Entry of menstruating women to Sabarimala shrine looks like a small issue as compared to a Herculean task staring at the Devaswom Board.
A report of the Pollution Control Board, which has been handed over to chief secretary Tom Jose, says that not only are the existing toilet and sewage facilities at Nilakkal and Pamba woefully inadequate but even the ones in place have been almost fully destroyed by the August deluge. If immediate action is not taken, the PCB report warns, pilgrims will have no choice but to defecate in the open. Sewage will also spill out into the open from waste collection tanks whose capacity has been badly compromised by debris accumulation during the flood.
“We expect a devotee flow of at least 100 an hour to Nilakkal. If toilet and sewerage facilities are not in place, things can go out of control,” said state Pollution Control Board chairman K Sajeevan. The Devaswom Board had said that 250 fabricated toilets and bathrooms would be installed at Nilakkal before the season begins next month. The PCB report said installing new toilets was not enough as the existing sewerage collection tanks at Nilakkal did not have the capacity to absorb the flow of additional sewage from these temporary prefab toilets. “The sewage will spill out into the open,” the report said.
The PCB has therefore recommended two solutions: Augment the capacity of existing sewerage collection tanks by removing what the floods had dumped on them. Also, install a prefabricated sewage treatment plant on an emergency basis to process the waste from temporary toilets to be set up this season.
Wild elephant and garlands
The simple flower garland is the other big challenge at Nilakkal. “The garlands devotees carry to be adorned on the Lord will be disposed of at Nilakkal at the end of the day. The garlands and flowers that bedeck pilgrim vehicles, especially the ones from outside Kerala states, also will be dumped in wilted condition at Nilakkal,” the PCB chairman said.
These flowers, unlike plastic, are biodegradable. But the problem is scent of the flowers would lure wild elephants to Nilakkal. “This prevents workers from operating the incinerators installed at Nilakkal,” the PCB chairman said. The report said the practice of dumping garlands at Nilakkal should be banned.
It is also a fact that there is no mechanism to process organic waste at Nilakkal. "It would be ideal if a biocompostor is installed at Nilakkal," the report said. The PCB has also recommended coloured bins for segregated plastic and non-plastic waste. "The tractors that carry the waste from Nilakkal should also have colours of the bin they cater to," the report said.
Threat of open defecation
The situation at Pamba is worse. Two of the five toilet blocks have been fully destroyed in the floods. Meaning, 120 of the 480 toilets at Pamba have been rendered unfit for use. The three other toilet blocks, too, are filled with mud and slush but still could be redeemable. “If the toilets are not made ready for use, and new ones not put up on a temporary basis, open defecation would increase at Manappuram,” the report warns. The five collection tanks at Pamba, too, are filled with stones, mud and slush. "Sewerage collection at Pamba will be possible only after the debris brought in by the floods is removed," the report said.
The pipelines from the toilets to the collection tanks and the drainage duct from the collection centres to the sewerage treatment plants at Cheriyanavattom have been fully destroyed. All of them have to be re-laid. The sewage generated at Pamba Manappuram by all its buildings — 480 toilets, Devaswom mess, PWD complex, Police Control Room, 'Annadana Mandapam' and nearby hotels – flow through pipes into the 10 sewerage collection tanks, and from there are taken through a large duct to the two sewerage treatment plants at Cheriyanavattom for processing. The pumps, aerator, agitator and panel board of the sewerage treatment plants have also been rendered dysfunctional by the floods.