Chennai is preparing itself for a new garbage collection agency. Urbaser Sumeet is a Spanish firm and it has been awarded the contract for solid waste management for eight years, effective October 1. The equipment that the company brings sounds impressive. To quote the Indian Express, there will be “125 compactors, 38 mechanical sweepers, 3,000 e-rickshaws for waste collection and 11,000 compactor dustbins with 10,844 staff.” The new team has begun taking over in a phased manner the seven zones in which it is to operate. It is early days but much is expected of the contractor, especially in the light of Chennai ranking very poorly in the Swacch ratings – the city was third, from the bottom.
There are however plenty of challenges ahead. Thus far, no private agency that has been entrusted with Chennai’s garbage collection has had a happy relationship with the Corporation. Most have departed under a cloud, the latest being Ramky Enviro Engineers, which was accused of dressing up figures of garbage collected at various wards, the company being paid on the basis of the weight of refuse brought in each day. In order to avoid such situations, the new incumbent will be evaluated across 34 parameters, an independent consultant being in charge of this. Payment will be made based on performance. Some of the key indices, to quote from the Indian Express again, include “primary collection, street sweeping and collection, secondary collection and transportation and complaint redressal within six hours (except redressal of complaints for replacement or retrofitting of assets which may be done within 24 hours).”
It all sounds very impressive on paper. But the biggest challenge this agency is going to face will be from the Chennai residents – as a community we are averse to any discipline when it comes to garbage disposal. We are very particular that our residences remain free of garbage and beyond that we do not bother. This is the reason why most households have been reluctant to practise waste segregation at source. The household (and in this we include commercial, industrial and often health) rubbish is simply carted to the nearest roadside bin and thrown all around it – it being considered unhygienic to actually tip the waste into it. Most often than not, the bins are unapproachable, they being surrounded by garbage (see article – The Heritage of our Garbage). In other instances, the bins are overturned by foraging cattle and so are unusable unless someone sets them right back on their base, which none of our residents will do.
It is in this scenario that Urbaser Sumeet has committed to implementing 100 per cent waste segregation at source within a year. It plans to get its waste collection team to educate residents and get them to begin practising this discipline. Towards this end, the agency will collect segregated waste at source, in different bins and then transfer them to roadside bins from where they will be taken away and handed over to the Corporation. There are two loopholes in this. Firstly, the roadside bins will continue to be present and this is the beginning of all indiscipline – residents and others will keep tossing unsegregated waste in and around these, as they can then be free of the task of sifting their garbage. All talk of identifying offenders and punishing them is hollow as we don’t have the means of detection and even if we do, collection of fines in India is an iffy process.
The best option would have been to remove all roadside bins and force people to collect and segregate garbage at source. Secondly, does our Corporation have the wherewithal to handle segregated garbage? This is highly doubtful. The Spanish agency is therefore aiming for perfection in a process where both the start and end points are quite vague. Let us hope for the best.