In early 2016, the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation (TMC) issued a resolution to formally abandon the closed-down centralized biodegradable waste management facility in the Village of Vilappilsala. This decision was the culmination of over five years of efforts in the form of litigation and mass protest on the part of village residents. The waste management facility, locally called “the plant,” was located 14 kilometers (9 miles) northeast of the city of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city, one of the most populous states in India. From 2000 onwards, it was the only waste management and processing facility for the city.
With rapidly growing urban populations, waste management has become one of the most crucial aspects of urban governance in the Global South; many city plans dedicate separate sections to waste management. Although there have been different policy directives, in line with international standards,  the dominant model in practice has been disposal via landfill, owing to a variety of factors ranging from a lack of source segregation to dismal, or non-existent, infrastructure. However, as resource-strained cities grapple with growing mounds of garbage, it is vital that cities attend to where this waste is managed in addition to how it is managed. With the carrying capacities of many Indian cities breached, planners have turned to “managing” their waste in nearby rural areas, often out of the city’s administrative boundaries, yet close enough for accessibility. It is evident that this strategy is not adequate from the growing waves of these outskirts refusing to accept the city’s refuse.  Following this trend of periurban pushback, Vilappilsala residents successfully forced the closure of Thiruvananthapuram’s waste processing plant and achieved a fundamental restructuring of how Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is handled in the state of Kerala.
Marginalia: periurbanism in urbanizing India
It is estimated that in the coming decades India will possess one in every five large cities in the world, making it one of the most urbanized nations on earth (UNHABITAT 2010; Goswami 2018). In the context of this urban growth, policymakers have made cities the fulcrum of developmental planning, placing cities at the center of the policy process. This mode of top-down urban policymaking often overlooks the significance of areas on the city’s outer edges, which behave as a catchment area for labor, goods, and services (Cattaneo et al. 2021). These outer fringes of the city have been deprioritized by policymakers. However, periurban areas are crucial because they embody the transformative nature of urbanization, with the politics of development on full display (Narain et al. 2013; Dupont et al. 2005; Nagendra 2016). The physical, economic, and social changes that urbanization symbolizes often play out in these periurban spaces. They have also become sites of contestation, as periurban residents resist exploitation by larger urban centers, particularly in terms of the shifts in the livelihood (from agriculture and small-scale retail to more precarious work that urban areas offer) and the control of air, water, and land resources. Waste is central among these conflicts: a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based organization, points out as many as 79 waste-centered conflicts between cities and the periurban fringes that they have used as dump yards (Sambyal and Narain 2016).
Such periurban spaces rarely find themselves in the spotlight, save for instances when they seek to assert themselves in the policy process, as with the case of Vilappilsala. There, the residents’ nearly two-year protest was merely the latest chapter in a roughly two-decade struggle against the waste treatment plant in the village.
© Ashish Prabhakar.
Rapid urbanization has meant that the carrying capacity of many Indian cities is exhausted, leading urban planners to took to nearby areas to absorb urban waste, and in the process, extend or renew the city’s capacity. The TMC estimates that the city of Thiruvananthapuram generates close to 300 metric tons of waste every day (Ambat 2003); there is no space to manage this waste within Thiruvananthapuram. Following the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules of 2000,  the TMC and the state of Kerala began operating the biodegradable waste treatment plant at Vilappilsala. Nearby residents argue that ever since the facility’s inception, there has been a marked increase in incidences of infections and other associated ailments, which they attribute to the pollution of air and water bodies by the effluents released by the plant. “The people of Vilappilsala, underwent hellish torture,” remarked S, who was part of the protests in 2012 (personal communication, 2018). For over three years the Janakeeya Samara Samithi (People’s Joint Action Committee), an organization formed by the residents of Vilappilsala and concerned stakeholders to deliberate upon the issue at hand and coordinate responses with the village panchayat (council),  launched a prolonged struggle that included human chain formation and relay hunger fasts to blockade solid waste transport trucks from entering the village. The protests persisted even in the face of crackdowns from the TMC, which used both the police force and orders from the Kerala High court in its efforts to counter Vilappilsala’s resistance.
LSG v. LSG
The case of Vilappilsala’s conflict with the TMC also played out through litigation with the Local Self Governance (LSG) bodies challenging each other’s jurisdictions at all available levels of the judiciary. V.N., one of the convenors of the Janakeeya Samara Samithi, summed up the administrative complexity: “The plant was actually in Vilappilsala panchayat, and the corporation owned that plant. It was the corporation’s property in the panchayat […]. So, there were some political issues and a tug of war (personal communication, 2019).” In India, many cities’ disposal and treatment facilities are located across administrative boundaries in nearby rural areas. Administratively, Local Self-Governance Institutions (LSGIs)—building on existing Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs)—sought to create newer forms of governance and political enfranchisement that were envisaged as providing opportunities for villages to participate in decision-making around land use and the environment. However, some have observed that, for the most part, these LSGIs have not been able to provide the expected political enfranchisement to the local governments (Tharakan, 2005; Gurukkal, 2001).
The conflict at Vilappilsala can be traced to a power imbalance in the decision-making process. The Municipal Solid Waste management rules of 2016 explicitly make it the LSG’s—the TMC and its counterpart Vilappil Grama Panchayath—duty to manage and dispose of garbage. But the TMC wields more power, allowing it to colonize the Vilappilsala with its waste infrastructure.
© Ashish Prabhakar.
“Losing out to a people’s movement”: natural resources and environmental “bads” in periurban spaces
The conflict in Vilappilsala and many other parts of the country can be boiled down to two streams of arguments. The first concerns the export of “environmental bads”—in this case waste, pollution, and social liabilities—from the city to the non-city. The TMC achieved this through arbitrary decisions to impose itself and its waste on Vilappilsala by using legal instruments. This is a potential point of conflict, especially in a contemporary Indian context where LSG institutions have co-equal (in theory, at least) powers. Bringing attention to environmental factors (e.g. land use, water, and sometimes air) provides a sharper tool to analyze such points of inflection between the rural and urban, between different levels of governance structures, and the LSG institutions. Second, such conflicts shed light on the fraught relationships between natural resources, governance, and externalities such as waste, and can provide a window into the unequal relationships that pervade social structures. As Peter Brand (2007) reminds us, environmental planning (along with urban planning and development planning) needs to be understood from the lens of “spatial transformation and social regulation under neoliberal urbanisation” (p. 216). It is also important to note that the formations of national waste strategies may or may not align with local interests.
Vilappilsala’s struggle against the factory demonstrates the urban-centric stances that various policies, rules, and regulations assume. Vilappilsala’s case also points to the existing fault lines within the decentralization structures currently in operation. Further, it highlights the many actions that cities undertake to circumvent various safeguard provisions and impose themselves on non-cities. As long as such structures continue without the involvement of the communities, conflicts such as Vilappilsala will continue, and in the words of V.N., will represent “the story behind the closure […] of the waste treatment plant that made life hell for those living in its vicinity. This is a story of government and a Municipal Corporation losing out to a people’s movement.”
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