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Kerala's struggles with waste management

and the half-hearted efforts by many Urban Local Bodies to combat it.

One of the consequences of the great ‘Gulf Boom’ that took millions of Malayalis to the Persian Gulf and Arabian States in search of fruitful employment has been rapid urbanization. As per the State Urbanization Report (2018), the Urban Population Growth in the state increased from 25.96% (2001) to 47.72% (2011), an 83.82% increase. As urban areas get more populated as well as urbanization increases, many basic facilities provided by Local Self-Governing Bodies will be stretched to ever increasing limits. One of the most crucial problems these Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are facing is the issue of waste management.


In the cult-classic and blockbuster hit Pulivaal Kalayanam (2003), there is a famous scene where Salim Kumar wakes up after smelling rubbish and says “Haa, we’ve reached Kochi!” Kochi’s reputation as a dirty city precedes itself. In fact, the Swacch Survekshan Survey in 2019 and 2020, Kochi finished second last and last respectively among Kerala’s ranked cities.

None of Kerala’s eight towns breached the top 100 ranking in the 2020 survey. Alappuzha topped the list from Kerala at Rank 152 in the 2020 listing, while the second ranked Thiruvananthapuram is ranked at 304. The rapid urbanization has already stretched the earlier “dump and forget” method of waste management to its limits.

Sites such as Njeliyanparambu in Kozhikode and Villapilsala in Thiruvananthapuram acquired notoriety as dumping grounds. Much like how Kuthiravattom became synonymous for the Government Mental Hospital in Kozhikode, Njelayanparamabu became synonymous with ‘waste’. The residents near Njeliyanparambu and Villapilsila suffered immensely due to these dumpsites damaging the environment, almost irreparably.

Both Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram have attempted to alleviate the situation by incentivizing compositing and establishing plastic recycling units. However, these units can only be considered as partial successes. In both Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram, you will see waste accumulated at many random spots, especially on abandoned plots. The effectiveness of the system evolved by the local bodies is very doubtful considering that many neighborhoods are not covered by corporation sanitation workers or by other private agencies is an indication that the activities of the Corporations have not improved widely enough at a grass roots level.

While the prevalence of random waste dumping on the waysides of suburban areas and abandoned plot have reduced since the late 2000s, the problem has not completely been erased. The improvements have largely been due to the use of decentralized waste management through the use of compost. Construction for a waste-to-electricity plant in the erstwhile dump of Njelayanparamabu in Kozhikode could also possibly alleviate the problem.


Kochi, the largest city in Kerala has continuously struggled with waste management, and continues to do so. While the State Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC) for Solid Waste Management had asked the Corporation in 2019 to ensure 100% doorstep collection, even after two years, there is more than enough anecdotal evidence that this is from the case almost two years down the line.

Garbage dumping in abandoned or vacant plots, and even in front of the State Pollution Control Board Building in Kochi is still ever-present. While in 2019 the Kochi Corporation presented the Brahamapuram Waste to Electricity Plant as a part of the solution. While in 2019 it was stated that the plant would finish in 2021, the plant is far from starting.

The New Kochi Mayor, M. Anilkumar has indicated that decentralized waste management would be a priority for the new administration that took oath in December 2020. Some of the plans mooted by the new Kochi Corporation Council such as the use of stainless-steel bins at public locations have been tried before.[1]

Funnily enough, M. Anilkumar was also appointed as a member of the Kerala Pollution Control Board, an entity that is trying to actively prosecute the Kochi Corporation for the violations of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Sri. Anilkumar however assures us that he will play a positive role in ensuring the implementation of waste management rules. Kudos, Comrade!


It would be pertinent to note here that the other members of the Kerala Pollution Control Board, an authority given wide powers of environmental regulation under various statutes, also consists of five members of Local Body Officials among its 15 plus members. This body is then expected to police the functioning of the very bodies that some of its members represent. One can speak of regulatory capture here, but that would be quite moot. No wonder that a former Chairman of the Kerala PCB got forced out of office for fining the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation for non-compliance with rules during a by-election to a Legislative Assembly Constituency there.


Alappuzha is ranked the highest among the Urban Local Bodies in Kerala at #152 in the Swachh Survekshan 2020, the Municipal Corporation has very successfully implemented a decentralized waste management system. The system has been so successful that Alappuzha has eliminated its last waste dumping site. While the bigger Corporations attempt to emulate this model, it has so far only found limited success, likely due to Alappuzha’s completely smaller size.

The bigger problem that Kerala faces is the disposal of the biomedical waste. Kerala has a single biomedical waste plant set up in Palakkad by the Indian Medical Association that is struggling to meet the COVID surge of waste generation. This has led to many instances of waste dumping in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu by Keralaites. This has however been the case pre-COVID as well, however. In fact, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had in February 2020 demanded that the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to demand action against open dumping of waste. While the IMA has mooted a second biomedical plant in Brahamapuram, it still seems to be a non-starter.

The State Government is seeking to rectify the situation with the creation of a comprehensive Kerala State Waste Management Project funded primarily by the World Bank. The idea is to fill the gap in insufficient funding for many local bodies in processing waste. A parallel Kerala State Waste Management Authority is being proposed, that aims to build and monitor waste treatment, recycling and landfills in Kerala. The body will take over significant functions of the Local Bodies in Kerala as well. The State Policy on Waste Management in 2018 provides for the Authority to take over waste management plants in case urban local bodies fails to function. This is possibly a violation of the Twelfth Schedule of the Constitution that lists solid waste management as a function of municipalities.

In any case, Kerala’s waste management problems are not ending anytime soon. The lack of public enthusiasm in sanitation and the lack of resources in the hands of Urban Local bodies means that there are long-term solutions being mooted for present day issues and not enough thought about the future.


1 Albeit, this was in Kozhikode with the use of Blue Bins on Electricity Poles in the late 2000s.


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