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Chennai’s Cleaning Challenges

by Admin
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The conservancy of the streets in Madras was first attempted by Governor Streynsham Master (1678-81). In 1859, Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Governor of the Presidency, felt that the existing official Municipal Commissioners of Madras be speedily replaced by a Municipal Corporation consisting of representatives of people to deal with the urgent and vital problems connected with water supply, sewage and sanitation. But the schemes he suggested materialized only years later. Slowly and steadily, the City of Madras grew from a sandy strip to a metropolis, and its Municipal Corporation began to address in various ways, the challenges of its changing landscape and continually expanding limits, along with the exigencies of its burgeoning population. From about 27 sq miles in the early 1900s, the Madras that is now Chennai has grown to an area of 172 sq km with a population of 42,16,268 (according to the 2000 census), and the waste the city generates is a challenge that looms, always!

Process of cleaning

Chennai’s metropolitan area, covers an extent of 1172 sq. km of which the Corporation extends over 172sq. km. CMA has a population of 7.05 million, out of which 4.22 million is within the City. There are 28 town panchayats, eight municipalities and one cantonment area within the metropolitan area and the responsibility of solid waste management rests with the local bodies concerned.

Within the purview of the Chennai Municipal Corporation (CMC), there are 10,614 streets with the total length of 2188km. The city has been divided into 10 administrative zones, 30 units and 155 wards. The waste is collected by street sweeping and kerbside collection and it is at present being dumped outside the city limits at Perungudi in the south and Kodungaiyur in the north which is spread over 200 acres each.

The profile of garbage is changing too. Organic waste was the major component, earlier. But with lifestyles changing and with the increase in technology and IT growth, the quantity of non-recyclable plastics, electronic and electrical items or e-waste is on the increase. But Rajesh Lakhoni, Corporation Commissioner, says: “We are now working to a new mantra – ‘Waste is not waste unless wasted’ – and are aiming at 100% recycling of waste. Chennai, which generates the highest waste per capita in the country at 677gm per day, has a huge organic waste burden, about 50-60 % of collected waste.

“However, available figures are based on backend calculations and our collection efficiency is much higher than other metros! We are targeting 100% door-to-door collection. Again there are two kinds of households – those who deposit waste in a bucket or bag at their doors and those who throw it on the road. About 2,100 tricycles, each targeting 200 houses and so, four lakh households. It is only the remaining 10% that does not make use of these that needs to be worked on!” Each tricycle handles about 1½ tonne, doing four trips each. Two 1,100 litre bins are placed in strategic positions in localities and are cleared by the compactors. The waste generated is therefore handled at different levels and at different points during the day. Garbage from bulk producers is collected at specific times.

“Also, we have allowed the tricycle worker to take away the recyclables, which is about 10% of the waste generated and he makes about 100-150 everyday. At the present rate of dumping, our landfills will be exhausted in 10 years, then where can we go? Only segregation and reduction at source can provide answers. Our new Transfer Station, is the first of its kind in India based on a Singapore model. A technology that would be economical, not land intensive or have high-operational costs is the need of the hour. Composting, electricity from waste, sanitary landfills and conversion to dry fuel are some of the solutions suggested and we are considering all options!

“Regarding management of construction waste, specialised lorries are being commissioned and a 500 per day fine imposed on offenders, besides removal charges. Besides, biomedical waste treatment facilities are provided outside Chennai. The Corporation has engaged an agency to train medical personnel across the City for biomedical waste segregation and removal.

“Effective movement of garbage collection vehicles is ensured by a GPS system that is already in place for the last eight months. Each Transfer Station has computerised weighing stations that help ensure that lorries carry optimum capacity of waste. Sanitary workers are being given specially designed NIFT uniforms. Attendance through biometric attendance in two zones is already functional and in other zones in the next two weeks! Petrol pilferage in lorries has been reduced by introducing Radio Frequency Identification Device in each lorry. I can actually sit in my office and check what goes on where! And through state-of-the-art logistics, we are trying to plug all loopholes in the existing system!”

Privatisation of Solid Waste Management

Garbage collection in Chennai was partially privatised by the Corporation on March 5, 2000, when CES Onyx, a subsidiary of the Onyx Asia Holdings, introduced its garbage collection and disposal initiative into the Chennai urbanscape. Onyx was removing around 1,000 tonnes of garbage everyday from its allotted three zones within the city. To serve 2.3 million people and over 500,000 households along an average length of 712km, over 2,038 employees were involved. However, the company was not responsible for any scientific management of waste.

But privatisation of solid waste management (SWM) activities, bristled with major hurdles such as resistance from the community for setting up solid waste treatment and disposal facilities, lack of appropriate space for setting up SWM facility, dearth of funds, and lack of technical know-how, according to a 2007 FICCI survey on Scope of Privatisation of Municipal Solid Waste in India.

Starting August 25, 2007, a seven-year contract has been awarded to Neel Metal Fanalca, a joint venture company between Neel Metal Products Ltd (JBM group) of India and Fanalca SA of Colombia, taking over four zones (Zones 6, 8 and 10 which were already privatised in 2000 and Zone 3). The total tonnage collected per day is 1,600 tonnes and the total number of employees, 2700.

The collection process includes:

  • Door-to-door collection of household garbage, normally carried out by the sweeper and transported in light vehicles. Garbage in small lanes will be deposited in 120 litres bins, and deposits in other areas where the heavy vehicle cannot access will be collected by the light vehicles.
  • Garbage arising out of sweeping roads including the sand, normally done by the sweeper and deposited in bins to be cleared by the compactors or in the light vehicles
  • Silt removed from storm water drains, is cleared by light vehicles.
  • Where there is accumulation of garbage, a HUKA bin facilitates the process.

Official sources say that the municipal solid waste is separated into organic, inorganic, recyclable and hazardous waste and the segregated waste is managed by the company.

Vehicles used for carrying garbage from area to transfer station include light vehicles (of two cubic metre capacity and can carry a capacity of one tonne garbage), heavy vehicle – compactors (of 12 cubic metre capacity that can carry an average of 7.5 tonnes of garbage) and HOOK lifters (in 10 and 15 cubic metre capacity and can carry an average of four and six tonnes of garbage), designed so as to lift the HUKA bin placed in areas where more garbage is generated and to place in the same area after unloading. Sub-contract vehicles are used to transport garbage from transfer station to the designated dumping grounds.

Reality Check…

The reality, however, is that in many areas across Chennai, garbage bins continue to overflow and roadside littering and dumping is common. The steps forward may be happening, but very slowly!

“Biomedical waste is supposed to be transported for incineration to the two sites outside the city or, as per the rules, chemically disinfected and put into proper landfill sites, where they should be covered with lime and soil. But the flies on the Kodungaiyur compound border can flit easily between meals of slum board residents and the carcasses, and the children can use the needles to shoot up or sell,” reports a witness.

Dr. Sultan Ahmed Ismail, an expert in vermicomposting, says, “The current waste management scene is alarming, since the rate of waste generation has no limits. Each household should not generate more than 500gm of waste per day irrespective of the number of members. The practice of throwing garbage on the roads still continues. Much of packaging material used is neither of compostable or recyclable quality.

Several people have stopped mixing garbage and there is awareness in hospitals on “source segregation” but do we have the facility to scientifically manage such segregated garbage? Incentives may help. For example if an 100 apartment building has its own composting, grey water treatment, other waste handling practices should be able to enjoy straight away, say, a 10% reduction in tax. Everyone, the corporation officials as well as public to some extent or other, would like to do something about this. But somehow a symbiosis lacks!”

Says Aruna Chandrasekar, an active community worker in Valmiki Nagar: “Ten years ago SWM in Chennai took the first step towards outsourcing the services for managing the ever-increasing ‘in your face’ problem, through Onyx. However, the system has not progressed beyond privatisation and no significant improvements have been made in researching and implementing ways of garbage management in an eco friendly way. With countries having moved on to the slogan ‘generate less garbage’, we are still stuck on how to get rid of the mounting pile.”

With the MSW (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, the source segregation combined with door-to-door collection was brought into force in parts of the city. To sustain any change in society the Corporation must stand strong and firm and the government must take this opportunity to connect with the people in implementing regulations for the good of the community.”

And M.B. Nirmal, Founder, Exnora, feels unhappy because, “after 20 years of propagation, source segregation is still not happening in the community! If strict segregation happens, there will be only 120 tonnes of garbage actually each day, while it is currently 3600 tonnes. Currently the urban local body is creating a lot of infrastructure without getting down to the root of the issue. Holistic SWM does not seem to be very high on the priority list of Chennai or other local bodies!”

Indiscriminate Dumping

Privatisation of waste collection in Chennai may have led to somewhat cleaner streets, but indiscriminate dumping of collected garbage by the private cleaning agencies who espouse environmental concerns, along with the local corporation authorities on sensitive wetland areas like Pallikaranai has invited the wrath of many environmentalists! That the private agency is commissioned to only collecting segregated garbage and not bother about what happens afterwards is disastrous, many feel! As for most residents in the metro, what happens to the garbage after it leaves their homes is no problem of theirs. Leave alone what happens to the garbage that leaves the streets!

Ironically, some of the areas in South Chennai such as Besant Nagar where the garbage is currently cleared by private agencies may be among those directly affected by groundwater pollution due to dumping of wastes in Pallikaranai. “Polluted water recharge (through percolation and lateral movement) reaches Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur and the newly developing areas along the coast,” confirms an expert.

Solutions in Progress

The Corporation is in the process of upgrading the existing SWM to scientific standards to meet the requirements of Provisions of Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2000, framed by the Government of India. A 255.32-crore proposal was recently sanctioned for improving SWM practices, in an environment-friendly manner, under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Modernisation of conservancy operations for covered transportation of garbage, upgradation of storage facilities like modernisation of garbage transfer stations and creation of waste processing facilities and sanitary landfill facilities at the Garbage Dumping Grounds of Corporation of Chennai will involve:

  • About 80 compactor vehicles costing 17 crores are proposed for reducing the volume of the garbage and to reduce the number of trips to be made. About 25 compactor vehicles have been purchased so far and put into use.
  • Small compacters of 6 M3 capacities, are used in smaller roads and streets for collecting garbage. Further, HDPE bins, covered and mobile, are also under procurement for deployment in streets and collection points. About 1700 HDPE bins have been put to use.
  • The existing door-to-door collection of garbage is to be upgraded by introducing about 1600 tricycles with two different colour dustbins for collection of segregated waste.
  • Out of the eight garbage transfer stations, three have been modernised earlier. The remaining five will be upgraded soon. The Transfer Station at Zone IX in Alandur Salai will be taken up ‘on design, build, operate and maintain concept’ on long term concession of about 10 or 15 years.
  • For Kodungaiyur Dumping Ground, ‘on Design, Build, Operate, Maintain and Transfer concept’, the Corporation of Chennai proposes to create waste processing and sanitary landfill facilities on long term concession of 20 years on integrated solid waste processing and sanitary landfill facility, on a 400 crore budget. The Corporation of Chennai will pay tipping charges for garbage handling to the developer of the facilities on per tonne basis. About 1800 MT of waste will have to be processed per day, on 100 acres.
  • For the Perungudi Dumping Ground, about 1400 MT of garbage needs to be managed by the developer, on 30 acres site. The developers are to restrict the waste for landfill only up to 25% of the waste delivered by the Corporation.
  • In both the notified dumping sites, identified agencies are expected to produce compost, fuel pellets and generate electricity and ensure only 20% of waste reach sanitary landfills, ensure better environmental management and prevent contamination for sub-soil resources.

The Corporation intends to submit these proposals under the Clean Development Mechanism for securing carbon credits, as methane from landfills could be tapped and used for power generation. The World Bank has committed to marketing the carbon credits for the Chennai Corporation and is willing to provide a minimum guarantee. British companies are eager to tap markets like India.

Says Lakhoni, “Ensuring over 50 lakh people don’t litter is certainly a big challenge! Whatever system we put in, we require an attitudinal change from all urban households. Also on the official side, there is a need to get used to modern systems. Incentives like tax reduction are easy to announce but difficult to implement. A 100% segregation is definitely a distant dream. But the backbone of the system is now in place. Awareness building through media will certainly help.” And definitely, more networking of concerned Corporation officials with proactive citizenry in the City!

Novel measures to sensitize community!

City slums are soon to become trendsetters in source segregation. The Corporation plans to distribute red and green bins to four lakh families in slums to segregate biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste.

On June 1, the corporation introduced a fine of 50 for urinating and defecating in public places and 100 for throwing garbage on roads. Owing to public pressure, the Corporation temporarily withdrew the fine on urinating and defecating in public places, as steps were being taken to construct toilets in needy areas.

“We are now working to a new mantra – ‘Waste is not waste unless wasted’ – and are aiming at 100% recycling of waste” says Rajesh Lakhoni, Chennai Corporation Commissioner




The local body had earlier planned to introduce the penalty from April 1, but had put off the proposal following representations from the public that systems should be put in place before enforcing it. “Our aim is only to ensure a successful cleanliness drive and is not to threaten the public with hefty fines,” Mayor Subramanian said.

A six-minute short film by AVM Productions was directed by S.P. Muthuraman had veteran actor Manorama in the cast. The film will be shown in slums and theatres. Meanwhile, civic authorities expressed hope that their advertisement initiatives, including slide shows in theatres and banners in public places, emphasising proper garbage disposal, will yield some good results. There is also a plan to launch an awareness campaign by self help groups.

Recent surveys

There is a huge potential for private sector participation in treatment and disposal activities, which has so far not been tapped adequately due to contractual and technological constraints.

Among waste treatment options, though composting and vermicomposting have been the most popular methods, urban local bodies are also looking at pelletisation (conversion of solid waste into refuse derived fuel (RDF) pellets that can be used to generate electricity) and biomethanation (generation of methane by digesting organic waste (in a slurry form) by methanogenic microbes, usually in an anaerobic environment) as treatment options for near future. Transportation plays a vital role in waste collection and disposal and planning an optimum route for solid waste collection and geographical information systems will prove very useful. Removal and recycling of construction debris to building material is a major issue that has not yet been addressed.

The way ahead

An optimistic Commissioner Lakhoni emphasises, “Garbage will no longer be a problem, that is the Municipal Corporation’s promise to Chennai,” but such a promise can materialise only with proactive citizens participation. And ultimately, the solution will rest in minimising waste at source, across cross sections of society. Since it is citizens who generate the garbage, they should have some moral responsibility in its disposal too!

Affirms a community activist, “Given the fact that people take time to get used to any change in their lifestyle, follow-ups and inspections becomes a critical step to ensure that regulations are complied. With the initial zeal of segregation, the private agency or the Corporation needs to do periodic surveys and check the quality of segregation. Imposing penalties can be the last step. Lack of follow up by the Corporation and their fear of implementing a good regulation undid what took so much effort. Political involvements and pressure also puts spanner in the works where well meaning officials are unable to sustain such programmes.

To a large extent, community awareness and involvement in urban hygiene ‘by the educated elite’ can make a difference, along with meticulous, stringent standards and effective functioning of sanitary workers and monitoring officials. That communities come forward to participate in improving the living conditions in their neighbourhood, and work together for their surroundings, must be the common goal!

A greener Chennai

Chennai’s parks used to be considered ‘uncool’ till a few years ago, but thanks to the efforts of both Chennaiites and the City Corporation, these public spaces have become popular again! The Corporation maintains 245 public parks, 400 roadside parks and 160 green traffic islands across the city.

Some of the more popular and frequented parks in the city, are the Mayor Sundar Rao Park in T. Nagar, which has a special ‘Concert in the Park’ program by the Chennai Corporation, from 5pm to 7pm everyday (except Tuesdays). The Corporation plans to take the concerts to all the parks, in time! The Nageswara Rao Park in Mylapore is very popular for morning walks and the ‘Kutcheri in the Park’ program, where young talent is encouraged; Kotturpuram Park, the first disabled-friendly park in Chennai, was the response to a request from teachers of nearby Vidya Sagar, a school for spastic children, with ramps and hand-railings, and reserved for the use of disabled children from 10.30am to noon and from 1pm to 3pm, Monday to Friday; Independence Day Park, in Valluvar Kottam is designed to look like two concentric circles, the outer one is used by walkers, the inner one (bordering a fountain and pond) for those in the mood to stroll or play; Canal Park, on Haddows Road where the Chennai Corporation transformed a sewage canal into a beautiful Park; Visveswaraya Park, near the Anna Nagar Round Tana has one of the tallest park towers in Chennai; Bougainvillea Park in Anna Nagar East was recently renovated by the Chennai Corporation. It has a variety of flowering plants, a 190-metre walkway and a children’s playground; and Harrington Road Park where the Chennai Corporation and the Harrington Road Residents Association got together with MRF and revamped the park.

Meanwhile Nizhal, a voluntary organisation to promote tree culture in urban areas, is working with the Chennai Corporation to introduce sensitive greening measures and by promoting bird-and butterfly-attracting shrubs and trees, help regenerate biodiversity of local flora and fauna, within the city’s open spaces. The Chennai Corporation will, initially, create bird-friendly spaces within 10 public parks by growing fruit trees and providing artificial nests.

The ambitious Adyar Poonga (Adyar Park) ecological restoration is in process, its focus, wetland restoration, and will be completed by December 2010.The work, spanning over 58 acres of the park, is a 100 crore project being carried out by the Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants, Auroville, an organisation involved in eco-restoration projects. Alongside the Adyar River bank will come up, in a few months, a PWD Tree Park, which will showcase various tree species from TDEF areas and indigenous and naturalised trees of this region.

Also on the cards soon is a world-class botanical park, on the lines of the Lalbagh, to be developed on the site of the earlier Woodlands Drive In Restaurant.. A horticulture research centre would also be set up. An overhead vestibule and an underground walkway are to connect the gardens to that of the Agri-horticultural Society located just across on the Cathedral Road. The sprawling 18-acre, horticulture farm site will also have a greenhouse for rare species of medicinal and non-medicinal plants, a children’s activity centre and a nursery for seedlings. The Horticultural Society once held annual flower shows and these could be revived, say naturalists.

The Chennai metropolitan area also boasts of a few forest areas like the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest. However, these vital and fragile ecosystems need to be preserved and incorporated in a sensitive manner as structured green spaces within this metropolis.

Chennai most clean cityamong top six metros… ORG survey says

Among the six large metros, Chennai has topped the list in overall cleanliness perception ranking, a 2007 study conducted by A.C. Nielsen ORG MARG said. Of the total 18 state capitals covered in the survey, Chandigarh ranked first with a total score of 144, and Chennai second with 118.

Public toilets to offer advertisement space

Public conveniences of the Corporation of Chennai will soon allow the contractor to use the outer walls for advertising.

Following its decision to fine offences that affect public hygiene from June 1 this year, the Chennai Corporation invited bids for the demolition and construction of 34 toilets in the Ayanavaram and Adyar Zones and construction of 16 urinals in the Adyar Zone.

The construction of 100 urinals at locations, which are currently being used by the public as open-air toilets, was one of the proposals in the local body’s 2008-09 budget. Open-air defecation was among the offences to be fined from the initially proposed date of April 1, 2008. The Corporation postponed the date of enforcement by two months to enable construction of toilets and improve awareness of actions that can attract fines.

The civic body has called for bids in a national competitive bidding process for design-build-operate-transfer (DBOT) of the structures, including demolition for reconstruction of some toilets. This way, the contractor who takes up the projects will operate the toilets for a specified period and recoup the cost through maintenance charges and advertisement revenue

Chennai is now in the top slot among the cities in India in generating waste – about 1.25 million tonnes a year!

Total waste generated is about 3700 tons/day. Chennai’s per capita expenditure on solid waste management is recorded as 295, with Delhi leading with 431. Chennai ranks third among the top 10 cities in the country that generate e-waste (includes discarded computers, phones, cell phones, fax machines, printers and copiers and their components) according to the Central Pollution Control Board.

Community Efforts

Citizens direct involvement in managing waste started in the late 1980s with the starting of Civic Exnoras and the middle class taking pride in keeping their neighborhoods clean. Exnora International , launched by M B Nirmal in 1988 has been very successful in involving the very same people who are the sources of waste. There are over 5000 civic exnoras working along with Exnora innovators clubs.

In a residential area in Tiruvanmiyur, close to the bustling IT Corridor, the Valmiki Nagar Residents Welfare Association has shown how community participation can make this difference. Colour coded bins (green for degradable, blue for recyclable and red for non-degradable/hazardous) were provided to all apartments and independent houses. Pamphlets providing detailed guidelines on segregation were distributed. VAREWA went ahead in managing the degradable waste by encouraging apartments to set up their own compost bins. All the residents had to do was put the segregated degradable waste into a Parivartan bin. A person employed to supervise the bins would do his rounds.

Residents of Aashiana, a 174-apartment complex in Alwarpet, have started a waste management project, the first of its kind in the city. Kitchen waste is segregated from household garbage and composted in pits. The compost, rich in nutrients, is used as manure in the garden. Each of the 11 blocks produced between eight and 10kg of kitchen waste per day.

Residents of Indira Colony in Ashok Nagar have been composting garden waste in the neighbourhood Corporation park. A kg of the compost fetched 5, and composting vats in the park produce about 150kg in three months.


On the flip-side of the IT boom, Chennai is turning into a dumping ground for hazardous techno-trash. Within Chennai, government departments, private sector enterprises and scrap dealers were found to generate the hazardous waste. But the city is the site of the first-ever e-waste inventorying of the IT industry in the country, syas the Centre for Environmental Sciences, Anna University, of all facilities generating, importing, storing and recycling e-waste. “However, this inventorisation is a continuous process, since we cannot keep tabs on the unauthorized sector recyclers like ragpickers and others!” says a TNPCB official.

E-waste is classified as hazardous under the Basel Convention, which prohibits its trans-boundary movement. Chennai port was found to be deluged with e-waste import, mostly from the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Belgium and the Middle East. Most of the imports had been wrongly named as “mixed metal scrap” or “mixed cable scrap,” the import of which is not prohibited.

If handled unscientifically during breaking down, e-waste has the potential to pollute natural resources such as water, apart from endangering the health of the workers, who do not wear protective gear.

There are currently five e-waste recyclers around Chennai, who have been recognised by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. The companies dismantle and sort the items into recyclable (plastic, ferrous, etc) and non-recyclable waste (printed circuit boards) from companies and institutions.

The Chennai Corporation is now in the process of setting up a Committee, headed by the superintending engineer in charge of solid waste management, comprising information technology professionals and experts in e-waste management. The committee would formulate norms on all aspects of e-waste management, from disposal to safe recycling.

Managing biomedical waste

Chennai is part of the State wide 11 crore biomedical waste management plan in all the 29 districts in Tamil Nadu. A unified protocol had been worked out in consideration with Tamil Nadu State Aids Control Society, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme and Toxics Link, an NGO. A massive IEC Programme has been completed for all hospitals across the City through Tamil Nadu Medical Service Corporation.

Though some sources say that, the scientific method of integrated health care waste management obliging the Bio-medical Waste (Handling and Management) Rules, 1990 (third amendment, 2003) is being implemented, an official from the TNPCB official said, “All private hospitals in the City are members of the biomedical waste treatment facility provided outside Chennai (11 across the State)and are monitored by the TNPCB. Government hospitals currently continue to bury their biomedical waste scientifically within landfills, but will soon be included in the management plan”.

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