The tale of two cities: Two Kerala models for waste management

Canalpy, waste management in Alappuzha
A canal in Alappuzha. The coastal city has evolved a unique system to manage its waste.

By Sajan Gopalan

This is the story of two Indian cities confronting the same problem and trying to solve it in their own ways — the cities are Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha in Kerala. Both the cities had a system of centralised waste management and local residents rose up against dumping city waste in their localities. With local residents blocking garbage trucks, both the cities turned literally into waste bins, sparking the fear of a public health hazard. How Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha addressed this issue and evolved their own unique solutions is a study in contrast into alternative public policy, innovative technologies, implementation techniques and people’s participation. In the two major approaches to waste management, the first calls for centralised waste treatment plans such as converting waste into energy, while the other advocates decentralised approaches such as composting that needs higher people’s participation.

Even though the jury is still out on this debate, it is now widely accepted that the decentralisation strategy is a work in progress. But in a country that produces 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every day, this is not a question that can be pushed under the carpet. Let us take a quick look at the divergent approaches adopted by the two cities.

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The Alappuzha way

Alappuzha, called the Venice of the East, is a city of two lakh people that is sandwiched between the Arabian sea and the Vembanad lake. It has a unique network of canals of about 200 km length that criss-crosses the city. The city is home to 40,000 households that produce about 50 tonnes of solid waste every day. The water sanitation (Watsan) parks in the city specialise in the unique Thumboormuzhy mode of composting that is fundamental to the decentralised waste management experiments in Kerala.

When its lone waste disposal site had to be closed due to public protest, Alappuzha pioneered a new experiment relying more on segregation, decentralisation and people’s participation. The breakthrough came in the form of a technological innovation by Francis Xavier, a Kerala Veterinary University professor. Named after the village where it was first experimented, the Thumboormuzhy model is an aerobic composting method.

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The city has 28 Watsan parks with about 300 bins, each with the capacity to compost two tonnes of waste. These community composting plants are for those who are not able to compost biodegradables at source. Compost from these Watsan parks is currently distributed free to farmers, but this eventually could become a source of funding for the maintenance of the parks. Individual households are motivated to have their own waste management systems like vermicomposting, kitchen bins or biogas plants. Institutions like hotels, schools, hospitals etc can have their own system of waste treatment or can depend on agencies that that source waste for pig farms, fish ponds and poultry farms. Each of the Watsan parks have material collection facilities that will accept non-biodegradable waste in 20 different categories on fixed dates.

In Alappuzha, the next major step was to address the problem of liquid waste and sewage management. Currently, untreated water and sewage flows into the canal system, contributing to the uncontrolled growth of weeds. Canalpy, the canal rejuvenation project, has become a people’s movement that involves all major technical institutions in Alappuzha.

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The search for an alternative to liquid waste and sewage treatment started with a major drain mapping survey by IIT Bombay and KILA Trichur that included the biophysical and socio-economic data collection using mobile apps with identification of sanitation zones and treatment locations. It was estimated that about three lakh litres of septage was being pumped into the canal system every day. One shocking find from the study was that almost 93% of the well water used in households and 39% of water distributed by Kerala Water authority had the presence of e-coli. It was evident that unless the question of septage is addressed there will not be a sustainable solution to the problem of canal pollution in Alappuzha.

The initial cleaning drive was organised by massive public participation and also by integrating with existing schemes with the involvement of Kudumbashree, the renowned poverty alleviation programme through self-help groups of women. Participation of youth clubs and National Service Scheme volunteers was also ensured. CSR-based involvement of companies also helped create adaptable pilot models.

The Thiruvananthapuram model

State capital Thiruvananthapuram also faced a public health emergency when the Vilappilsala treatment plant had to be closed down that used to absorb 200 tonnes of municipal waste every day. The city came up with an innovative campaign that motivated people to take the responsibility of the waste they created.

The city now has about 500 Thumboormuzhy bins in 45 locations as well as 40 material recovery centres. A specially designed mobile app Smart Trivandrum helped to develop a calendar for waste disposal. This is in addition to household management through kitchen bins, bio gas etc. Institutional waste is collected by approved agencies for pig, poultry and fish farms.

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Focus on reuse, waste reduction

Common to all these experiments are the concepts of segregation, in situ composting and minimisation of waste creation through the zero-waste concept. The formation of the Haritha Karma Sena or a Green Army equipped was a crucial cog in the system. The 26,000 members of the sena across the state are being trained to upgrade their green job skills. Most of these jobs are related to new technologies like biobins, kitchen bins, biogas etc. This can be eventually widened in scope to involve rain water harvesting and solar panel servicing. The members in the sena are linked together by QR coded apps that identify each member attached to the household.

“Massive people’s participation and convergence with existing government schemes are key to the innovative developmental projects in Kerala,” says Thomas Isaac, finance minister of Kerala who has been spearheading both the projects.

There are swap shops to motivate people to recycle and reuse. There are strict green protocols for major festivals, meetings and political gatherings. Parallel to this, the scrap business has been modernised and there are major players who have effectively upgraded their business models.

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There are also several unique experiments. The artists who participated in Kochi Muziris Biennale decorated the walls of the first Watsan park. Local artists work along the sub canals, making them look like roadside painting exhibitions. A visit to the Chathanad colony in Alleppey where the pilot work is being undertaken is like visiting a museum on waste water treatment.

These experiments are also part of the major greening project currently undertaken by the state that involves the rejuvenation of all existing water bodies. “The experiments to rejuvenate rivers like Varattaar, Meenachilaar and Killiyaar have attracted national attention,” says TN Seema, vice chairperson of the Harithakeralam mission.

It doesn’t mean that all is hunky dory with the movement — there are still people who are indifferent, criminal elements that dump waste in water bodies, and corporation employees who burn trash. Sceptics say the enthusiasm will die down with the end of the campaign. They say individual responsibility cannot replace a system and the new structures will collapse when key players change. Despite all the cynicism, Kerala is likely to overachieve the sanitations goals set by the Narendra Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Mission.

Those who vouch for decentralisation say this experiment is a tool to educate the public on politics. One piece of waste that you create is the beginning point of a discussion on production and consumption, directly linked to sustainability, livelihood and environmental destruction leading to climate change. Through the Watsan clubs in schools, children are motivated to see the whole process through the lens of ecological democracy.

The process of resource mapping and digitised data collection have become a major conscientisation drive. Most of the innovative development initiatives in Kerala such as the Total Literacy Campaign and The People’s Plan Movement are based on campaigns that ensure massive peoples’ participation. Creation of a green Kerala will also require a movement planned to be executed within a prescribed time frame. Experience in Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram show that this can be scaled up for the whole of Kerala and replicated in other states.

(Sajan Gopalan is a development media professional based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at