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Goa’s plastic bag problem, June 1998

PLASTIC  ON FIRE
A tale of two green vales

Ain't burning plastic polluting?THE sole saving grace in the entire mess made up of plastic bags and bottles, burnt rubber pipes, rags and garbage, which sprawls over more than one square kilometre, is the neatly painted placard, which warns, "Plastic Collection Drive. Date: 2nd October, 2000. Tresspassers will be prosecuted, By Order M.M.C." The warning painted in white on a black surface is placed on the south-west corner of a small, hastily cemented pit, enclosed by barbed wire, on the Assagao plateau.

What a bird sanctuary?For several years on the trot, the Assagao plateau, which slopes into the green valleys of Assagao and Marna-Siolim, has been the venue for dumping of all sorts of waste, varying from municipality, hospitals, factories to five-star hotels in Goa. While at other hills of Mapusa, illegal houses have come up where once stood rocks and trees, the Assagao plateau has been denuded by the ugly, stinky dump. Of course, the Assagao Comunidade, as most comunidades once did, did not bother to stem the rot because they had a recalcitrant "tenant", playing dog in the manger for his own vested interests.

A tell-tale noticeThe site shot into the limelight with the launching of the Plastic Collection drive organised by the Goa Environment Federation and supported by the government. School children, college students, NGOs and various individuals have been lending active and enthusiastic support to the on-going, massive collection drive. However, in the heat of their enthusiasm, the dumping of plastic waste leading to environmental pollution on the Assagao-Marna hills and all the related issues have gone un-focussed.

For the unfortunate people living in the vicinity suffering the stench and for the people of nearby Assagao and Siolim villages, the plastic dump site created by the Mapusa Municipality appears to be almost a big joke. It’s warped logic like that of placing a single waste paper basket for an endless number of users. The irony of it is that the tiny basked has been placed in the midst of North Goa’s largest waste dumps.

Several well-meaning people are struggling all over the State to collect the plastic waste and despatch it to the official dump site at the Assagao plateau. Once there, few of them would know the fate of the plastic bottles and bags, which fly all over the place. The rag pickers scour in every new load, pick up the stuff they require and care too hoots where the remaining plastic bags and bottles fly. Of course, it hardly makes much of the difference as it is a mere handful in the vast waste dump. The vehicles come here from as far as the Verna industrial estate with tons of waste. Nearly five truckloads of mixed waste comes to the place from different hotels in North Goa.

The goods arriveThe moment the vehicle arrives, goats, cattle, dogs, crows, vultures and rag pickers rush there. The driver always brings along fire-crackers, which he just throws into the fires glowing all over the place. The bursting of the crackers scare the animals away but the rag pickers, nearly 15 of them—from child to man/woman–stay back. By themselves they segregate the garbage, selecting whatever they find useful. What they collect fills more than a truck load every day. They leave behind the perishables for the cows, goats, crows and vultures, and the non-biodegrable waste for mother nature to handle it the way it can.

The plateau had deep red gashes cut into it by contract labour quarrying for lobram (stones used as rubble in construction). Most of the large pits left behind by the quarrying activity have been filled with waste. Over that, waste mud has been dumped and the plateau has been restored to its pristine level. Quite an intelligent way of doing things. If someone tries to dig the place, he will find plastic and other non-biodegradable waste going down to several meters below the surface of the plateau.

Cattle grazing on plastic feed Well, none may ever think about digging in the stinking place, which has become a haven for animals over the years. But few have realised that the plateau houses the water table for the valleys below. When the monsoons bring rain pouring down, will the water penetrate the substantially tick plastic layer to seep into the ground and replenish the already depleting water table. The rainwater would rather flow down into the valley, carrying along all the toxins and polluting stuff which has been lying or flying around the place for so long.

Goa’s environmentalists have been crying hoarse that plastic should not be burnt as it would lead to further pollution of the air. But a visit to the dump site will reveal that small fires are burning incessantly at several places round the clock, raising clouds of poisoned smoke.

The people travelling to Siolim are the daily victims of the smoke and the stink as the flames of the fire grounded in plastic maintains a constant vigil to greet every visitor or "the trespassers" to the dumping site, which lies besides the road, a shortcut from Mapusa to Siolim.

The population of the two villages of Assagao and Siolim are wondering why they should be the mute recipients of the waste produced by all the villages and the towns of North Goa, when the two villages themselves do not generate sufficient waste. Being at the receiving end, they now feel that each village or town should make its own provision to stock its waste. The idea is slowly gathering momentum and the bubble will burst sooner or later. But should the ugly bubble be allowed to burst in Assagao, the gateway to Mapusa town and Goa’s most sought after Anjuna beach?

Joel D'Souza
Sebastian Rodrigues