Ours may be the second oldest Corporation in the world, but it did not cover itself with glory during the last few weeks when it came to garbage management. With the contract with the private agency running out a month ago in three zones, and the new contractor yet to take over, garbage overflowed in these areas. But what was surprising was that garbage was also not cleared in the other zones which are directly managed by the Corporation.

The last few weeks have been witness to an unusual sight, even by Chennai standards – mounds of garbage piling up on all the streets with no conservancy worker in sight in most areas. And in the places where they were operating, the service was perfunctory, leaving most of the waste behind on the streets. Foraging animals and rag-pickers may have had a field day, but to the average citizen it was a matter of shame. With the area under its jurisdiction having suddenly increased from 174 to 426 sq kms in the last two months, it is clear that the civic body has neither a strategy nor capability to handle its new responsibilities.

By the time this article appears in print, the new agency may have begun its service. The initial date of 9th January now stands postponed to the 12th. But can a city afford to function with no garbage clearance even for a day, let alone weeks? That is a question that the Corporation needs to answer. The ostensible reason that has been given is that the contract with the present agency was expiring and so the workers had lost interest in the matter and that was why garbage was piling up. But surely after having operated with private waste-collection agencies for over two terms, the Corporation ought to have come up with some safeguards to ensure that the garbage would be disposed of by the incumbent agency till a new one takes over. But that appears to have not been the case. When can our municipal body anticipate and be proactive?

What is often conveniently forgotten is that the private waste collector operates only in three zones of the city and this is true of both new and old contractors. The rest are supposed to be managed by the conservancy workers of the Corporation. If that be so, then why is the waste collection tardy in those areas as well? It is learnt that the Corporation has a shortage of around 6000 conservancy workers overall. But there are zones where there is surplus staff that could be transferred to the areas facing a deficit. But here it is political considerations that call the shots and the powers that be are reluctant to effect such transfers. Surely this cannot be the way the civic body of a thriving city can operate. There are certain decisions that need to be taken by the executive and not by the political masters.

Interestingly, the Corporation is silent on waste segregation. It does not state explicitly what it proposes to do with the waste collected and even its new contractor for the three zones contracted for does not appear to have any plans for waste segregation and disposal. From a glance at the web site of this company it would appear that it plans to use the time-tested method of landfills.

With Chennai fast running out of open space, and with those living near the existing landfills protesting against them, this may not be a feasible solution in the long run. And the garbage that the city produces has only increased since recently from 3400 tonnes a day to over 4000 tonnes. It is also not clear as to what plan the Corporation has for separating hazardous waste, which now freely mixes with bio-degradable wastes on our streets. Given the way the city is generating garbage, it would be no exaggeration to say that a crisis situation has reached and a comprehensive plan for segregation at source, effective collection and safe disposal is the need of the hour. But will our Corporation act before it is too late? While that may be the case with the Corporation, does the average Chennaiite have the slightest sense of responsibility and awareness of his duty to himself and his neighbours? He is simply under the impression that every street corner is a dumpyard and throwing around anything and everything in a most haphazard manner is the end of his responsibility.