction of landfill should be avoided on the hill’. It goes on to explain that a processing facility to collect the residue and inert wastes should be in the enclosed location and suitable land is to be identified for the landfill down the hill, within 25 kilometres. However, the current dumpsite plays the dual role of a processing facility and a landfill. Only the recyclables are being sold and transported to the plains. With these recent legal developments in regulations,, there is absolutely no space for a dump site or a landfill in this location. The ban could serve as a stop-gap, managing the situation by preventing/reducing the amount of non-degradables from entering the site in the short run. Without appropriate measures to fix the collapsed wall, and collect the spilt garbage, it will choke the water channels downhill and be an even greater threat to the flora and fauna of the Tiger Shola Reserve Forest.
Several steps are yet to be taken to address the issue of waste management. The master plan proposed the initiation of four micro compost yards. ‘The Municipality has signed an MoU with at least two scrap dealers to sell the non-recyclables,” says Mr Subbaiah. Moves like this, where the Kodaikanal Municipality encourages the sanitary workers to sell recyclable wastes for an additional income, will help address the issue for now. Meanwhile, the forest remains uncleaned–and Kodai continues to look at how we can collectively take definitive and urgent action.
List of Items Banned by the Kodaikanal Municipality from February 1, 2021
- Drinking Water PET Bottles less than 5 litres
- Plastic Banana Leaf Plates
- Laminated Papers
- Laminated Bakery Cake Boxes
- Plastic used to cover bouquet and gift articles
- Plastic Packed Materials
- Polyethylene hand gloves
- Plastic Sheet/ cling film used for food wrapping
- Plastic sheet used for spreading on dining table
- Plastic Thermocol
- Plastic coated paper cups
- Plastic Carry bags of all sizes and thickness
- Water pouches/ packets
- Plastic straw
- Plastic flags
- Plastic coated carry bags
- Non woven bags
- Plastic tea cups
- Plastic coated paper plates
- Thermocol cups
- Plastic tumbler
Source: Kodaikanal Municipality
To Ban or Not to Ban
Bans tend to dampen the problem in the short-run but could have adverse effects in the long-run if holistic solutions are not immediately sought. ‘As soon as the statewide Tamil Nadu Plastic ban was announced in 2019, several local organisations were out there at the Kodaikanal check posts seizing tourists’ plastic bags and covers while handing them paper bags in return. When the local community is involved along with the authority of the government, the problem is solvable,’ says Dr Rajamanikam.
Many experts agree that blanket bans ‘without preparation for good alternatives’ could only worsen the situation. According to a report by Toxics Link 2014, which studied the ban in 3 states, said that although plastic bag production in the banned states had come down, they continued to be in use by importing from neighbouring states. The initial stages of the ban brought down its usage but as monitoring came down, plastics found their way in usage and as alternatives like non-woven bags. A national ban on specific products was suggested including an increased awareness on plastic alternatives.
‘The sudden lack of plastic carry bags increased the distribution of the “katta pai” (the big shopping bags that look like cloth bag but are actually made of non-woven polypropylene). Food delivery services have begun to use aluminium silver pouches for liquid food. They are both non-degradable and non-recyclable material. These bags have also sunk very deep at the retail level even with the ban,’ says PHCC’s Mark Antrobus.
An online survey to study to the effectiveness of the plastic ban was conducted across the Indian Himalayan states by Zero Waste Himalayas and Integrated Mountain Network. The survey suggests that the bans have been ineffective in the Indian Himalayan States as worse alternatives like the white non-woven polypropylene (PP) bags flood the markets and the landfills.
Producer, take it back
There are eco-friendly options available that need to be explored. “Back in the 90’s when I was in Kodai, I still remember biscuit companies like the Tiger Biscuit brand using good old wax paper for their retail packages. Today, they are contained in mini-cartons with individual biscuits packed in silver lined packaging inside! Why? The system has allowed it. The producers need to make the switch and we will stand for the banning of such products until then”, says Antrobus.
In the Plastic Waste Management Rules (2016), the responsibility of the packaging material was shifted to the producer based on the polluters pay principle. This is known as ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ which was first introduced to manage E-waste in India. Under this, the producer has to organise upstream distribution channels to take back the discarded packing material.