Concern in IIT Madras over consequences of improper waste management

Vidushi Sagar and Sneha Kanchan

Chennai, Feb 28: The deer appear strange amongst the ashen coloured buildings of Indian Institution of Technology Madras. Ears shot up and eyes wide, their hooves nimbly tread over the grass scattered with construction debris. This is an everyday sight at India’s premier engineering institute constructed within an ecologically sensitive zone, or in other words, a forest.

In November 2017, the National Green Tribunal had given IIT Madras a week’s time to clear all the solid waste dumped on campus. This order came in after Antony Rubin, a Chennai-based animal activist filed an application with the NGT. It raised the issue of improper waste management and its consequences upon the flora and fauna of the region, also consisting of spotted deer and black buck.

The application filed involved five respondents — the State of Tamil Nadu, IIT Madras, Greater Chennai Corporation, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. What followed was an inspection by the TNPCB which brought out the loopholes in the institution’s solid waste management system, including the non-function of the campus’ biogas plant. Plastic waste was also found dumped near the Krishna and Velachery hostel gates by the TNPCB officials. 

In February 2019, construction debris can still be seen around the campus; parts of glass, rods, and cemented stuff strewn on the grass. Open bags of cement were discarded near the Chemistry Lab. Styrofoam cups and small plastic bottles could also be occasionally sited adjacent to roads.

Construction debris found littered outside hostels near Sangam Ground Road within the campus.                                                                                            Photo credits: Vidushi Sagar

In early 2017, Rubin had alleged sub-par waste management during the institute’s fests Saarang and Shaastra, as also mentioned in several news articles. Reports and pictures of toxic chemical waste dumped near their bio-technology laboratory had also surfaced since then. According to a 2016 Times of India report, two deer died within 10 days due to plastic ingestion, as confirmed by forest officials. An News18 report also mentioned a source from the Forest and Wildlife Department who revealed that a 2kg. football shaped plastic had been removed from the stomach of a spotted deer.

An RTI filed by Rubin in March 2017 exposed 220 deer and eight black buck deaths between 2013 and 2016. Another one in September 2018 revealed that from 2017 to September 2018, 111 spotted deer and five blackbucks had died. A bunch of post mortem reports stated multiple puncture wounds with haemorrhage as the cause of deaths.

Open cement bags outside the Chemistry Lab near the Administration Block. Photo credits: Vidushi Sagar                                                                                                                                    

The issue of a dog-deer conflict within the campus has also been contentious. IIT Madras officials blame the deaths on the stray dogs in and around the campus. The infamy around dogs is also shared by students. Vipin V., a PhD scholar said, “Once I saw a dog attack a deer. My friends have also seen similar incidents.”

Rubin had a different story to tell. “It is unfair to blame just the dogs. They are scavengers. When the deer ingest waste, it slows them down making them more susceptible to attacks. Increased construction also blocks their escape paths. Plus, they are such sensitive creatures that they with the slightest of shocks,” said Rubin. He added that the puncture wound indicated in the autopsy reports could also be inflicted by dogs post the deer’s deaths.

According to V. Seenivasan, the Senior Horticultural Officer of IIT Madras, the solid waste management on campus is well managed. “We have a self-help group on campus, which is responsible for picking and collecting trash. The food wastes from the eateries and messes are collected. They are fed into the biogas plant and then sent to vermicomposting unit. The remaining waste is sent to a piggery unit in Kattupakkam,” he said.

“Both organic and inorganic wastes are collected from all hostel zones, academic and residential areas and are segregated. The inorganic waste are recycled and non recyclable waste is sent to the city dumping yard in Perungudi,” he added.

Speaking about the presence of plastic waste on campus Mr. Seenivasan looked outwards. “The people from the settlements that have come up along the boundary walls in, for instance, the Kanagam area throw trash into the campus. We take care of most of the waste within our boundary but this dumping gets left out sometimes,” he said.

Littering done by people visiting from outside is also something that happens according to him, since the campus has two schools, temples and a bank.

“The biogas plant was not working only for two to three months because of a blockage in the plant. We’ve taken care of that and fit a concrete grate to sieve the waste that goes in,” he said. He added that even plastic waste was accidentally fed into the plant without proper segregation.

The 2017 NGT order also held IIT Madras to polluter penalties in case of injury or death caused to the animals in case of improper waste management. This was done taking into consideration the endangered status of blackbuck under the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Despite IIT Madras’ assurances on the matter, activists like Antony Rubin are not convinced. He raises concerns about the institute not being held accountable with the southern bench of the NGT now almost defunct.

Rubin has filed multiple RTIs pertaining to a whole host of issues like illegal constructions, festivals and the vehicular traffic among other things plaguing the campus. He is anxious about the lax attitude of the administration regarding the care of such extremely sensitive creatures. “Because the deer die just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers in a quick motion. 

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