With just a few weeks to go for the election to the city’s civic body, a problem that stares everyone in the face is that of garbage. Chennai’s conservancy system has it appears, long given up trying to handle the issue. Mounds of refuse and litter are building up in every street corner, with most of it being plastic and non-biodegradable waste. With those in office at Ripon Buildings more keen on getting elected for a second term and the firm that was supposed to clear the garbage long aware that its contract will not be renewed, there is none focussing on the problem at hand. With the monsoon fast approaching, the issue will in all likelihood get out of hand.

The present agency which handles garbage clearance was awarded the tender in 2007 for three zones of the city – Ice House, Kodambakkam and Adyar and this was extended to Pulianthope in 2008. When the services were launched with much fanfare in August 2007 it was grandly announced that the service would be in two parts – garbage clearance and the sweeping of streets. It was said that each household would be given separate bins to practice garbage segregation at source – red bins for non-biodegradable and green for biodegradable. The agency’s vehicles were to call at every house to collect the waste thus segregated and the sweepers were to only focus on keeping the streets free of litter. This scheme unfortunately never took off. The residents were not trained on garbage segregation and the bins of separate colours were never distributed beyond a few select places. Garbage continued to be left, unsegregated at street corners and most often around (very rarely in) the containers provided at a few places. These were generally tipped over by foraging cattle and dogs and littered the streets quite liberally. And given our populace’s appalling ignorance on the usage of plastic, the streets continued to remain as filthy as they had been.

The Corporation began indicating its displeasure on the way the clearing agency was going about its work from 2009 onwards. That year, it began progressively taking over conservancy work in some of the zones leaving the agency to handle the rest. That this did not bring about any improvement was of no surprise to anyone given the Corporation’s past record in maintaining civic cleanliness.

Privatisation of garbage clearance began in 2000 when the contract was first awarded to a Singapore-based company which hired over 2000 personnel, pressed new vehicles into service and began the removal of mixed wastes amounting to 1100 tonnes a day. Though that agency’s track record was far better than the present incumbent’s, its contract was not renewed for unexplained reasons and a fresh tender was floated. The handing over process to the new agency was messy to say the least with garbage piling up in the interim. History is now repeating itself, with matters reaching such a pass that the Chief Minister had to crack the whip herself. That resulted in a spurt in clearance activity but the initial enthusiasm appears to be on the wane.

No matter what be the mode of clearance or the agency responsible for it, there are some fundamental lacunae in the way Chennai’s garbage is handled. Firstly, the city is yet to adopt a policy of segregation at source, which is an internationally adopted practice and the only way. Secondly, the mixed garbage is being dumped in open landfills which is environmentally hazardous. We are yet to have a scientific garbage disposal system. Thirdly, there are no clear-cut guidelines for the basis on which selection of clearance agencies is done. Fourthly, there is no other way out but to begin sensitising the public on the necessity for environmental cleanliness and orderly disposal of garbage. All these are tall orders for a civic body not exactly known for great efficiency but if these are not implemented, all schemes to make ours a world-class city will remain mere pipe dreams.