The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Programme) was launched with much fanfare recently in the national capital. The move is most laudable, as garbage and filth have become the most visible symbols of our country, commented most often on by visitors from overseas countries and by international media. There was scarcely a ripple in Chennai, however, probably because the city had much to occupy its mind in the last ten days. However, it would do well to ponder over its garbage problem and arrive at a suitable solution. At 4900 metric tonnes of garbage a day, even though the Corporation’s web site claims it is only 4500 metric tonnes, Chennai is the fourth largest producer of rubbish in the country. That it has not been able to handle this volume is more than evident from the way the streets and thoroughfares are littered with refuse. The collection/disposal mechanism, whether by the Corporation’s conservancy staff or by the private operator contracted for it, is seriously flawed both in collection and disposal. What is the solution in sight? Sadly, there appears to be none. That the Corporation believes that what it is presently doing is the ideal solution is –evident from the fact that it is planning to privatise garbage collection in four of the newly acquired zones – Alandur, Sholinganallur, Valasarawakkam and Perungudi. It is reliably learnt that some firms from the Gulf region are in the fray. Also, incredibly so, given its poor track record, is the firm that currently handles garbage clearance in Adyar, Kodambakkam and Teynampet.

The usual plans have been trotted out – there will be no common garbage bins in street corners, each household/office unit will be provided with two differently coloured bins – one for bio-degradable and the other for non-bio-degradable waste – and that collection will be from door to door. It is worthwhile pointing out that these were the same plans that were put out when garbage collection was privatised in the three zones mentioned above. Despite 18 years having gone by since the contracting out of rubbish collection, segregation at source and collection door-to-door have remained dreams. How then is the Corporation going to handle this effectively through its contractor in the new zones? As for garbage disposal, it remains in the dark ages. There is no scientific method beyond the continued use of landfills. The Corporation of Chennai is under severe pressure to identify new landfills, as the present ones in Perungudi and Kodungaiyur have already reached capacity. The new landfill is to be according to the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2000. Space for this was identified at Kuthambakkam, but no contractor has come forward for the construction of the landfill. In the meanwhile, the proposal is under the scrutiny of the National Green Tribunal following complaints from local residents that the construction of a landfill in their area will affect the quality of their life. That the space is currently a grazing area has lent credence to their claims.

For that matter, even the national scheme does not speak of waste disposal. In its current form, the plan appears to be more of a photo opportunity, asking the people to identify garbage accumulations, photograph them, clean them and then photograph the spaces once again. This is praiseworthy as a way of bringing the community together to work on a common cause, but it would be most effective only if a solution is worked out till the last aspect – the effective disposal of waste. Chennai, as part of the national drive, needs to think of its solutions as well – for collection, transportation and disposal of garbage. It would do well to begin now.