LATEST EXPEDITION TO GARBAGE CLIFF
It was my latest expedition to yet another kingdom of the underprivileged. This time I went to Kodungaiyur, where exists the massive mount of Chennai's garbage dump. As per the Chennai Corporation records over 4,000 metric tonnes of the city's garbage are dumped here every day. Truckloads keep emptying the stinking toxic wastes through the day, every day.
Some 20 kms from my News7 studio, I was there with my crew to film the kids at work. It was for my Saturday show- Maiyam. When I informed my cameraman and driver that they should have their breakfast before entering Kodungaiyur, they did not understand why and so they did not follow my advice. But once we were there, they were shocked to see that several streets were filled with garbage on either side. And in some streets, people were literally living on roads in small huts that were surrounded by garbage. After a lot of search, they managed to find a small street side food shop but their appetite seemed suddenly gone.
On the road, I inquired an old man about the road to Panakkaran Nagar (meaning – a colony of rich men) that would take us to ground zero of the Kodungaiyur dumpyard. Ironically, for some reason, the cluster of houses of the below-poverty-line people had earned that name, Panakkaran Nagar. I recollected my meeting with India’s venerated environment journalist P.Sainath sometime back, when he had mentioned that while presenting the news, one must always talk about two extremes so that people would understand the difference.
While climbing the garbage mounds, my cameraman and driver were moaning and cribbing that I always took them for a ‘ride’. (I don’t seem to be interested in covering press meets at five star hotels and meetings in lavish resorts was their complaint!!). Anyhow, when I climbed the top of the filthy mountain of toxic garbage, we couldn’t breathe properly. Though the pathway was filled with dry waste, the closer spot where children and adults collecting and separating the waste was full of wet waste. And the dusty air, grease and grime on our faces seemed to revolt the two men in my team.
After many attempts, I was able to convince a little boy to talk to the camera about his Kodungaiyur career. Kumar, a class five dropout, enters the dumpsite at 10am and works hard till about 2pm. He would rest for a while in a little tent there and have his lunch. He then works till about 4pm. He would sell his day’s collection of plastic bottles and get a few rupees.
I told my cameraman to capture the shots of how these garbage pickers run behind the huge trucks that bring fresh loads of garbage. And how easily they pick out the kind of waste that they specialize in 'merchandising'. For example, there are teams that would collect only pet bottles, a few others would look for e-waste, yet another team looks for thick cardboards...
After three hours there, the dusty air and smell from the garbage became too much for us. We wanted to wrap up the shooting. A kind woman came to me and offered water. I turned to my crew and they were aghast. How would they use any water from that place? I smiled as I accepted the water and washed the grime off my face and quenched my thirst. A tea-seller appeared from nowhere, climbing up the garbage mountain on his two-wheeler that carried his huge can of tea and several paper cups. As the garbage-pickers gathered around him, one kind soul turned to me to ask if we could have some 'nice tea'. We tried hard to smile and mumbled an answer--we are very grateful but we must go because we have a deadline. Actually we were feeling very tired and very suffocated.
On the way down, two little kids ran behind us for the send off. Though the Kodungaiyur smoke and stench gifted me with a terrible cough that drained me the next couple of days, I was glad that we could get some good shots on the camera and also the crew could understand the tough living of those garbage pickers and the poor inhabitants of Panakkaran Nagar. When I narrated the Kodungaiyur trip to my dad and told him I must thank God for granting me good life, he replied, 'No, fight with God. Ask Him why he has made life so tough for those people'.