Can a city that generates 4600 tonnes of solid waste each day afford to exist without proper conservancy facilities even for a minute? Apparently yes, if you look at what is happening in our city. Due to various reasons, garbage is once again rapidly accumulating on the streets, in a replay of what happened a few months ago. At a time when cities of international standards are boasting of scientific waste disposal techniques, we are unable to even perfect our waste collection system. This reflects very poorly on Chennai’s civic administration.

The city’s garbage collection job is divided between the Corporation’s own staff in seven zones and a private agency – Ramky Enviro Engineers – in the remaining three, these being Kodambakkam, Teynampet and Adyar. The problems with the Corporation’s direct collection are the usual ones that face any Governmental operations – lackadaisical and excess staff (much of it on leave), outmoded vehicles and indiscipline. The private operator, who began garbage collection in January this year, has problems of low staff strength and a very poor performance record especially in night conservancy. With around 88 sq km in its ambit, it is learnt that it faces a shortage of over 500 workers. What is worth pointing out is that the Corporation has staff in excess and could well contract them out to the private agency. But such out-of-the box thinking is yet to happen.

To add to the city’s woes, Ramky Enviro’s compactor drivers went on strike demanding a 50 per cent hike in salary. This further impacted severely garbage clearance in the three privatised zones which by themselves account for 1600 tonnes of garbage a day. The Corporation is, it is learnt, mulling over punitive action against the private agency, rather on the lines of what it did to the previous contractor, Neel Metal Fanalca, whose performance was also abysmal. The fact that two contractors out of three – the first, Onyx, being by far the best – have proved failures speaks volumes about the kind of due diligence that is performed by the Corporation on those who bid for its tenders. In fact, the Mayor has gone on record last week to the effect that Ramky was selected because it was the lowest bidder. If that is to be the sole criterion, no wonder we repeatedly end up with poor performers.

In the meanwhile, the city’s civic body continues to dither on two other crucial aspects – waste segregation at source and waste disposal.

The former has remained a non-starter and all garbage is now indiscriminately mixed and sent to landfills in areas such as Kodungayur and Perungudi. The latter, incidentally, abuts the Pallikaranai Marsh which is a reserved and protected natural habitat. Both landfills are now encircled by residential areas that are exposed to unscientific methods of disposal, including burning, which releases toxic gases.

At a time when the city is literally sinking under the weight of its garbage, a senior team from the Corporation has set off to Shanghai to study that city’s waste disposal techniques. The inappropriateness of the timing apart, it is questionable as to whether Shanghai is the best example given that it has a vast hinterland for setting up waste disposal facilities, which Chennai does not have. A city such as Tokyo with a high population density would have been more relevant to Chennai.

All said and done, we are nowhere near a solution. How does this tally with Singara Chennai and other such grand visions?