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Vol. XXXII No. 3, May 16-31, 2022

Perungudi landfill fire — A harsh reminder why waste segregation at source is non-negotiable

by A Special Correspondent

On a Wednesday in the last week of April, residents in and around the Perungudi dump noticed a haze of smoke enveloping their localities. It became harder to breathe and vehicles plying the Pallavaram-Thoraipakkam 200 feet radial road found themselves driving in conditions of poor visibility. It was reportedly around 12.30 pm that day when local officials noticed that a fire had broken out in the landfill at Perungudi; they put out a call for help at around 2 pm, unable to contain the flames. The fire spread across a whopping 15 acres. It would take civic personnel across the Fire and Rescue, Corporation and CMWSSB departments four days of firefighting to put it out. Residents of the city as far as Velachery, Guindy and Taramani reported being affected by the smoke. It was also said that night herons were spotted flying away from the ecoglogically-sensitive Pallikaranai marshland close by. The lake adjoining the Perungudi landfill turned a bright, cotton-candy pink days after the fire, indicating the presence of cyanobacteria – an algal bloom that turns air and water toxic when present in high concentrations.

The cause of fire is suspected by the authorities to be a pile of discarded coconut husk, supposed to have caught fire in the summer heat. The rapid spread and ferocity of the conflagration has been attributed to methane trapped in the landfill. The Chennai Deputy Mayor Mahesh Kumar informed the media that a request would be made to the Mayor and ministers soliciting the establishment of a permanent fire station in the area. The subject of generating power from waste came up as well. According to reports that quoted Mr. K.N. Nehru, the Minister for Municipal Administration, Urban and Water Supply, the TN government plans to generate electricity from non-degradable wastes in the Corporation and municipality dumpyards. This is in addition to the bio-mining programmes launched at Perungudi and Kodungaiyur – “ a process that aids in the quicker decomposition of solid waste, enabling the city to reclaim the land.

None of the above is likely to serve Chennai as a sustainable solution to the very real and increasing hazard of landfill fires unless citizens take the responsibility to segregate the waste they generate. It isn’t just our city that faces this peril — Delhi and Chandigarh were choked by landfill fires earlier this year as well, almost around the same time as Perungudi. Those conflagrations were attributed to poor waste management by its citizens, too.

The potential impact of source segregation is perhaps best explained through numbers. The Perungudi dumpyard already has roughly 3.6 million cubic metres of legacy waste lying across 125 acres. Almost half the garbage generated by the city on any given day is sent straight to the Perungudi dumpyard, including 2000 tons of wet waste. It is precisely such organic refuse — food and scraps, besides wood and paper — that produce the methane gas that exacerbated the fire at Perungudi. This means that our status quo of staggering indifference towards waste segregation practices only courts more landfill fires, not just at Perungudi but likely at Kodungaiyur as well. The ensuing air and water pollution will translate to a poorer quality of life for us and our fellow citizens.

Given the risks, the resistance to change our behaviour towards waste management is nothing short of puzzling. The city’s authorities have done their best to create awareness around the issue. Bylaws were implemented in Solid Waste Management Rules in 2019, empowering the civic body to penalize residents failing to segregate their waste to the tune of Rs. 100. Contractors were brought in to collect waste from residents’ doorsteps and educate them on the need to segregate. The conservancy workers practically sing to most citizens every morning, urging households to hand over segregated waste. Unfortunately, it has largely been in vain so far. Hopefully, the choking stench of smoke from the recent fire has had an impact in changing minds across the city. If that doesn’t work, perhaps the authorities need to consider stringent measures – for instance, many cities have civic departments that refuse to collect waste unless segregated. It may be the only way to bring about a long overdue change in our waste management practices.

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