Swachh Survekshan ranking signals broad issues in waste management in Chennai

How have the various waste management efforts on the ground translated into improved Swachh Survekshan rankings for Chennai?

The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), has conducted the Swachh Survekshan survey annually for the past seven years. The survey assesses the cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation of India’s urban local bodies (ULBs). The survey looks at the collection of waste, segregation at source, processing and disposal of waste and sustainable sanitation.

While Chennai’s performance has seen an improvement over the years, the city is far from meeting the criteria on parameters such as going binless, banning the use of plastic and achieving a reduction in the quantum of waste being landfilled.

Reporting for Swachh Survekshan in Chennai

Every month, each ULB must submit the data related to their waste management activities online via the Swachh Bharat Mission portal, says Anil Prakash, Deputy Team Leader at the Swachh Bharat Mission, MoHUA. For instance, they are supposed to upload the quantity of wet waste that has been processed in the micro composting centres.

“This data will give us a sense of the city’s progress,” says Anil.

N Mahesan, Chief Engineer of the Solid Waste Management Department of GCC, lays out how the assessment happens at the city level.

  • Physical verification: Initially, GCC physically verifies the micro composting centres, material recovery facilities, windrow composting centres, incinerators and other waste processing units in Chennai for Swachh Survekshan. For the 2023 survey, this verification has happened in December 2022.
  • External verification: “Then, personnel from Swachh Bharat Mission [from Delhi] come to the field in Chennai. They verify the cleanliness and sanitation facilities across the 15 zones. Furthermore, they will take feedback from citizens on the state of waste management in the city,” says Mahesan.

“Citizens are asked to validate whether they agree with the city’s claims on waste management,” says Anil.

For example, if the city says that they have achieved 100% door-to-door collection of garbage, the citizens have a chance to refute the claim, if they do not agree with it.

If the city’s claims do not match with their field visit and citizen feedback, then marks are deducted, reveals Anil. In other words, inaccurate data carries negative marks.

YearRank of Chennai in Swachh SurvekshanTotal number of ULBs that participated
Chennai’s ranking in the Swachh Survekshan survey since 2016

These are some criteria against which the Swachh Survekshan rankings are computed.

Source segregation influences Chennai’s Swachh Survekshan rank

According to the 2021-22 TNPCB report, Chennai has achieved 80% to 100% door-to-door collection of garbage. Chennai generates 5200 MT of waste per day, as per a recent press release.

With respect to source segregation, GCC claims 79% of source segregation in households, as of September 2022. But the 2021-22 TNPCB report pegs the segregation at less than 50% of households.

The number of households that segregate waste at source in Chennai. Source: 2021-22 TNPCB report

“Less than 50% or much below [of source segregation] is more believable,” remarks Jayanthi Premchander, a resident of Valmiki Nagar who is involved in solid waste management in her neighbourhood.

How does GCC compute the percentage of source segregation: During some door-to-door garbage collection trips, the animator, conservancy inspector and supervisor, and IEC (Information Education and Communication) personnel among other ward-level or zonal officials undertake spot visits, according to Mahesan. They record the number of households that segregate waste and the average is calculated. The routes where the segregation data is collated are randomly picked.

Also, the city has started urging people to segregate waste into three categories- dry, wet and sanitary waste (for example, diapers and sanitary napkins).

Swachh Survekshan goes beyond the three-way segregation, asking ULBs to collect hazardous waste as well.

A little more than 30% of the total waste segregated goes for processing in micro composting centres, material recovery facilities, bio-CNG plants, incinerators, etc., says Mahesan.

“We are currently conducting a gap analysis to increase waste processing,” he adds.

Othavadai Street, Mugalivakkam, maintained by Srinivas Waste Management Services Private Limited MCC
Inside a micro composting centre in Chennai where they are processing wet waste from vegetable markets only. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

“We [conservancy workers] go to micro composting centres to deliver wet waste. But sometimes, we are sent back because the centre is either full or they want only wet waste from vegetable markets,” says Manjula*, a conservancy worker.

Only 22.1% of wet waste ends up in the micro-composting centres in the city.

More stringent processing of various categories of waste is essential for Chennai to fare well in the Swachh Survekshan ranking.

Read more: Are micro composting centres in Chennai doing their job?

Cleanliness of public spaces can help improve Chennai’s Swachh Survekshan rank

Sweeping: Manjula says that she sweeps the major roads twice a day and smaller lanes once. Regular street sweeping is one of the criteria factored in the Swachh Survekshan rankings.

Going binless: Binless cities are given 20 extra marks in Swachh Survekshan (as per the 2022 marking scheme). But Chennai has not gone binless. As of November 2021, 11,511 bins can be found the roads of Chennai, as per GCC data.

“Zero bins is a proxy indicator of effective door-to-door garbage collection in a city,” notes Anil.

“Manali has gone binless. Madhavaram and Thiruvottiyur have less number of bins,” says Mahesan, when we asked when Chennai will become binless.

But sometimes binless stretches lead to garbage dumping on roads, pavements and other empty spots. These spots are called garbage vulnerable points.

Rahul Muthukumar, a resident of Shenoy Nagar, says that his street has no bins, which has led to people throwing garbage indiscriminately on the roads.

No garbage vulnerable points: If there are no instances of dumping waste on the streets, then Chennai will get 20 more marks in the Swachh Survekshan survey.

But such garbage vulnerable points have mushroomed even around uncleared garbage bins in areas like Anna Nagar.

Waste-free stormwater drains and waterbodies: Last year, when GCC undertook renovation and construction of stormwater drains, they built silt-catch pits along the drains, which will filter the water from silt and other materials, while entering the pits and then the drains. This will be a barrier against solid waste in stormwater drains.

However, residents have time and again complained about illegal sewage inlets in stormwater drains that also pollute the major canals and waterbodies, including rivers.

Read more: How a pond becomes a sewage dump: The Vannankuttai tale

Landfilling, plastic use and bulk waste generators play a role in Chennai’s rank

Push against plastic: Even though GCC has banned the usage of plastic less than 75 microns, including imposing fines on violators, there are still shops that use and store plastic. Sometimes, there is no alternative to plastic, like for meat vendors. Experts point that how plastic is entering Chennai from other states and urge the government to monitor the borders.

Landfill status: As stated above, only 30% of waste generated goes to processing units. Around 70% end up in landfills in Kodunagiyur and Perungudi. This has an impact on Chennai’s Swachh Survekshan ranking.

Remediation of landfills can help Chennai improve in this regard.

“Around 67% of the Perungudi landfill will be remediated. Kodungaiyur landfill remediation will begin shortly with Rs. 650 crores allotted for it,” says Mahesan.

Processing of waste by Bulk waste generators (BWGs): The ULBs that have units that produce more than 100 kgs of waste (BWGs) doing on-site wet waste management are likely to rank better in the Swachh Survekshan survey.

Out of 1435 BWGs, only 264 do on-site wet waste processing in Chennai.

BWGs must either have on-site waste management facilities or must tie up with one of the 40 empanelled vendors identified by GCC. But officials point out that some BWGs tie up with agencies that are not empanelled with the civic body, and those agencies tend to do illicit activities, including dumping waste in the waste management facilities meant for households, and not BWGs.

Sometimes, those agencies dump the waste near waterbodies outside GCC limits.

Public and Community toilets maintenance: A spot-check of the status of public toilets in Chennai found that some were unusable. GCC is moving towards a PPP model for the operation and maintenance of toilets and is aiming for ODF++ status (ODF – open defecation-free).

According to this status, nobody should defecate or urinate in the open, all public and community toilets are functional and well-maintained and sewage is properly treated instead of being discharged in open areas, drains and waterbodies.

Involvement of citizens in improving cleanliness in Chennai

As mentioned above, citizen feedback is an integral part of the Swachh Survekshan survey. As per the survey toolkit, there are different modes to give feedback- face-to-face, 1969 helpline number, QR code feedback and Swachhata app.

Some residents share with us that their ward animators took the 2022 Swachh Survekshan citizen feedback.

“They asked us to give more marks regarding the state of hygiene and cleanliness. Sometimes they tell us that they will lose their jobs if we do not give more marks,” says a resident from South Chennai.

Another claim from residents is that GCC does not pay much heed to the suggestions related to waste management put forth by residents.

Meera Ravikumar, a resident of Gandhi Nagar, echoes the sentiment.

Behavioural change to improve waste management in Chennai

“We plan activities for different stakeholders- RWAs, merchant associations, educational institutions, NGOs, etc. It can vary from thousands of people taking a cleanliness pledge, mass-clean up in a colony or students taking part in painting competitions, drawing their versions of Singara Chennai,” says VR Hari Balaji, Head of Information Education and Communication (IEC), Urbaser Sumeet.

“I did not see any such activities here. However, I have seen IEC people paste stickers near the entrances of those houses that segregate waste. After they paste that, there is no continuous follow-up on whether the households are segregating or not,” Sridhar Venkataraman, a resident of Mylapore.

“All these painting competitions, rallies and other such activities do not have long-lasting impact,” notes Dr. Sultan Ismail, a member of the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission. “Every school must have a composting facility and constructed wetland (to treat the wastewater). Both of these facilities must support a kitchen garden. Students must partake in gardening to internalise waste management practices.”

While Swachh Survekshan aims to make cities cleaner by fostering competition, Dr. Sultan opines that such surveys do not factor in the local conditions while evolving a system of ranking.

“One part of Chennai is not the same as another part. The density of the population differs, and cultural traditions vary,” says Dr. Sultan.

The metrics used for the Swachh Survekshan survey can be used to guide the larger waste management efforts in Chennai. But a greater involvement of residents at the neighbourhood level and solutions tailor-made for local conditions and sensibilities is the need of the hour to revamp waste management in the city.

*name changed on request

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