Thiruvananthapuram (also Trivandrum), the capital of the State of Kerala, India is a swanky metropolis known for its cultural charm, sacred temples, and mesmerizing beaches. In 2011, the city was in the eye of the storm when the city’s only municipal dump yard at Vilappilsala was forced to shut down following local protests over the mismanagement of the waste in the site.
Facing public pressure, Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation has introduced a decentralised system for waste management, which later resulted in a successful model where waste is neither burned nor buried. The decentralisation in Thiruvananthapuram offers an excellent lens to understand the implementation challenges, politics of priorities, and the roles of different stakeholders in the road towards zero waste.
With each passing year, the quantum of waste that is being generated is increasing, while the capacity to collect, transport, and dispose of the waste are going down. As a result, cities, especially those in developing countries are drowning in their own waste. This, in turn, has serious impacts on the environment, public health, and the economy. There is an urgent need to find approaches and models of waste management that are affordable, sustainable, and most importantly, replicable and scalable.
The state of Kerala has done important work in this direction. In 2008, long before the waste crisis assumed gargantuan proportions, the state had taken leadership to set up ‘Kerala Suchitwa Mission’ to ‘achieve waste-free Kerala with the unpolluted environment, public hygiene and cleanliness leading to improved health and general wellbeing, economic gains, better aesthetic surroundings, and overall environmental up-gradation.’ However, even after a decade since its inception, the waste remains a challenge as well as a priority for the mission. In its most recent campaign launched in 2017 called the ‘Freedom from Waste’ campaign, the state has reiterated its commitment to waste management and making Kerala a waste-free state through a comprehensive action plan and guidelines.
Under the aegis of the Kerala Suchitwa Mission, Trivandrum Municipal Corporation has been following decentralised solid waste management and encourages on-site management of biodegradable discards since 2013. Since the closure of the municipal dump yard, the Corporation does not have access to any centralised solid waste management system, landfill or waste dumping yard, making decentralised waste management the only option.
Green Army is part of the campaign wing of Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation’s “My City Beautiful City” project. Many NGOs, volunteering organisations, students, working professionals and retired officials serve as the mentors of the Green Army. It is a platform where individuals and groups with similar vision work with school students to educate them about segregated waste management and other sustainable living practices in an urban environment. Green Army provides an orientation to school children on segregated waste management, green protocol and disposable plastics to start with. Further, mentors are allotted to each school to guide them further to take up green initiatives in their respective schools. Students are enrolled in Green Army units and they help the school neighbourhood to compost and segregate.
Thiruvananthapuram’s decentralised model of managing the waste — at source — as far as possible is also the lesson for other parts of the country and the world, where waste-to-energy plants are failing because of the lack of segregation. It is also clear that if segregation is not done, then any effort towards management will be reduced to mere displacement finally resulting in burning or burying. In this situation, segregation at source becomes the imperative of successful solid waste management strategies.
This is where Thiruvananthapuram has become a pioneer to treat the waste at its source or proximate to its source. This model of waste management, which incentivizes segregation at source and in-situ management mitigating the negative impacts of waste on the environment, human health and the economy is the only way ahead for developing countries.