I spent the past fortnight in Tamil Nadu and I declare unequivocally that Chennai stinks. I mean that literally. In Mylapore, in the heart of old Madras, where stately old bungalows are sadly getting razed every month for “builder flats” to take their place, garbage lines the streets. Chikangunya caused by mosquitoes has hit the neighbourhood. I took my kids for a walk to show them some of the places which were part of my childhood vacations there, and it was disappointing. Green public bins are overflowing with uncollected garbage. The air is thick with exhaust smoke. It is impossible to walk on those streets between motor bikes, auto, cycles and the garbage. Random unauthorized shops and street side temples have emerged which create more chaos. It seemed impossible to appreciate Mylapore’s many charms when one can’t even walk on the street without holding breath or covering nose.
While it is sad that this once-beautiful, serene bastion of the genteel folk of Chennai has declined in this manner, I realized that it is the same story whether it is Nungambakkam and Adyar or suburbs such as Chrompet or Pallavaram. This is curious because Chennai doesn’t seem to differentiate between posh and poor areas in case of solid waste management. They are all equally under-serviced by the Chennai corporation.
Who’s in charge here? The Chennai Municipal Corporation has outsourced garbage collection to third-party agencies since 1989. The first such was Exnora International, whose founder M.B. Nirmal pioneered many techniques for sustainable waste management. He is the inventor of a fish-cart, a fish shaped vehicle which was driven by volunteers who went door to door to collect garbage. “After the freedom movement, we possibly had the largest number of volunteers working for a common cause,” Nirmal tells me. Exnora worked till 1999 and blazed a trail in civic cleanliness with movie folk, musicians and industrialists as its presidents, to give the campaign more visibility.
Exnora was replaced by an Australian company Onyx, followed by Neel Metal Fanac which fell out with the corporation and garbage lay uncollected when its members went on flash strikes. Then came Hyderabad-based Ramky which is threatening to pull out. The Chennai Municipal Corporation which spends Rs.4,000 crore on garbage collection is again at a loss.
Solid waste management is a complicated subject. Previously it was just about collecting garbage and dumping it. But as a city’s garbage volume keeps growing, the dumping itself is not so simple. Chennai, for instance, dumps it in the Pallikaranai wetland which is an environmental issue as the wetland attracts many rare birds. Then, garbage incinerators are also controversial as the burning releases fumes which affect the buildings nearby. In fact, there ought to be no buildings around the dumping ground, which is usually a spot on the outskirts of the city. But as the city keeps pushing outwards people settle down even around the dumping grounds. That’s what happened in Mumbai whose three dumping grounds—Deonar, Mulund and Gorai—now have people living around them and protesting about the pollution caused by the incinerators.
Mathew Jose runs a non-profit called Paperman in Chennai which helps people recycle waste and use the proceeds for social good. “This linear model of just collecting and dumping is not sustainable in the future. It is much more complex than that. We haven’t even begun with segregation. An average resident doesn’t see value in segregating kitchen waste and plastic waste. In the US, there is a heavy penalty for not doing so.”
As cities grow, waste management needs thought, study and a commitment to cleanliness—something our city corporations cannot be expected to have.
What then is the solution? “Volunteers,” says Nirmal. “This is the land of Gandhi. We understand volunteering. We need volunteers to keep our city clean.” We also need to personally follow what every environmentalist has been saying: Reuse, Recycle and Reduce.
Nirmal tells me how his team has helped about 1,500 families in Chennai to practice these mantras. Cement pipes and old plastic tubs have been used to create beautiful kitchen gardens in flats. Kitchen waste is recycled as compost. “There are apartments with as many as 1,500 plants in their terrace garden,” he says. “My own home is an example. Come and visit when you come to Chennai next.”
In the midst of the stench and filth in Mylapore, there was a thriving Mylapore festival involving kolam (rangoli) competitions on the street, open air music concerts and incredibly, heritage walks! I wish the festival’s theme next time is civic cleanliness in Mylapore. You can’t enjoy the beauty of Kapali temple’s gopuram if you have just walked through streets lined with packets of kitchen waste which stray dogs and cows are rummaging through.
Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org