Rules and bye-laws on paper, Chennai struggles to manage construction waste

There are clear central rules on noise control and construction waste disposal. GCC bye-laws also specify dust control measures. But who is checking?

Imagine you’re about to go to bed after a long and tiring day’s work. And at that very moment, you hear the dreaded sound of those heavy drilling machines from a house next to yours, as part of some work that looks likely to continue late into the night. Or imagine having to deal with the constant menace of dust pollution in your homes and locality because of some building activity in the neighbourhood. Perhaps not so difficult to imagine, given that it is a common issue that residents of India’s metro cities, including Chennai, have been facing for years: the menace of noise pollution and construction waste related issues.

With Chennai going through a phase of massive urbanisation, the city has witnessed a near-explosive rise in construction activities, for both residential and commercial purposes. However, the question is whether the city’s governing bodies can ensure that these building activities are being undertaken in compliance with regulations and guidelines, without posing threats to the environment or inconvenience to citizens.

In an earlier report on Citizen Matters Chennai, we found that authorities haven’t been able to keep a check on the number of unregulated constructions and encroachments that have cropped up across the city over the years — blocking the path for water to seep into the ground, leading to issues of severe waterlogging and floods.

But another major issue created by rampant construction and increase in commercial activities across the city is the rise in noise and dust pollution, the latter due to improper management of construction debris. We spoke to residents from a couple of residential areas in Chennai to find out how they’re dealing with such issues.

No one to regulate noise

T Nagar, a prominent locality in the city, is home to both residential and commercial units and according to residents here, some of these commercial establishments are “sandwiched” between residential units as a result of violation of zoning laws. This goes on to create various issues like noise pollution, traffic jams in residential streets, littering of surroundings and so on.

Shops in this area are open throughout the week. “As a result, the only time they get to engage in any form of renovation or interior decoration is during the night,” says B Kannan, Secretary of T Nagar Residents Welfare Association (RWA). He also adds that these establishments use heavy drilling machines and other loud equipment through the night, which can be disturbing, especially in households which have senior citizens and new born children.

Residents in areas such as Rameswaram Street, Ranganathan Street and Mahalakshmi Street have, in the past made attempts to request the owners of the various shops not to undertake any sort of activities that cause loud noise at night, however after a few days of inactivity, the work resumes, much to the displeasure of the residents living nearby. 

Kannan states that the residents have called up and complained to the nearby police station at night. “The police come and just warn the shop officials to stop their work at night. An hour after the police leave, they start again and this has been going on for years now,” alleges the RWA secretary.

What do the rules say? 

But then, is there a law that actually regulates such activity? According to section 5A (3) of The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, sound emitting construction equipment cannot be used or operated during night time in residential areas and silence zones. ‘Night time’ refers to the time between 10 pm and 6 am while residential areas under the law imply those areas where there are residential units, hostels, old age homes and so on. As per the rules, the noise limit in residential areas during the day should be 55 dB(A) Leq and during the night, it is 45 dB(A) Leq. dB(A) Leq denotes the time-weighted average of the level of sound in decibels on scale A, which is relatable to human hearing.

According to a senior official of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), when it comes to dealing with issues of noise pollution, the competent authority in Chennai or Tamil Nadu is the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). However, when we tried contacting the TNPCB to comment on the prevalent noise pollution and the lack of checks, no one from the Board was available.

The issue of construction waste

In early November this year, when several areas in T Nagar experienced severe waterlogging after the rains, one of the causes was found to be the clogging of the nearby Mambalam canal as a result of the construction debris dumped into the canal following certain smart city projects. When even an authority like the Chennai Smart City Mission is not able to dispose of construction waste properly, it is hardly any surprise when other private builders are also flouting the rules. 

Read more: Flooding in T Nagar raises a lot of questions for the smart city mission

Residents of Chennai’s OMR and Thiruvanmiyur also narrate similar experiences. “A couple of years ago, there was a time when our street used to experience waterlogging even when it rained slightly. The reason for this was later found out to be the blockage in the drains as a result of the dumping of various construction waste materials like broken pipes, cement and so on,” says Sumathi, a resident of Chennai’s OMR. 

Construction waste from sites are collected either by private agencies or Corporation officials and taken to recycling units. Pic: Korah Abraham

A resident of Thiruvanmiyur, who did not wish to be named, also complained about vacant plots in residential areas being used to conveniently dump waste and debris from the nearby sites. Admitting the fact that such issues have taken place in the past, site engineers at various construction sites from Thiruvanmiyur, however, claimed that they have found ways for the disposal of construction waste through proper channels. They hand it over to private agencies or corporation officials, who, in turn, transport them to recycling units. Sometimes, they give these to people from slum communities, who are in need of cement, bricks and other material for the construction of their homes or to cover broken roads in their areas. 

According to N Mahesan, Chief Engineer (Solid Waste Management) of the GCC, the responsibility of collecting the construction waste from 7 out of the 15 zones under the Chennai corporation have been handed out to various private operators, a list of which is given on the website of the GCC (see Service Providers list). “Construction waste from Zones 1 to 7 are taken to the Perungudi recycling facility, while those from the remaining zones are taken to the Kodungaiyur unit,” says Mahesan.

Citizen Matters tried contacting some of the operators mentioned in the list, but most of them were not reachable while those who did answer our calls said that they were not involved with the collection of construction waste, but were rather limited to collection of food waste and other solid waste.

Blocking of waterways is not the only issue caused by these construction waste materials. It also generates huge amounts of particulate matter, which poses grave risks to the health of residents of the area. “I used to wear a mask in Chennai even before COVID set in, since I had dust allergy and it was a challenge to navigate through the city roads, dotted with construction sites,” says Vivek, an IT professional in the city.

Read more: Dust, dust everywhere: The ignored pollutant in Chennai’s air

Who is looking into violations of construction waste disposal rules?

As far as the management of C&D waste is concerned, every construction builder in India is supposed to go by the rules mentioned in the the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016 of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. In 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) came out with various guidelines regarding handling of construction waste and mitigation of dust pollution arising from the same. You can read it here.

These rules have clearly stated the duties of the waste generator, i.e construction building sites and other establishments that generate C and D waste, duties of the local authority, in this case, the GCC and so on.

The Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules 2016 states that it is the duty of the competent authority to monitor and ensure that the rules are not violated. The competent authority responsible for looking into issues relating to construction waste in Chennai city is the GCC. According to the Solid Waste Management Bye-Laws 2019 of the Corporation:

  • The Commissioner or any other officer authorised by the Commissioner will conduct surprise checks in various parts of the wards in the corporation limits at any time (day or night) with a view to encouraging compliance. Any violations, if found, will attract a fine and any incident of construction waste found to be littered, will be cleared immediately by the GCC.
  • The Commissioner also forms Enforcement Squads for solid waste management services.
  • The Corporation shall coordinate with other government agencies and authorities, to ensure compliance of these bye-laws within areas under their jurisdiction.

According to Mahesan, there are divisional engineers for each zone and under them, there are several assistant engineers as well, who undertake inspections and levy penalty, if any violations are found. However, Karthik, a site engineer at a residential construction site in Thiruvanmiyur says that as of now, he hasn’t come across any officials or authorities taking part in such inspections.

Penalty and grievance redress

According to section 5.1 of the SWM bye-laws of the GCC, the powers to levy penalties for the non-compliance of Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 are vested with the ward level Assistant Engineers. 

The unauthorised dumping of C&D waste in public places will attract a fine of up to Rs 2,000 for waste up to 1 ton, and Rs 5,000 for more than 1 ton.

Chief Engineer Mahesan says that residents can always make use of the toll free number of the GCC, which is 1913 and the “Namma Chennai” app of the corporation, where he claims they get regular complaints and rectify the issues as early as possible. However, Kannan and other residents say the complaints are rarely addressed effectively for the long term.

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