Turning a landfill into a park: What our cities can learn from eco-sensitive Coorg

How does one close a landfill and in the process create a sustainable waste management model? Coorg in Karnataka has shown the way.

There is something about a hill vacation, travelling across narrow winding roads upwards, landscape dotted with lush green terrain, tantalising water streams,  foggy foothills, chirping birds, the buzzing sounds of insects and clean air. But now, contrast this with unsightly scenes of rubbish by the roadside — styrofoam, plastic wrappers, bags  and bottles, and more. The garbage keeps growing, competing with the hills, and becomes a monstrous man-made mountain in the midst of a landfill, laden with grotesque man-made objects that speak volumes about our use-and-throw culture and our complete lack of consideration for the environment.

Coorg, nestled in the Western Ghats, also known as the Scotland of India, and a popular tourist destination has, however, managed to make significant progress in fighting the waste menace. The town has demonstrated their commitment towards zero waste, with the closure of  two landfills.

“Zero waste” is a concept that entails minimum or zero pollution to land, water and air due to solid waste management (SWM) practices and zero waste going to landfills. This initiative was a collaborative initiative by the volunteers of Clean Coorg Initiative, Hasiru Dala, the Gram Panchayat and the local government. 

Ponnampet landfill as it stood in 2019
The 30-year old Ponnampet landfill as it stood in 2019. It would burn most of the time, the dump going down to nearly 40 feet.
Pic courtesy: Clean Coorg Initiative

How it all started

Alarmed that Coorg could soon degenerate into a dumping ground, in 2016, Prashanth Chinnappa, a local resident of Coorg brought several like-minded people together, to form ‘The Clean Coorg Initiative (CCI),’  a voluntary platform to promote a clean and healthy Coorg, with a core focus on promoting segregation of waste at source. 

Read more: How can India move towards more sustainable waste management in tourist cities?

According to Pooja Uthappa, Volunteer at the Clean Coorg Initiative, “Waste is  a relatively new phenomenon in this landscape. With rapid urbanisation, the quantum of garbage is also rapidly increasing. The other concern is around waste disposal practices. Dumping in one area or on the sides of the road and open air burning are common practices. Unfortunately some of the dumping areas are in the fringes of the forest areas, and the wild animals unknowingly consume them (the garbage dumped).”

Pooja also points out that Coorg residents depend primarily on groundwater; so when waste is dumped in open lands/ dumping grounds or landfills, it eventually contaminates water sources. But that’s not all. “Talakeveri, in Kodagu district, is considered the source of the river Cauvery and is an important lifeline for inhabitants in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; incidents of indiscriminate garbage dumping adds to the problem downstream,” she says.

Pavan Aiyappa, Volunteer, CCI says, “We have a simple mission, which is to preserve the fragile ecology of Coorg for future generations, adopt sustainable initiatives, manage waste, promote  responsible tourism, and preserve our natural resources”.  

The group soon realised that clean up drives were a temporary solution, with no place for disposal of the litter collected, and that systemic changes were needed, along with on ground awareness. They started by undertaking a survey, observing practices, existing infrastructure and dumping spots. Savita Chengappa*, a volunteer from CCI, says, “We surveyed the entire stretch, till the Kerala border and we realised that we need somebody on the ground, who could go to the gram panchayat, create awareness and build capacities of the local team, using the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016 framework. We also had to envision and plan the concept of stream-based processing of waste.”

The team also wanted to build on the success of Dry Waste Collection Centres (DWCCs) in Bengaluru, and wanted to understand the workings of the same in a rural set-up. Aparna, another active volunteer with CCI, says, “For us, all these were still theoretical and we needed to put these concepts into practice.” 

Partnerships and initiatives

The group then decided to collaborate with the government and other organisations and approached Hasiru Dala, a social impact organisation working with waste pickers to assist with onground implementation and solutions. 

Read more: How has Bengaluru fared in empowering waste workers?

Nalini Shekar, Co-founder Hasiru Dala, says, “Initially we were happy to support the group with necessary IEC and training, but soon realised that Coorg has a unique challenge, given its terrain. It has a large tourist footfall and considering the floating population, it is challenging to ensure that information and education programmes reach all of them. Secondly,  while collection happens, there is no recycling industry in the area. Thirdly, there are limited workers in the solid waste management space, as most workers are employed in the coffee estates, agriculture and the tourism industry.” But given their expertise in dry waste management, it appeared that a system could indeed be put in place.

Pooja says, “Our first priority was capacity building for the municipal workers, the ASHA workers, the Self Help Groups (SHGs) and the officers, towards implementation of decentralised waste management. The training included the concepts of segregation of waste at source, the management of DWCCs, roles and responsibilities of officers, management of reject waste. For the general public, the sessions focussed on responsible disposal of waste through segregation at source.” 

She shares that the group also conducted several outreach programmes like clean up drives, cycling awareness, sustainable menstruation and reached out to schools. CCI volunteers, in partnership with Wasteless Auroville, introduced a subject titled ‘Garbology’ as part of the school curriculum in Deviah memorial Preparatory School, Bittangala. Their outreach programme touched more than 800 government school children and teachers.**

CCI also hosted a Parivarthana Mela, to showcase sustainable lifestyle practices. This included composting workshops. 

Schoolchildren at an awareness programme organised by Clean Coorg Initiative
Awareness programmes were held in several schools in the region. Pic courtesy: Clean Coorg Initiative

Besides working on door-to-door awareness programmes, the team reached out to shopkeepers and explained the system of fines for non compliance. Pooja acknowledges the contribution of Kodava Koota from the United States of America, for supporting the outreach programmes.

Closing the landfills

The group then went on to streamline and simplify the  waste collection process and a Dry Waste Collection Centre was set up. Puttaraju, Panchayat Development Officer ( PDO), Ponnampet who worked towards the closure of Ponnampet landfill shares, “After CCI and Hasiru Dala’s intervention, we felt the need for a decentralised set up and a DWCC. We zeroed in on the location and approached the Zilla Panchayat for permissions. They were very supportive and passed a resolution for the construction of the DWCC.”

Hasiru Dala team also came up with a simple manual bailing system, which was then given to different GPs and this ensured that low value and multilayer waste could be sent for co-processing. Aparna, Volunteer CCI adds, “This process, then led to the natural question, do we really need dumping grounds or landfills?”

Aiyappa adds, “The rationale was much more than aesthetic beauty. We were also concerned about groundwater contamination and leachate from landfills, but also, given that the landfill was 30 years old and the waste was going about 30 feet down, we were also worried about landfill fires.”

The team then approached the GP, who in turn took to the implementation of the Karnataka Plastic Ban. The Panchayat passed a resolution on the plastic ban and introduced the “bring your own bag” concept, drawing in from the 2Bin1Bag concept and imposition of fines for littering,  Aiyappa shares that thereafter, they went about methodically working with the GP to close the landfill in two areas, Ponnampet Taluk and Karmadu, Virajpete Taluk.

Waste stacked using manual baler from Hasiru Dala
Hasiru Dala introduced Manual Baler to some of the Gram Panchayats in South Coorg, to pack the non-valuable materials through this and save money in transportation. Pic courtesy: Clean Coorg Initiative

Read more: How the 2Bin1Bag initiative helped Bengaluru score high in waste segregation

Stiff penalties for violation

Niren Nannaiah, President, Karmadu Gram Panchayat, adds, “We had various meetings on the need for closure of the landfill. We have cordoned off the area with a metal sheet, installed CCTV cameras and put up a board notifying the penalty for dumping garbage in and around the place. We decided that it was futile to impose nominal fines of a hundred or couple of hundred rupees, so we fixed it at Rs 5000. We have penalised a few people. But that’s not all, we have also issued notifications on the need to use reusables  or fibre cutlery at all events, especially marriages and functions.”

Nithin B S, PDO Karmadu, says the closure of the Karmadu landfill involved several stages: first sensitising people, then streamlining collection, seeking support of the elected representatives, passing resolutions and issuing the necessary notifications. But the most important was the imposition of fines. 

Signboard announcing penalties for dumping of waste in the cordoned-off Karmadu Landfill area
The cordoned-off Karmadu landfill area. Pic courtesy: Clean Coorg Initiative.

“We also made an announcement in the neighbouring gram panchayat that no dumping will be entertained, but they are free to drop segregated waste at our processing or dry waste centre. We spent about three lakh rupees in setting up the entire system, apart from separate investments in the installation of the CCTV camera,” said Nithin B S.

Finally an order was passed to close the landfill.  The next question was, what do we do with the landfill site? The team then worked with the GP and proposed a design for a public park.

Mr. Suraj Ajiikutiria, SBM, Virajpet and Ponnampet Taluk, says, “ In order to actualise the vision of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, we will need to close dumping sites in all 104 villages, plan for decentralised infrastructure and streamline collection just like we did in these Taluks.”

The most important takeaway from these experiences in Coorg is the need for a coming together of all stakeholders and a model that is both socially and environmentally inclusive, and which enables us to proudly proclaim, ‘landfills have no business.’

[The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Nirmala Shekar, Beula Anthony, Ramya K and Rohini Malur, for this article. ]

Also read:

* The quote had been wrongly attributed to Aparna, a CCI volunteer, in the first published version and has since been corrected.
** Additinal details have been added on the school programme based on clarifications from the CCI team

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