You don't need to be told you've reached the Chennai locality of Kodungiayur. The air thick with smoke will blind and a stench will choke you.
Kodungaiyur is where Chennai's largest dumping ground is located. The city's garbage, adding up over the years, is now a small hill, circled in the sky by birds and guarded on the ground by dogs. A major part of the city's 3,200 tonnes of daily refuse ends up in this 65 acre plot.
To deal with the growing mound of garbage, the city authorities burn a lot of it. The smoke from the fires is adding to the misery of the smell for the more than five lakh people who have been living around the dump. Unable to take the deadly combination any more, around a thousand local people today protested outside the dump yard, demanding an immediate end to the burning of the rubbish.
They blame their health problems to the toxic smoke, like 65-year-old Fathima, who suffers from respiratory problems. "I am not able to walk; I don't feel like eating because of this stench," she complains. Another elderly man says, "We spend all we earn to pay doctors." His neighbour, curled up in cot, has similar complaints.
Children in the area are the worst-hit. A few metres from the entrance of the dumpyard is a city corporation noon meal centre for children. A mother told NDTV, "If it is so difficult for adults, imagine the plight of these children who breathe this air for four to five hours every day, at a close range. We are poor and we don't have a choice."
Physician S Nithyaraj Prakasam, who has been practicing in the area for more than 15 years, has an ominous warning: "Continuous exposure to smoke would definitely lead to many respiratory problems and cancer."
But it is not just health problems, the smoke and smell have become a social problem. Chitra, a young housewife says, "No guests visit us; even if they come they return the same day."
Activists say despite two orders by the Madras High Court prohibiting burning of garbage at this yard, the Chennai Corporation continues to defy it. Some resident associations are now considering taking the corporation to the courts again.
Dharmesh Shah an environmentalist says, "An analysis of the air sample collected in the area reveals presence of a cocktail of nine chemicals; five of them like Dichlorobenzene are above permissible levels which could cause cancer and affect respiratory systems. Chemicals like Carbon Disulphide, Acetone, 2- Butanone, Toulene etc target central nervous system and cardio vascular system".
Environmentalists allege there's no political will to streamline waste management. An expert who prefers to remain anonymous claims "it's a huge racket; most garbage transport trucks are owned by politicians; presently the company that's hired by the civic body pays them on the basis of the load they carry. If we switch to segregation at source, they would lose business as much of the organic wastes would be sent for recycling and that's why they don't want to address this issue".
Corporation authorities say "We are working on the issue to stop burning and to implement segregation at source. Often unauthorised rag pickers too set the garbage on fire."
Chennai Mayor Saidai Duraiswamy had recently ordered using a 25 acre plot adjoining the present dump yard. "We'll soon decide on closing this dumpyard," he says.
Speaking to NDTV, the Corporation Commissioner Dr D Karthikeyan said there would be a solution to this problem in 18 months. He explained, "we have tied up with two international companies for two state of the art waste management facilities. Once they are ready we would stop dumping garbage at Kodingayur. Then we would also redeem the entire property and use it for some beneficial purpose". But till that is done, the residents of Kodungiayur will have to find ways to deal with smell and smoke from the city's garbage.