A case for complete privatisation of solid waste management in Chennai

Privatisation of SWM in Chennai zones being managed by the GCC will ensure greater cleanliness of neighbourhoods and efficient waste management.

While much of Chennai enjoys the benefits of privatised Solid Waste Management (SWM), the Zones managed by the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) have faced issues such as a shortage of equipment and manpower.

As different agencies have managed solid waste in these Zones over the years, the present state of affairs calls for a switch to a more efficient, privatised system of waste management for the greater good. 

History of SWM in Perambur

The conservancy services in Perambur in Zone 6 used to be handled by the government for several decades post-independence. As a young kid, I recall the conservancy workers coming in bullock carts to collect garbage from the small concrete pits constructed in front of our homes in the 70s and 80s. The streets used to be swept very early in the morning and our neighbourhoods used to be very clean. 

With the increase in population, the quality of services rendered deteriorated over the years.

It was then that privatisation of solid waste management in the area was trialled in the mid-90s.  

The agency ONYX had taken over the responsibility and there was a significant change in the quality of SWM services rendered. 

We got to see bullock carts making way for small trucks and a well-equipped workforce. The services rendered by them were definitely far better than what we got to witness earlier. 

Once their contract expired, the SWM work in Perambur was later handled by Neel Metal Fanalca. 

The then Chennai Mayor who happens to be our current Chief Minister had issued strict guidelines to the local administration to ensure the streets across the city were litter free under the Singara Chennai 1.0 initiative. 

The door-to-door collection of garbage was handled very effectively during this period and residents had stopped dumping waste and debris on the streets.

Read more: Why I segregate waste at source despite a broken waste management system in Chennai

Civic body’s role in SWM in Chennai

These positive developments lasted only a short time.

Subsequently, with a change in the Government and their policies, SWM was handed over to the Greater Chennai Corporation workers across the city. 

Strange as it would seem, the quality of the SWM services was downgraded after nearly a decade. The small trucks were pulled out and tricycles were introduced for door-to-door collection. This was like moving from a digital era to a primitive lifestyle. 

The quality of services rendered deteriorated substantially with frequent absenteeism of conservancy workers, tricycles getting punctured or breaking down & lack of spare tricycles. 

When the trucks were used by the private players, the garbage was transported directly to the transfer stations for segregation. With the tricycles being introduced, this was not possible. 

The then Mayor came up with the idea of placing large trash bins within custom-fabricated metal enclosures in different locations across the city. The metal sheets started disappearing with time, and the bins overflowing with garbage can be seen even today at several road intersections across the city. 

The availability of hydraulic trucks to transport the garbage from bins to the transfer stations has always been an issue. 

Delay in clearing the bins results in backlogs and overflow of garbage. 

Miscreants are known for setting garbage dumps on fire in the wee hours because of the unbearable stench in the immediate neighbourhoods. 

The placement of these bins has also grown to become an issue as they have been placed near schools, places of worship, electrical transformers and distribution pillars and hospitals making it a health hazard.

With successive governments choosing to promote the sale of liquor, we noticed the conservancy workers turning up late for work or resting under the trees or on street corners after a drink. 

On several occasions, we had to go around looking for the conservancy worker to get our streets cleaned.

More shifts in SWM policies in Chennai

As with all government policies, change is the only thing that is constant.  

After the next assembly elections, the government decided to hand over the SWM contract to Ramky Enviro in four Zones in North Chennai.  

Ramky introduced a fleet of zero-emission electric primary collection vehicles, mechanical sweepers, hydraulic compactors and other infrastructure which is being operated on a 24-hour basis in three shifts.

In the year 2020, the SWM contracts to service Zones across South Chennai were handed over to a Spanish firm Urbaser Sumeet. Urbaser has been using BoV ( Battery Operated Vehicle) for the primary collection of household waste. Each BoV is being used to collect 120-150 kg of biodegradable waste and 15-20kg of non-biodegradable waste from 450 households. 

The waste collection, segregation, conversion and transportation processes adopted by both the private players are similar. The areas serviced by the private players are known to be cleaner.

GCC still manages the solid waste in Royapuram and Thiru-vi-ka Nagar Zones.

Read more: Can Chennai ever become a bin-less city?

Need for privatisation of SWM in Chennai

While GCC has similar infrastructure facilities and targets such as the use of BoVs, compactors, mechanical sweepers, open trucks and a common target for collecting waste from 450 households, they are unable to provide round-the-clock service in three shifts.

They have also failed to deliver a clean neighbourhood to match the high standards set by the private players.

Many areas across Perambur are now a part of the Thiru-vi-Ka Nagar Constituency frequented by the VIPs visiting Kolathur. 

GCC officials choose to divert their conservancy workers to service the arterial bus route roads, parks and other areas visited by the VIPs and the interior lanes are being left behind unattended for days together. 

Garbage and debris-ridden streets have become a part of our life. Frequent absenteeism and diversion of conservancy workers, shortage of workers, non-availability of spare BoVs, delays in procuring the spare parts or vehicles serviced, and absence of an in-house tyre puncture repair facility are some of the excuses we get to hear from the local GCC officials constantly. 

bags of waste on the side of the road
Bags of waste lie on the roadside in neighbourhoods where SWM is managed by the GCC. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani

Given the level of service enjoyed by residents in other Zones and the issues faced by the civic body in efficiently managing waste, a pressing case can be made for the privatisation of waste management services in the remaining Zones as well.

With private players managing the waste, GCC can use the manpower at their disposal to maintain areas frequented by VIPs and to ensure other services such as maintenance of parks are rendered effectively.

After many years of experience with different SWM models, the current practices seem unsustainable and detrimental to the quality of life of residents in the area. 

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  1. Hari Krishnan Pongilath says:

    I’m in Chennai 175 (new) zone. Sweeping of our street was not regular. Every day staff walkover the street & she decides to sweep or not by accumulation of waste (mainly leaves dropped from trees). Now the service of Urbaser becomes bad to worse.

  2. Chennai-ite says:

    Privatization is the ultimate cause of the issues suffered presently and mentioned here. The poor situation of public services is caused by austerity measures and great slashes to public budgets, allowing lesser funding for equipment, employees, and training.

    Bring back public funding, and you’ll see how good it gets. Privatization promises solutions for problems it causes.

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