Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Darkness at noon

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

What does Kochi, the dream destination, not have! It is what every city yearns for. The city’s lanes, by-lanes, buildings and communities – every brick and stone – has a story to tell. 

From Muziris to the modern port of today, Kochi has a rich history, one that pre-dates the colonial era. Fort Kochi is a rich tapestry of colour, colonial buildings, bungalows, and boutique hotels.

Fort Kochi

Muziris, the prosperous port that was located in and around today’s Kodungallur in the north of Kochi, had looked westward as it engaged in a thriving trade in spices and products. The flooding of Periyar during the mid-14th century swallowed Muziris forever. In return, it is believed the swollen river gave rise to a natural harbour that Kochi is thriving on to this day, exposing India and the port city to trade with the rest of the world.

Also read: Flying colours

The Portuguese, Dutch, and English all came here to partake of its wealth. The Cochin royalty welcomed with open arms external influences. Each left their own mark and legacy. The Jews who came here as settlers were welcomed too as were other religious influences. 

Brahmapuram waste

City in siege 

This description of the city is what it is generally known by the world over. But there’s another side to Kochi. 

Ernakulam is, and has been, in the news for the wrong reason. For several days this week and the previous, the Brahmapuram waste plant has been smouldering, billowing acrid and polluted smoke, making the city another Delhi. 

Also read: Quakes and infernos

A city which has strong winds blowing in from the sea and the mountains to the east was plunged literally in darkness with poor visibility.  People living in tony suburbs were advised not to step out into the open. A pall of smoke with suspended particulate matter enveloped and spread to large parts of an otherwise relatively environment-friendlyand clean city.

The Thrikkakara, Tripunithura and Maradu municipalities, and the Kochi Corporation, were the worst affected with air quality deteriorating to red – ‘very poor’ – and toxic air reaching south to as far away as villages in Alappuzha district, including the suburb of Aroor.

The highly polluting refineries spewing petroleum fumes, not too far from Brahmapuram, pale into insignificance compared to the waste plant’s smoke.

It has been so for the last few years. In 2010, thick smoke with plastic pollutants enveloped many parts of the city in a thick blanket of smoke.

Alapuzha, flights cancelled due to poor visibility

Waste disposal

Now, all big cities dispose of waste and incinerate it in dumps generally located on their outskirts. Delhi has its dumps at Ghazipur and on the Sonepat-Delhi highway. Ernakulam’s Brahmapuram plant is bang in the heart of an ever-expanding city.

Also read: Recycle or perish

The incineration at the waste dump is a ticking time-bomb. The strong windsfrom the lofty Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea in the west act as catalysts, with plastic wastes stoking the fire. What’s worse, the fire-fighting system, if any, is as good as non-existent.

By any stretch of imagination or yardstick, Ernakulam-Kochi is a prosperous city. Its GDP, the highest in Kerala, also surpasses that of tier-2 cities elsewhere in India. 

Kochi refinery lets out polluting and choking fumes

Environmental issues

What then ails the system of waste disposal and pollution control?

A few years ago, the major environmental concerns were from the public sector BPCL Cochin Refinery letting out polluting and choking fumes. Spread over hundreds of hectares of land, the Refinery and its ancillary units around Ambalamugal and Ambalamedu were causing concern to the communities right up to Kakkanad, Puthencruz and beyond. 

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As if to shift the blame, concern shifted to a nearby private sector carbon black unit, a product that finds wide application in the manufacture of tyres, plastics, mechanical rubber goods to printing inks and toners.

No doubt highly polluting, both – refinery and the carbon black unit – are believed to have since switched to new and more efficient effluent control systems and technologies. Interestingly, both are contiguous to a highly popular amusement park. The park attracts visitors from far and wide.

Systemic failures

In a sense, the environmental crises and other failures, in the state as well as city, are ascribable to systemic issues. There is this scant disregard to human health and conditions in which city services are provided. 

The city officials do not seem to be particularly concerned about the recurring problem. How else can you explain the absence of the district’s senior most state government official from the high court during the suo motu writ petition hearing filed in the fire incident.

Also read: Vani goes silent 

The situation is no different from that depicted in the classic work ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler published in 1940.

In the novel, Kostler showed the failure of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin. ‘Noon’ referred to the progressive promises made by the party, chief among them the abolition of class distinctions and exploitation of the proletariat.

Fixing the problem of the Brahmapuram plant, with the waste smouldering since nearly a week, and a longer-term solution to the recurring conflagration, is of utmost importance.  Whether it is the responsibility of the corporation or the state government, a lasting solution is the least those responsible have to necessarily provide.

Public Awareness 

There is awareness about the deleterious effect of pollution from city waste burning. And this is so for environmental and health issues as well across the country. The Holi celebrations this year are just about concluding and the awareness levels against the use of synthetic colours that are toxic and lethal has to be seen to be believed. 

Crises situations such as seen in the massive fire in Kochi have to be dealt, to some extent, by concerted public action. The civic administrators, who have the chief responsibility, no doubt, need to be sensitive to potential health hazards from such disasters. They cannot shirk their moral responsibility and look the other way.

Also read: Curtain calls

Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"


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