Letter from the Stinkcity of Thiruvananthapuram

Respected development tourists, leftists and scholars from the West who have been coming here seeking your heterotopia, welcome to the city of Thiruvananthapuram.

Yes, you are here to see that Kerala which gives you relief from the relentless decline of the left in your part of the world.You have been honouring us with such visits since the 1970s. We have been happy to oblige, cast and recast to suit your projections. When ‘social development’ was fashionable in the UN circles, Kerala was indeed the space where you found ‘social development’ thriving. But when ‘human development’, the theoretical and political provenances of which are quite different from those of ‘social development, became your preference, Kerala transmogrified itself most willingly into the paradise of ‘human development’. And then you came to be fascinated by ‘participatory development’, we diligently turned into the very fount of ‘participatory development’. Thank you very much for keeping us afloat in the imagination of Western left developmentalist intellectuals (though I do see that the oodles of ‘agency’ showered upon us by you may actually be your way of compensating for the shrinking of your own agency in the face of the triumphant march of neoliberal capitalism in your homelands)

But do forgive me if the city of Thiruvananthapuram does not oblige this time. Indeed, even if you seek to stubbornly cling to your projected image, your noses would strongly protest. Hard empirical realities rise up like the treacherous rocks, hard and relentless, on one side of the wonderful calm cove of Kovalam, against which your delicate projections may shatter painfully. Though the seemingly-endless ‘garbage crisis’ is supposedly at an end now, such is still the stench in some of parts of town, including central places. After the shutting down of the waste treatment plant at Vilappilsala , a panchayat adjacent to the city, by panchayat authorities there on December 21 last year,the waste collection and disposal system in Thiruvananthapuram city collapsed completely. We have been witnessing a horrendous series of utterly pointless confrontations between the City Corporation and the State government, between various political parties, between the residents of Vilappilsala who are determined to keep the plant closed down and the Corporation who are equally determined to have it opened,  between the authorities and the residents of those parts of the district where alternative facilities have been proposed, and between different politicians, often of the same party, who differ on whether the plant should be opened or closed. A more disorienting, indeed terrifying, din can hardly be imagined.There is such a total breakdown of both political will and political imagination, so damning is the evidence of frightening cynicism and unconcern in the responses of leaders and civic authorities, so tepid is the response of the sufferers, the residents of Thiruvananthapuram, that it appears that we are forever condemned to rot in this all-pervading stink, both material and moral. And all that the Corporation and the public can think about are technocratic and individualised solutions. The High Court order to reopen the plant is still dangling like a Damocles’ Sword over the heads of the State Government, the Corporation and the Panchayat alike.In short, a paralysis of both practical wisdom and moral reasoning beumbs us. (Or maybe we have got used to the stink, both moral and material. I am quite intrigued by the sight of a large number of sensible people participating in the horrible moral stink that pervades the Malayalam public sphere  from the media coverage of Sukumar Azhikode’s death. Liberal humanism is harder to bear in death than in life, it appears).

So beloved friends, forgive me that I puncture your rosy reveries. It is not I really, who has deprived you of the consolations of heterotopia; the  mounts of stinking muck that threaten to rise up anytime will soon begin to have consequences that will be visible to you through the lenses of development that you are so fond of: soon, we will have quantifiable health consequences, to say the least.

The people of Vilappilsala who have been suffering for more than a decade from the consequences of living near a horrendously polluting waste treatment plant can hardly be blamed for remaining totally impervious to the pleas of the authorities and even from some of their own leaders. They cannot be expected to forget how their repeated efforts for attract the attention of the authorities to their plight were ignored or put down, all these years. Their resistance has been strengthened by the presence of a powerful local body — the Vilappilsala panchayat is the focal point of resistance to reopening the plant. So we have a situation in which one local body confronts another — something totally unanticipated by the romantic reveries around democratic decentralization and peoples’ planning of the 1990s, a crisis that is not new in Kerala (a similar stand-off between the Kochi Corporation and the Brahmapuram panchayat occured a few years back).

Both this crisis and its stubborn refusal to be resolved, I think, should be understood in the light of certain crucial weaknesses of democratic decentralization, and our inability to take note of the intense speed with which Malayalees have been changing as a society over the past twenty years. The People’s Planning Campaign of the 1990s imagined Kerala as essentially consisting of ruralcommunities and localities closely knit by the cooperative self-interest of individuals.Both these have proved to be mistaken perceptions. Though an urban culture which bestows anonymity and mobility to individuals is sadly missing in Kerala, urban infrastructure has grown rapidly all over Kerala in the past decade, often driven, also, by panchayats eager, for instance, to build shopping centres as part of their development initatives. And urban governance has been decidedly weaker, in the face of new forms of emergent predatory capital especially in construction, that increasingly seeks to control urban space. The political will of urban bodies to remain in the driver’s seat of local bodies has been poor indeed; nor have they been able to evolve a form of urban governance that differs signficantly from the tide of neoliberal urban reform. The crisis, therefore, has been allowed to build up over the years and no government can claim innocence.

Secondly, the sense of the ‘local’ has changed too — it now may refer, equally, to a group of self-interested rational individuals seeking to further gains. In other words, the cooperative game may well have given way to a competitive game. Wherever such a notion of the local has prevailed, it may be very difficult indeed to think of local self-government as envisaged in the People’s Planning Campaign.In fact, it would have very difficult to think about it except in a minimal sense and perhaps as the distributor of individualized social welfare (in practical terms, this could also become very difficult indeed). It would be very hard, indeed, to expect it to handle the garbage crisis except in a token sense. It was foolish of the architects of decentralization, too, to think that the cooperative game would never turn into the competitive game, given that their thinking was implicitly informed, right from the beginning, by liberal notions of the individual.So even though the rumor floating around these days, that the resistance offered at Vilappilsala is being orchestrated by the powerful land mafia who has bought up the land around the plant for dirt cheap and with the help of local residents who have been promised princely sums for their lands may be totally untrue, but it is not unimaginable or impossible in the Kerala of the present.

What the crisis calls for, I think, is a fundamental rethinking of democratic decentralization and local planning. What we needs is planning that begins with ascertaining collective interests, and not assuming that the sum total of individual interests will automatically constitute the collective interest. The various fora for deliberation set up within the local bodies should start with widespread democratic discussions in all three tiers that will first ascertain collective interests, and decide local priorities on that basis. But ‘collective interests’ are certainly not given. This process will work only when marginalized social groups are inducted into this process as political entities, and not as passive beneficiaries and governmental categories — otherwise, collective interest will inevitably the same as those of the elite. In other words, Gramasabhas and Ward Sabhas in urban areas will have to be rethought as spaces for collective reflection and deliberation on common interests, which then would underlie the priorities and allocations in planning. If this were the practice, we would not have had to witness the sorry plight of the poor who live in the low-lying Karimadom Colony, who were the worst victims of the flash floods that accompanied a few days of heavy downpour in Thiruvananthapuram. Sadly, many of the extremely underprivileged women who live in this colony are also the sanitation workers (organized in self-help groups by the State’s poverty eradication programme) who collect garbage from houses. It was a harrowing sight to see their homes, which are already marked by underprivilege, further ravaged by the massive amounts of garbage from the clogged water channels that overflowed during the heavy rain — garbage packed in polythene bags from fancy city shops like Style Plus and Kalyan Silks, and supermarkets like the Big Bazaar and Spencer’s.Indeed, we would not have been shy to demand that those who produce most waste must take the primary responsibility of disposing it — including provision of space for decentralized treatment of waste. Thus we would have waste disposal facilities mandatorily constructed in areas like Prasant Nagar and Kawadiar, where the rich live. What a far cry would that be from the present proposals, advanced by technocrats and politicians alike, that the waste generated by the city should be treated in facilities that may be built in remote areas, preferably forest-fringe zones!

Local planning that does not obliterate the politics of the local will also require a clear consciousness of the manner in which different forms of capital, global and local, impact our daily lives intensely, so that planning takes into account these elements as parts of the vital scene. That is, we do not permit capital to remain invisible. In the present case, for instance, a huge share of the garbage is generated by the hotels and restaurants in Thiruvananthapuram which have not yet complied to the Corporation’s demand that they install waste treatment facilities. A large amount of plastic is generated by the shops, especially the large supermarkets which hand out polythene bags (though they are not free anymore, the prices are low enough for the middle-class). Planning to end the waste treatment crisis ought to, then, take into account the role these elements have in producing the present crisis and think of ways in which they may be made not only to comply, but also compensate for the damage done.

But of course the crucial question is, who will bell the cat? Which section of the political mainstream has the willpower to make this transition, given that the imagination of both left and right politicians remain blighted by their obsession with neoliberal growth, and given that their bums have savoured equally the comfort of the cushions predatory capitalists provide? Here my thinking grinds to a sad halt. All I can do is turn to you, dear left-leaning heterotopia-seekers (who even get their fieldwork organized by their friends in the left parties), tenured professors from fancy metropolitan universities , please do write me a line if you have a clue.

10 thoughts on “Letter from the Stinkcity of Thiruvananthapuram”

  1. Hail the stinking city and soon the stinking God’s own country! ‘Cause, in another 10 or 15
    years Kerala will have 10 major urban agglomerations which will have to dump their wastes
    in the neighbouring panchayat areas. And still, the planners, the ploliticians, the bureaucrats and the develpment scientists ( of the left and of the right) will be debating about the colour of the ongoing devlopment whether it is neoliberal, socialist or plainly Indian! I was in Kerala about two years back when the controversial Lalur manifestation for
    the waste disposal of the Thrissur corporation took place, What I witnessed myself on the
    spot was unbelievable: political activists, cultural bigwigs and other sundry personalities
    making speeches, reciting poems, singing songs, chanting prayers, etc for a solution to the
    waste disposal installations! Now, I wonder what the reasearchers at CDS (Center for Development Studies) have been studying! Development be it capitalistic,sociali-.
    stic, imperial or under dictatorship, has to be imagined, visualised and planned in the light of social, environmental, biospherical, climatic data available. Unfortunately, this kind of
    radical formulation for an appropriate development for Kerala has not been thought of neither by the right nor by the left nor by the planning specialists. We have neither a well
    defined urban planning strategy nor a realistic land management policy. Ever since the 1st
    5 year plan our towns and cities have been “growing” not as planned by the government, but in an unruly, lawless manner. A correspondent from the West wrote recently (after his
    visit to the country for some weeks) that there are more cellphones in India than clean public toilets.
    PS.The tourists who visit Kerala do not come searching for the “Kerala Model” bandied around for some time nor do they look for a Left ruled paradise.They come, it is true, to
    escape from the stress of living in an industrialised societry. Essentially they are pleasure
    and comfort seekers, even when they end up in an ashram!!!


    1. …Development be it capitalistic,sociali-.
      stic, imperial or under dictatorship, has to be imagined, visualised and planned in the light of social, environmental, biospherical, climatic data available…

      Ah, the pleasures of central planning! It boggles the mind to imagine what could the poets, writers, academics, activists and professional grief mongers (all on government dole) do if central planning was to vanish from the face of the earth today!

      And development should be imagined in the light of ‘environmental, biospherical, climatic data available’.. Maggie Thatcher was on the money (again) when she said ‘Climate Change provides a marvelous excuse for worldwide Socialism’.


  2. Dear Ms Devika, thanks for this superb commentary. I have actually advanced a proposal, reported in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago, that seeks to distribute responsibility more fairly: reopening Vilappilsala but also creating decentralized waste treatment facilities in different parts of the city, with mandatory residential desegregation of waste, etc. But this will take time to implement, and the crisis is now, which requires implementing the High Court judgement without delay while implementing a longer-term plan.

    Appreciate your lucid and extremely well-written thoughts. It would be a pleasure to meet in Thiruvanathapuram if you have time on Sunday. Please drop a line to praveen@tharoor.in who will set it up if you are free.


  3. The stink is worse for the faceless 800 odd Clean Well workers of Kudumbashree who apart from having their homes flooded in the garbage deluge a few weeks ago, lost their jobs and suffer the indignity of no protection or compensation. Once the issue is ‘resolved’ they will again be the most sought after, by the Corporation and the urban middle class, for removing the muck from their lives.


  4. amazing that this poetic article is actually moving Dr. Shashi Tharoor, MP.

    Unfortunately for the rest of the country and espe Delhi, Sonia Gandhi, Sheila Dixit and the rest arent so easily moved on making our cities bearable to live in. Im not even mentioning the prime minister or montek who would perhaps just propose a fund which can then be invested in US treasure bonds or maybe a sewage commodity exchange where you can buy and sell your shit in futures and derivatives.


  5. The inescapable fact is that despite all the talk about decentralized waste treatment and every household and business establishment taking care of its own waste, no city (or even Panchayath, for that matter) can do without a centralized waste treatment plant. The trick is to operate it in a decent manner, without causing hardship to the neighbours.It is here that the authorities in every metropolis in Kerala have failed. The irony is that money has been no problem. The failure has been in implementing very obvious and not-so-high-tech solutions, properly.

    The same problem has been evident in almost all spheres of our governance. But the difference is, they don’t cause such a stink, I mean physically!

    RVG Menon


  6. …democratic decentralization and local planning..
    Aka, ‘People’s Planning’ is nothing but central planning-lite. While it is unlikely to produce the crash and burn spectacle central planning produced everywhere it was tried, there is no way government planning could produce anything other than grief. That the ‘people’s plan’ was headed to the edge of the cliff at top gear should have been obvious to anybody who has a modicum of understanding of real economics and history (definitely not the ones taught in Kerala, by the way).

    The root cause of the Vilappilsala issue not the waste generated nor its disposal – it is more fundamental than that. The real problem is the assault on the property rights of the affected people aided and abetted by the government. Which is exactly what the socialists and the central planners wanted, by the way. This is when people have at least a semblance of property rights. Imagine what hell could break lose if Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad’s proposal of abrogating property rights completely (and replacing it with tenancy rights, the landlord being the government) is put to practice. May be just a coincidence: KSSP also happens to be the brains behind the People’s Planning Campaign.

    Governments may come and governments may go, but the Fatal Conceit is immortal.


Leave a Reply to Jaya Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s