Life in the land of the black sun

 Sudharshan Varadhan talks to young rag pickers and residents near Kodingaiyur in North Chennai. The dumpyard has been a site of hazards and fire accidents and has been opposed by residents and activists.

(Sudharshan Varadhan is a student of Asian College of Journalism)

Dressed in a black t shirt and black jeans, I slowly emerged out of dense fog(?) as crows fluttered in the background and flew past me.

I was standing in Kodungaiyur, north Madras’ garbage capital. Your garbage travels all the way here before it rests in peace and attains Moksha alongside its brethren.  In Kodungaiyur, Chennai’s largest garbage dumpyard (no, not Perungudi), people have been waking up to smoke emanating from the filth forest in front of them for the past 25 years.

“The dump yards automatically catch fire,” said Mr. Manivannan, who was standing amidst 15-20 women waiting to sign their “attendance sheets”. These women, who clean up the entrance to the dumpyard, travel all the way from as far away as Mylapore in buses that ply alongside lorries that overflow with rubbish destined to reach Kodungaiyur. Mr. Manivannan, one of the men in charge of the dumpyard who was briefing us about the proceedings at the entrance, also claimed that the rag pickers who were spotted atop the plateaus of garbage, were innocent people trying to eke a living out of rubbish.

“Rubbish,” screamed Gokul, as his gang burst out laughing in the background. We had made our way into the dump yard through an alternate, unguarded entrance as we were refused entry through the main entrance. “We set fire to it to extract iron, copper, aluminium and masala,” he said, his face gleaming with joy and pride.


“Masala is tin and plastic put together,” instructed Gokul, a high school dropout. That was one of the many chemistry lessons we were to take that morning. He went on to practically demonstrate how the colour of the flame changes according to metal encapsulated by the flame. “Copper naa, the flame is either blue or green in colour. If it is Iron, it is yellow.”

His sense of humour would put the likes of Santhanam and Vadivelu to shame. He relentlessly took digs at a friend who had accompanied me.

“In spite of going to school, you don’t know that girls are to be called sisters and guys are to be referred to as brothers,” he mocked at one of his gang members, as his casualty sported a glee in embarrassment.

When I causally asked him why he doesn’t go to school, he answered in his typical inimitable style that he terminated education to support his family after his dad died. “This dump yard is my school. I learn everything here,” he added.

The cliché “Gold from garbage” got a justification during the course of my interaction with Gokul. He recounted incidents of discovering gold amidst the dirt and elaborated the process of extracting the same by melting the parent material in which it is entrapped.

He also narrated a hilarious incident about another person who discovered gold, loads of them. “A colleague (he said that) of mine, a notorious alcoholic, accumulated close to 500 grams of gold. He didn’t know what to do with that money and hence offered to buy a whole wine shop in exchange for the gold from a shop keeper. The police soon came knocking on his doors as they were suspicious of the drunkard’s “rags to riches” story. He is behind bars now.”

Gokul occasionally gave us instructions in English and kept us motivated. “C’mon guys, lets go, lets go,” he’d roar, after achieving a comprehensive lead. He claimed to have picked it up from the movies he had watched. He listed “The amazing spiderman” and the recently released “Thupakki”, which he watched in “cassette” (DVD), as personal favourites. When I asked him if he was a fan of actor Vijay, he promptly replied “Lawrence fan naa.”

Karthik, a 12th grader and an aspiring doctor, briefed us about the exchange rates for the materials dug out of the dumps. Iron fetches 18 rupees a kilo whereas copper and aluminum fetch 350 and 60 bucks respectively. Masala fetches them 30 per kilo while water bottles fetch them 35. Other than this, the rag pickers also accumulate medical waste, plastics, e-waste and used needles. “The prices are set by ‘market forces’,” said Karthik.

In spite of all the pollution, Crows and egrets are commonplace. “During a particular season, tomatoes and mushrooms grow here in abundance. We pluck them and eat them. We also kill the birds and eat them,” said Gokul, who was briefly busy posing with the plants and mushrooms. When I expressed my apprehension about the possibility of the toxic nature of the plants, Gokul gave me a typical satirical look and moved on.

We waded our way through the garbage mountains and struggled to say afoot. The locals meanwhile jumped from one plateau to another. Gokul wasn’t even wearing a pair of slippers. The glass particles on the ground hardly perturbed him.

We then moved on to the business end of the dump. Cranes were busy transporting debris from one crest to another. This was forbidden zone for us. This is where we were initially refused permission to enter, through the main gate, by a bunch of officials, who are alleged to have been treating privately-owned corporate lorries full of garbage differently.

As we lay low and watched Gokul take a dig at his friends, two short guys whisked away Karthik’s Sony Xperia and silently captured the busy cranes on the mini screen. Karthik then transferred the video to my phone.

It was then time for us to head back. But when we set out to explore the dump yard, we passed through a human settlement termed Panakaara Nagar (Rich man’s colony). Panakaara Nagar is located inside the dump yard compound, which is actually out of bounds for civilians, especially rag pickers and journalists. But flouting rules and flirting with danger is a daily routine for the rag pickers of Kodungaiyur.

Panakaara Nagar is actually a not-so-panakaara nagar. In fact, it is not at all a Panakaara nagar. Imagine being surrounded by monumental heaps of trash and waking up to the same every single morning.  “We’ve been here ever since MGR died. Have you come here to help us get jobs? We are dying to find ourselves an alternative livelihood,” Rajesh (name changed), a sexagenarian, asked us. Gokul promptly answered that question, “These people are unemployed, stop joking about them being able to give you a job.”

In spite of its notorious geographic location, Panakaara Nagar gets free electricity, thanks to one man, Sekar.

“Sekar was handed over the responsibility of regulating the dump yard from within. So, the government setup a residential office for Sekar inside the dump yard, thus necessitating pylons and electric cables inside the compound. Sekar made use of this opportunity and “sold” government land to people and thus Panakaara Nagar, equipped with electricity 24*7 drawn from cables extending to Sekar’s house, came into existence.” Said Rajesh.

The government eventually came to know about Sekar’s transgressions and he was suspended and arrested. The illegal settlements in Panakaara Nagar were evicted. Today, a few residents have come back to live in Panakaara Nagar, albeit unwillingly. So has Sekar, who is out on a bail. “He even has an entry level government job, which he managed to get because of his influential contacts.” Said Rajesh, as we bade farewell.

“Are you all Hindus?” asked Gokul. The randomness of this question took us all by surprise. “Yes, all of us are Hindus by birth.” I said. “I became a Christian two days ago.” He replied. The Christian missionary school he used to go to had “converted” him to Christianity. “Gokul, given a choice, would you go to school now?” “Yes,” he said. “Things are quite stable now. It’s been sometime since appa passed away. He used to drink heavily.”

“Even my dad was a victim of alcoholism,” added Karthik. “Not just Gokul and I, but the two short guys who filmed that video for you also lost their dads to the perils of alcoholism.”

“Given an alternative avenue for earning, would you still pursue rag picking? Aren’t you aware of the dangers of such a toxic environment?” I asked.

“Obviously. Who would want to accumulate garbage for a living? 40-50 families depend on this garbage dump for a livelihood. Right now, we just don’t have a choice. Be it the nature of work that we do or the air we breathe day after day.”

“Will you come back here?”

“Yes, I will. I plan to shoot a documentary here.”

“Oh wow, please come back soon.”

We walked away, wishing for change and wishing to come back to shoot a documentary here, to let the world know about Gokul and his friends. The residents of Kodungaiyur watched us disappear into the smoke, in despair as always.


With contributions from VISHWADHA CHANDER

Possible alternative to dump yards :


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One Response to Life in the land of the black sun

  1. Common man says:

    Very impressive. Keep up the good work!

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