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Almost Paradise: Waste Management System of Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

By: Namrata Lunia

There’s a little piece of paradise for every beach bum, 56 kms away from the city of Chennai. It’s called Mahabalipuram, or as the locals fondly call it, Mamallapuram.

This town is a world heritage site with rich undiscovered history and a group of rock-cut temples and monuments from the 7 th and 9 th centuries that make every archaeologist’s dream come true. In addition to this, its alluring atmosphere, beautiful beaches, and view of the Bay of Bengal attract thousands of international and national tourists through the year.

This setting enabled the locals to earn a living by building beachside restaurants, dainty cafes and rustic hotels to host the influx of tourists. Otherwise, fishing or stone carving would most likely have been their primary source of income.

The streets would be bustling with tourists from all around the world during the day and the beaches would be lined with bonfires at night. Tourists made promises of always returning to this town, mostly to themselves, while owners of various establishments thanked their lucky stars for their good fortune. Everyone was happy.

Unfortunately, a lot changed for the town and its people over the years. The Mamallapuram that I see is very different: the streets are certainly not bustling with tourists but are riddled with trash and foul-smelling drainage water.

Roadside shop owners wait eagerly for the sight of a tourist and I end up stepping on plastic waste at every fifth step while walking on the beach. I often overhear tourists complain about how dirty the town is and then it all makes sense to me: the current hygiene and sanitation standards are destroying the town’s reputation globally and an important source of income for most of its residents.

I decided to do some research on the waste management system of Mamallapuram.

The town is divided into two parts: the Township and Group of Monuments. A wonderful organization, with a commendable mission, called Hand in Hand manages the solid wastes of the former while the Central Government manages the solid wastes of the latter.

The work done by Hand in Hand is truly inspirational; they gather 7,500 kilograms of solid waste every day and prevent 80% of it from ending up at the landfill by converting it into organic manure, recycling it with the help of their associate vendors and by converting remaining food and meat waste into methane through their 160 cum biogas plant, that’s set up in Mamallapuram. The methane is used to generate electricity that powers the street lights on the East Coast Road.

Apart from this, they’ve encouraged their targeted households to practice waste segregation and now 80% of them consider the process to be a part of their daily routine.

Why it’s almost like paradise…

You might wonder why I’ve written this article if everything is so perfect but remember the land that is managed by the Central Government? That’s where the problem is. In some areas, Solid waste is collected and burnt off, leading to more contamination of our air. In others, the waste is left unattended, leading to more plastic pollution and unsanitary living conditions.

I lived in Mamallapuram for 11 months and only witnessed clean streets when our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi visited along with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping in October 2019.

Even then, the authorities cut corners by only cleaning parts of Mamallapuram that the Prime Minister would see. The area around the Buckingham Canal was left polluted with plastic as it didn’t fall in their travel route. It was still very endearing to see how excited my local friends were to see their hometown clean and its beauty restored.

Tourists that callously treat the beach as their dumping ground are another big part of the issue. Did you know that the beaches of Mamallapuram used to be a nesting ground for female Olive Ridley Turtles? Yeah, neither did I because you don’t see them anymore. Plastic pollution kills 100 marine mammals per year and the Indo Pacific Humpback Dolphins that visit the coast of Mamallapuram from December till August is in great danger from the amount of plastic waste on the beach.

The government does employ a beach cleaning truck when the sand is covered with plastic as you can see in this video.

Even then our marine species aren’t out of harm’s way because the truck doesn’t clean the shoreline, which is ironically where most of the plastic and dreaded microplastics are found.

The Silver Lining…

All hope isn’t lost though, thanks to Mukesh Panjanathan and his wife, Anna – the owners of one of my favorite surf schools in India – Mumu Surf School. The pair work tirelessly to spread awareness about the impact plastic has on our ecosystem.

They clean the beach every day, offer free chai in exchange for one bag of trash and run a program where the local children are allowed to train and use surf equipment for free as long as they help clean the beach. Most of the furniture and decorative items you see in the surf shop are made of recycled items by the talented couple.

They teach children, from an orphanage called Little Lambs, about the negative impact plastic has on our environment and expose them to the reality of the situation by conducting clean-up drives before every surf lesson.

I was lucky enough to get to work and train with them during those 11 months and it was amazing to see the locals proactively help us clean the beach. It was also disheartening to see people throw trash on the ground, right next to our dustbins that had “Use Me” painted over them though but oh well, you win some; you lose some.

The way forward…

A conversation with Raghul Paneer, a professional Surfer and Shaper, introduced me to this wonderful thought: Mamallapuram is surrounded by villages whose primary production is dairy instead of allowing conglomerates to sell dairy products through local retail shops that too in plastic packaging, the Government could help these villages be the sole provider of dairy products to Mamallapuram.

This would result in the following benefits:

  • Decrease in the amount of waste and use of single-use plastic as villagers use earthen or tin pots that can be collected during the next delivery
  • Decrease in the carbon footprint as unnecessary transportation can be
    avoided
  • A stronger local economy that can provide village folk with a stable income and a higher standard of living. This might be a tall claim but our government would be closer to achieve at least 8 of the 18 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations such as “No Poverty”, “Reduced Inequalities” and “Responsible Consumption and Production” by adopting this model

This conversation often comes back to me every now and then and I wonder if it could be introduced in our country. In addition to the above, many children who sell jewelry to tourists at the beach could be employed by the Government to keep the beaches clean and of course, sent to school.

It is clear that without appropriate Government action, the introduction of environment-friendly policies and active participation from the public,
Mamallapuram, or the rest of the world, will probably never feel like paradise again.

You can help make a difference to this situation by:

 Carrying your own water bottles, steel straws and cutlery while traveling
 Reducing the amount of plastic that you use, reusing what you buy and
recycling what you want to throw
 Practicing waste segregation and educating your friends, families and local
communities on the importance of it
 Helping local NGOs or volunteer groups clean the beach
 Demanding for environment-friendly policies
 Following my page called ‘A Little More Conservation’ for more tips and
stories such a these

( This article is written by Namrata Lunia, creator of A Little More Conservation and edited by Priyadarshni Pillai, freelance editor and content writer.)

Namrata Lunia

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