Garbage & Goa: Assagaon Fire

Goa’s Garbage troubles have been getting out of hand of late. Community Correspondent Sulochana Pednekar explains what she’s been doing as a part of wider community efforts to start fixing the mess.

Palm tree lined roads nestled between lush green hills, waves dancing on sun-soaked beaches. Goa is home to mellow natives; wandering hippies and people from pretty much any background imaginable—top media executives, ex stock-market brokers and writers. They’ve all come to bask in the warm glow of the ‘susegad’ paradise and to get away from the craziness that has taken over the rest of the world.  Of late though things seem out of balance here; nature is giving way to concrete monstrosities; the bonhomie is giving way to an ugly xenophobic way of thinking and worst, the garbage in the State has taken on a life form of its own and dots every single place possible.

The latest in a series of garbage related problems for residents of Goa comes from Mapusa-Assagao where an illegal garbage dump being run by the Mapusa Municipal Council (MMC) has been on fire since January 2014. As residents have started taking charge to get a handle on the problem, Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondent Sulochana Pednekar has been documenting and trying to find solutions to this and on Goa’s garbage scourge in general.

The garbage dump is on one side of a road that meanders across the hills of Saligao, Assagao and Mapusa. It is a disgusting sight, everything from industrial paint cans to discarded medical waste, to tyres to bits of cloth from Mapusa council have been dumped in what was once a valley. In a decade 20,000 plus tonnes of garbage have been thrown here. Unlike most garbage dumps this landfill is not lined and so the toxins are leaching into the soil and into the water table. Around 25,000 people live in the neighbouring areas and there is a school barely 500 meters from the garbage dump.

“I started making this video because I was angry. For many years I’d been seeing and smelling this garbage dump, and then in December it was on fire yet again. It was getting unbearable and I had to do something about it. It was around that time that I was introduced to people in Assagao who were also working to bring the fire to the attention of the Goan State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) and the MMC. Then, Satyamev Jayate, a popular TV show, did an episode on the importance of garbage segregation and responsible collection. That nailed it, I knew that the cult following of the show would make Goans, who are deep in the depths of garbage hell, wake up and act. I got out my camera and started planning”, says Sulochana, a veteran community journalist who has been documenting the various issues that trouble Goans.

Assagaon FireFor three consecutive years this dump has been set on fire to make way for more garbage. Every year the residents and school children suffer acute respiratory problems, eye infections and other health hazards because of the fire and smoke. While the MMC often blames it on the cashew farmers who clear fields by burning them, residents and activists feel it is being done on purpose. There are heaps and heaps of plastic smouldering from the very bottom of the pile. It is wet unsegregated waste and catches fire very easily. Some say that now only the monsoon rains will calm it down. The MMC must take responsibility for the rules it has violated.

 

“I entered the site on a hot Sunday afternoon. The dump has one main gate that is monitored by security guards and another that is not really a gate but an opening in the fence and the shrubbery that borders the dump-yard. Earlier that day from my brother’s house in Mapusa, I had seen giant grey smoke clouds hover around the horizon and by the time I got there it had gotten worse. I walked further in towards the smoke, because I wanted to get a closer look at it, and I started feeling claustrophobic. At that time, I ignored it. I wasn’t scared of the security guards I could see lurking around at a distance, it was a pure adrenaline rush that I was functioning on; I was going to get this video made. When it got unbearable and my head started pounding, I finally decided that I needed to get away”, explains Sulochana.

 

For Sulochana being a Community Correspondent comes with its own unique set of problems. The first is that many of her family members think that she shouldn’t be putting herself in these awkward situations to begin with.

 

“I was standing on the side of the road filming my piece to camera and my uncle drove by. I got caught red handed so I lied a little and told him about how my friend was making a film about my work as a Correspondent. Thankfully, he didn’t ask me to get on his bike and go home that very instant”, she giggles to cover up the importance of her victory.

 

The second challenge that she faces, is community support. Sulochana has worked very closely with Goa’s Saligao community so far; this story was her first venture to a different part of Goa. While many from the Assagao and Mapusa community were very forthcoming in their support others just stood by watching. Sulochana says:

 

Assagaon Fire

MMC truck dumping garbage.

“Since the beginning of my involvement in this issue my main goal has been to mobilise the community. I found that there are a lot of small groups who are working to highlight this issue to the MMC and to the GSPCB. The problem is that they are not working together. The most disappointing thing for me as a native Goan is that more people are not taking on this responsibility. A lot of those who are organising meetings, roadside clean ups, efforts to meet officials are not native Goans, they have settled here from other places. Not that this makes much difference but what I find myself wondering is this—what would it take for more Goans to wake up and take control of this situation? What will it take for that sense of ownership to set in? Because after all, each one of us is equally responsible for generating waste.”

 

In the past three months, the fire has really helped galvanise action from various fronts of the community. Community members have been able to get the GSPCB to inspect the site and issue a fresh warning to the MMC. The community has taken to the streets organising demonstrations during the Goan Carnival and is channelling the more useful aspects of social media to keep solution-oriented discussions alive.

 

Sulochana hopes that once more people from the worst affected residential areas like Ganeshpuri, Ektanagar and Lakshminagar see the video she has made, during community screenings she has planned, they too will start coming forward. She realises that at the Assagao-Mapusa dump all people can really hope for is that the fire is put out immediately and for the MMC to start shifting this dumpsite to the proposed alternate site where there is a proper lining.

Assagaon Fire

But what then? We’d have just won a single victory against the irresponsible MMC. Goa’s garbage problems aren’t going to disappear overnight, to really start to deal with this issue we need a multi-dimensional strategy. A large part of the solution is segregation at source. Community media can play a crucial role in this mobilisation. Sulochana echoes this thought:

 

“I can’t make these small videos about different garbage issues across Goa and leave it. We have to acknowledge that there are a lot of communities doing some great things when it comes to creating awareness on garbage issues. These positive stories are what need to be shown to every single citizen to make us all realise that it is possible.

 

I have made some videos on such recycling and segregation initiatives and now I am trying to get these screened in schools and pair them up with live demonstrations and workshops for kids. If it becomes part of the curriculum all the better, but I wont hold my breath on that because our present Chief Minister doesn’t quite get these concepts. Left to him he’d set up a huge garbage treatment plant that takes in unsegregated garbage. I’m not sure what will happen to the 20,000 tonnes of waste in Mapusa. There are many people working to solve that. My main contribution as a Community Correspondent can be to intervene and become part of a process that changes mind sets. That is my strength and I will make it my Goan community’s strength as well.”

 

We urge the District Collector to ensure that the fires at the landfill are doused and dealt with as per the Management of Solid Waste Rules immediately. We want permanent systems to be put in place so that this does not occur again.

You can sign the petition on change.org to support the residents of Goa.

 

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