Twelve days on, smoke was still billowing.

On March 2, 25-ft-high hills of garbage, extending over 40 acres at the Brahmapuram waste plant in Kochi caught fire, blanketing Kerala’s commercial capital with toxic smoke. The accumulated garbage, with legacy waste of 16 years, had huge amounts of plastic within it. The blaze spewed out dioxins, furans and many of the Persistent Organic Pollutants banned by the UN sponsored Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Unlike the previous fires at the garbage site that could be controlled, this particular fire had over 200 firemen working round the clock, spraying 40,000 litres of water per second into 4-feet deep pits that were dug out with excavators, in attempts to douse it. Navy and police personnel, 50 civil defence volunteers and 35 Kochi corporation employees were also involved in containing the fire.

While the blaze was eventually contained after 11 days, the smoke continued.

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Even on the tenth day after the fire broke out, Kochi’s residents woke up with discomfort – watering eyes, headaches and breathing difficulties. Suresh PN, who grew up in what was once a quaint and beautiful village full of paddy fields, rivers and streams, before the waste plant came up, said people in the neighbourhood were facing major health issues. “My daughter started vomiting and later developed respiratory issues. She has been ill for the last four days. I wake up in the middle of the night with breathing difficulties, and now, my son is also showing signs of discomfort,” he said. Dioxins travel great distances and the long-term effects of dioxin exposure include carcinogenic and teratogenic effects. Respiratory ailments may see a rise in Kochi, report doctors, with the immediate cause being the toxic smoke.

At night, the smoke from the dump would settle low over the Kadambrayar tributary of the Chithrapuzha river. The air-borne poisonous gases and the toxic leachate from the melting plastic dump could get absorbed in the water, pointed out residents of the area.

While the pile of garbage, towering as high as a two-storey building, was burning for a total of 11 days, spewing out toxic gases onto an estimated 8.29 lakh residents of the city, the government asked people to stay indoors. The cause of the fire had not been established by the time this article was originally published.

The air quality indices rose to “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” levels in Kochi, with particulate matter 2 and particulate matter 10 values shooting up with the fire. In the initial days of the fire, the air quality index soared to above 320 in most places, some even 400. Even after the fire died down, the air quality index showed as unhealthy, hovering around 170.

It took 23 fire engines, 32 excavators and bulldozers, 10 high pressure pumps, four helicopters and over 200 firemen fighting not just the fire but also nausea, vomiting and breathing difficulties despite the canister masks, before the fire was finally doused.

Early morning on March 11, there were dozens of trucks with mixed waste – fresh waste – rolling into the waste plant. Incidentally, Brahmapuram is not a landfill. The trucks came in with police escort as residents as well has political parties were expected to protest.

This was hours after Industries Minister P Rajeev visited the site and said in a statement that the fire may recur as the garbage, even at a depth of 6 metres, was still at a very high temperature. Toxic smoke clouds continued to swell out of the waste, he warned.

The residents of the nearby areas said that the garbage catches fire almost every summer and leaches out into the river during the rainy season. Every time a fire happens, truckloads of mud are allegedly dumped over it. This invalidates the rigorous waste segregation process undertaken by the city-dwellers. In addition to the segregated waste, the plant has unsegregated legacy waste of 16 years.

Brahmapuram is at the centre of Kochi’s centralised waste management where segregated waste of the whole city corporation and a few nearby municipalities are brought to a central facility for processing. However, the pace and amount of processing at Brahmapuram is not enough and along with legacy waste of 16 years, hills of garbage have come up.

Kochi skyline. Residents of areas near the Brahmapuram plant say that the garbage catches fire almost every summer and leaches out into the river during the rainy season. Credit: beegeevee/Flickr

“Though the plant is supposed to manage waste, it functions only as a dump yard and there is hardly any monitoring happening,” said Jinesh PR, who lives 600 metres away from the plant. Anilkumar, president of the local residents association said that the plastic on the top of the heap is continuing to melt from the heat beneath, which is why it is difficult to contain the smoke.

Environmental activists in the state said that what is now being done in the name of centralised waste management is not only unscientific but can end up as major disasters. “See, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The state has people who very successfully operated decentralised waste management in the cities of Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha. All you have to do is get a team together to draw up a road map. The rest is all a matter of political will,” said Sridhar Radhakrishnan, an environmental activist, who is an engineer by education.

C Jayakumar, executive director of the environmental activism organisation, Thanal, told Mongabay-India that the need for a scientific and decentralised waste management system was recognised at the turn of the century and there were several local initiatives for the same. “But the more urbanised cities and the city corporations in the state found it easier and convenient to go for centralised waste management system,” he said, questioning the effectiveness of decentralised waste management in highly urbanised cities.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.