No time for ‘trash’ talk; there’s a long, winding road ahead

One thing he has learnt throughout his journey is to document evidence.
Inspite of threats and ultimatums, Pughalvendhan does not stop his crusade against illegal bio-medical waste dumping in Chennai.
Inspite of threats and ultimatums, Pughalvendhan does not stop his crusade against illegal bio-medical waste dumping in Chennai.(Photo |Express)

CHENNAI: People usually walk away from waste dumps scrunching their nose. But Pughalvendhan V willingly walks toward them. The 32-year-old from Chittilapakkam has continued to wage a battle against scrapheaps despite his Dalit identity creating many a repercussion.

It was a simple bike ride that piqued Pughalvendhan’s interest in resolving the issue. “Last year, I remember I had a gut feeling to take my bike to work instead of the car for a day. I was riding past the Narayanapuram lake when I spotted an illegal dump. If I had taken the car as I always do, I would never have found it.”

“It is destiny. I’ve never gone out in search for illegal waste dumps, they just catch my eye,” said Pughal. He has flagged at least 40 cases of biomedical waste dumping near water bodies so far. Over the past five years, Pughalvendhan V has become a crusader for the amelioration of Chennai’s ecological balance.

One thing he has learnt throughout his journey is to document evidence. He goes through these dumps to find names of the hospitals and labs printed on the faded bills and prescriptions he finds and meticulously collects them. Pughal pairs this with posting on social media to bring public attention to the issue.

On November 16, 2019. Pughal came across a massive pile of biomedical waste in Poonamallee. Almost three truckloads of biomedical waste had been dumped here, making it larger than usual. While he had a fair idea as to who the responsible party would be, Pughal alerted the authorities after his first visit. When he returned the following week, someone had tried to burn the waste.

Pughalvendhan V
Pughalvendhan V

“They had not managed to burn it fully. It was raining and some of the waste was buried under the dirt. I started to dig it up to find evidence on the firm that had dumped it there. I couldn’t let it go,” added the determined environmentalist.

A normal citizen, who has recently gained traction as an activist, Pughal owes his love for the environment to his family. Having practised agriculture in his early years, the engineer had already gotten his hands dirty with almost everything pertaining to soil and waterbodies, prior to his current occupation.

Pughal’s passion in dealing with this structural malady stems from his brief stint at a chemical industry where he learnt about the effects of certain chemicals, especially if it interacts with water resources.

However, his relentless zeal in chasing the cause has landed him in murky situations like threats over phone calls. The threats have extended to digging up details about his family and calls to them as well. Ironically, authorities themselves tend to leak his personal details to the offenders at times.

“I was at the hospital as it had only been two days since I lost my newborn daughter. This caller was reciting the names and details of my family members. If there had ever been a point in my life where I’d wanted to give it all up, it was then. After I moved past that, I knew I couldn’t be beaten down,” he said.

“Biomedical waste is hazardous and cannot be compared to regular dumping of waste where people thoughtlessly throw a bag or two on an empty land. Why does this specifically affect me? Simply because people who are fully aware of the dangers of dumping such waste near waterbodies, continue to do so,” the environmentalist added.

Another grave concern that Pughal sees here is an inequality that dispels the fabric of society at the smallest level, where the brunt of toxic biomedical waste is felt by sanitary workers who have nothing to do with it while the actual offenders get away scot-free.

“I once met a sanitary worker who said he had lost feeling in two of his fingers,” Pughal said. “They are unwillingly exposed to this waste which contains syringes and blood samples, putting them at risk”

Pughal admits that the journey of flagging the dumping of hazardous waste has been exhausting and life-threatening. He repeated himself, saying, “I cannot stop because I don’t go looking for the issue in the first place. They always find me.”

He chooses to carry on hoping that his efforts to flag the dumps would reduce the possibility of higher contamination. His unwavering fervour towards addressing waste management pushes him to persist despite the muddle of waste, politics, and bureaucracy.

(Edited by Rohit Sony)

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