Why your waste is causing sleepless nights in Ezhil Nagar and R R Nagar

Serious flaws in garbage collection and disposal, impractical solutions, and corruption to top it all -- a public meeting discussed the chaotic waste management ecosystem in the city and how deeply it affects residents living near garbage dumps. However, citizens themselves hold the key to a better system.

Are incinerators and waste to energy plants the solution to the city’s mounting landfills?

How are tenders for solid waste management issued by the Corporation?

Can informal waste workers be integrated into the waste ecosystem?

These were some of the pressing concerns at the centre of deliberations at a public meeting for solid waste management and the way forward, organised by city-based think tank Citizen, consumer and civic Action Group (CAG).

Harsh realities on ground

Speakers at the meeting highlighted the invisible ground realities of waste management that the general public are oblivious to. M Radhakrishnan of social service organization Thozhan spoke of his work in Ezhil Nagar and R R Nagar, two communities that are situated closest to the dumpyard in Kodungaiyur.

The residents of these two areas are people who were formerly residing in Sowcarpet and were resettled in housing board tenements decades ago. Radhakrishnan alluded to his conversations with them, where the residents expressed their disappointment at lack of basic infrastructure and their misplaced trust in the government that forced them to move here.

The proximity to the dumpyard has created a host of problems for the two communities. Addiction among youngsters has been on the rise, as they access drugs and cigarettes by foraging for discarded ones in the dumpyard. There’s been a high dropout rate and reported instances of truancy among the youth. The social cost of the dumpyard has impacted the community hard.

The water situation is ominous as groundwater contamination from the leachate due to the garbage has rendered water from borewells undrinkable. The entire locality is reliant on water tankers with regular interruption in services. The health situation is also alarming, with many complaints of headaches, respiratory ailments and lack of sleep.

“When we surveyed the residents of R R Nagar about their problems, they say that they cannot sleep at night. At night people are awake and asleep during the day because there are too many mosquitoes as a result of living close to the dumpyard.”

Gabriel Raj, Researcher with CAG, corroborated accounts of neglect in the civic infrastructure surrounding the dumpyard. The lack of proper sewerage systems sees the three canals surrounding the dumpyard turn into carriers of leachate and assorted waste from the area. The canals are seemingly not linked to any larger system, and the waste gets circulated endlessly.

On the health front, Gabriel provided details of health surveys conducted by CAG and their findings. The latest survey that covered 66 respondents saw 33% of have issues with sleep and affected by headaches due to the sound of trucks coming and going at all times, 38% of respondents had  eye related ailments linked to the activities in the dumpyard. Many respondents also complained of skin related ailments, dust allergies and sinusitis.

Those who worked with waste in the area, such as employees of kabadiwalas and waste pickers suffered back aches and joint pain.

The ‘Not In My Backyard’ (NIMBY) syndrome allows for large sections of the population to be unconcerned about the impact of the waste generated by them, even as entire communities bear the brunt of it due to their proximity to the dumpyards.

The machinery

While the waste management system in its current form presents various challenges in terms of collection, transfer and disposal, the solutions that are on the cards are only likely to compound them. The move to construct waste to energy plants in order to reduce the quantum of waste that is landfilled came under criticism at the meet.

Gabriel said, “There needs to be scientific landfilling for incineration. Scientific landfilling implies segregated waste is taken to the dumpyards, which is not the case here. Waste to energy plants will also leave byproducts such as ash and toxic smoke. There will be fly ash and solid ash. This will worsen the air pollution situation in the surrounding areas. This will change the landscape of Kodungaiyur and Perungudi in terms of ruining land, water and air.”

Jayaram Venkatesan of Arappor Iyakkam drew attention to the mechanism by which contracts for solid waste management and other civic issues are heavily rigged. He highlighted several recent instances of corruption in issuance of contracts by the civic body. The current budgetary allocation for solid waste management runs up to around Rs 7000 crore and offers immense scope for kickbacks and gains.

Jayaram said, “Based on what has been observed, most e-tenders are fixed and value is inflated. Corruption in the civic body has resulted in the system being rigged. A few select cartels are controlling the tender process and the other bidders get eliminated in the first stage of the process itself. Citizens must be vigilant and call every detail into question.”

Informal waste workers adrift

While there is constant dialogue and attempts to enforce source segregation of waste, it remains that the only consistent segregation of waste, till date, takes places outside the formal waste ecosystem and is done by informal waste workers such as waste pickers. These waste pickers belong to the most marginalised communities such as the Irulars and Narikuravars and operate on the fringes. Their lives and livelihood are under constant threat from within and outside the system.

V Srinivasan, a campaigner for the rights of informal waste workers, said “Solid waste management has turned into a lucrative field for big players with budgets running into thousands of crores. The corporatization of waste management will affect informal waste workers as they have no support from the government, no salary and no safety net.”

Through his decade-long engagement with the informal waste economy, Srinivasan estimates the number of workers engaged in recycling in the city runs into 10000. They work in the field despite the health risks such as tuberculosis and cancer, handle hazardous waste and live under precarious circumstances.The waste pickers are also the target of the state, routinely harassed by police, with false cases foisted against them.

Srinivasan is of the view that the only viable solution to the waste management crisis is to integrate the informal waste workers as part of it. “Their years of work and contribution must be acknowledged and their right to livelihood protected even during changes to the waste management systems that could arise.”

Citizen engagement

The crisis of unsustainable waste management will soon reach the doorstep of every citizen if left unaddressed. Gabriel opined that the current set of solutions proposed, such as waste to energy plants, are seemingly unviable and not aligned with the ground realities. Arappor Iyakkam’s work showed that the propensity for corruption and mismanagement in contracts will make the situation that looms large dire.

So what can citizens do to protect the environment and their interest?

Jayaram said, “There must be constant vigilance. Citizens must keep questioning the system. File RTIs, PILs, use helplines to make complaints, gather proof, take videos, start social media campaigns and they’ll all make a dent on some level.”

Srinivasan called for greater engagement at the micro level. “This is not a parliamentary election issue but a local body issue. Ward level citizens must come together. This must be brought into the manifesto of parties at local body elections. At that point, we should be able to push for it and hold civic authorities accountable.”

The speakers unequivocally suggested that an engaged and informed citizenry is necessary to keep an eye on the upcoming tenders for solid waste management that are to be issued on March 4th. They urged the people to hold contractors accountable for the terms as well as the civic body for enforcing those terms. The way forward for waste management in the city is not through the adoption of expensive technological solutions administered by transnational corporations, but through active involvement of citizens at the ground level and the inclusion of informal waste workers.

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