How much can we do? ask the conservancy workers of Chennai

Conservancy staff work quietly and tirelessly in the face of growing amounts of garbage and indifference among the citizens of Chennai. Nature lover and journalist Shobha Menon spends a morning with them and comes away with a heavy heart.

A mid-January dawn in Chennai of UNESCO ‘heritage fame’, as margazhi kolams inch boisterously onto the centre of roads, roadside temples belt out loud religious music to the neighbourhoods. It is the run up to auspicious Thai and the bounteous Pongal festival. Only, the air of peaceful holiness is marred by the overflowing garbage bins everywhere around. Stranger still is that morning walkers, senior citizens, fitness enthusiasts etc., move around effortlessly, unseeing of the muck in every periphery of their vision!Interviewing conservancy workers whose job profile is to keep the streets of Chennai clean and free of garbage and litter (while coming from the most underprivileged neighbourhoods of the city) was revealing. Some excerpts:

7 am, Ellaiamman Koil Street, Kotturpuram: 36 year old Kumar, has been six years in this work. Earlier a casual labourer, he leaves his home at 4 am to sign in by 6 am.

“As years go by, it is just more and more garbage! Eateries on roadside throw leftover food on the ground near bins and form a stinking mess. The dogs and cats in the area have a field day. Also starved cows ferret around for fruit and leaves! Glass pieces are common in the rubbish we clear and we are often wounded!

From 6 to 10 am, I go for ‘collection’ of garbage …and thereafter for an Amma Canteen breakfast break. On four streets, I do door to door collection. Each street takes an hour at least, then I have to separate the wet waste from the dry in the load in the push cart and then take it to the bin.

Whenever the collection lorry for removal has a technical problem, the waste piles up relentlessly outside the bins. While people want the bins to be cleared, they also don’t want to be held up even a minute while the lorry removes the bin load!

As for the public, they sit on their two-wheelers or cars and throw the waste into the bin or outside it. No one respects us or our work, I feel it is easier to live off the streets picking up waste paper!!”

* * *

7:30 am, Manima (45): ” My job is to sweep the roads of all the biscuit wrappers and chips packets, and the khaini and the banana leaves and the puja flowers etc., etc., etc. People do not understand how their own actions are connected to the dirty city issue. So many people create garbage… how much can we clear, if they do not cooperate??”

* * *

8:30 am, 100ft Road, Arumbakkam: Prema (45 years) systematically moves the mounds of dust from the centre of the busy road to neat piles on the side before putting into her cart. All around the bus station are strewn bus tickets, plastic and paper tea cups, straws from the tender coconut vendor, waste flowers from vendors nearby and plastic covers! Heaps of banana leaves with leftovers from the mandapam alongside and waste cloth from the tailors nearby add to the effect. “I do get angry many times. But this is our fate! We have to make our livelihood.”

* * *

10:30 am Kodambakkam, Mangamma, (45 years): I start by 4.30 am after a cup of tea, then share an auto from Vyasarpadi to Mint and then travel by bus to the MRTS station and then to the workplace… then a long walk to the register.”I find it funny when no one wants the bin near their homes, but everyone wants to live in a clean home and clean streets. When a new apartment complex comes up, they see that the bin in the area is removed. The more connected ones will also succeed in having the bin shifted. Which means we have to collect all the garbage in the area and go around looking for a bin in which to throw our garbage!!”

* * *

11:30 am, Link Road, Kotturpuram, Muthu (35 years): All garden rubbish from the palatial houses in the area is dumped here each day by those privileged with garden staff. One day has been specified for the garden waste, but no one respects that! Sometimes the night lorry does not turn up and as usual the garbage overflows.”

* * *

12 noon in Vallala Street, Kodambakkam: Alamu (46) stands in midst of mixture and murrukku packets, chips, tea cups, an old cane chair, mountain-like debris in between belligerently snaking electric cables.”Most of us come from the poor regions of Vyasarpadi or Puliyanthope. …something, any job to get us out of the miserable existence. Look at how much rubbish is outside this bin, even if it is only half full. We are afraid to pick up rubbish there, afraid of an electric shock. Can’t afford that too, for the Rs. 6.850 salary per month!

“Anyway, the reality is by the time I finish one stretch of the road, and go back along the one I did earlier, it will be full of more rubbish thrown by the ‘late comers’ or the floaters. So its okay. Whatever will be, will be!”

* * *

Bins on Chennai street corners.Pic: Bhavani Prabhakar

12:30 pm, Gangaiamman Koil Street, Vadapalani, Muniraj (40 years): In this business since 2000. Some people value our services, most do not. And the garbage of course, is only much for all this education and development!

“Today I refused to attend to one street under risk of complaints. In spite of repeated requests, they do not keep their refuse bags out at the stipulated ‘whistle time’. Stray cats and dogs have a field time scattering the non-vegetarian items. We take great pride in the important work we do. Don’t residents in Chennai feel any pride for their own area?”

“In spite of enough bins in our area, people put them under parked cars or vehicles and in any corner. When the vehicle is removed, there it glares ….under cars, in between transformer cables, wherever. How much can we do? We cannot even do good work if we are conscientious.”

“We can spew endless gyan on the research behind people’s thinking and the whys and wherefores, but we must have the common goal first…to keep our city clean! No blame game here. And it is about being a specialty for the good of one’s own society!”

* * *

1:30 pm, Periyar Pathai, Aminjikkarai, Mariyamma (35 years): “Remarkable how two-wheelers and auto users excel in throwing kuppai into bins from moving vehicles. We did distribute papers for segregating waste into Dry and Wet, but no one does it. But my conscience is clear. I do my best.”

That’s an average morning in Chennai city, where the crowds mill around neatly clothed and perfumed, on their way to work or leisure, while others keenly pore over media reports on overflowing garbage, non-functioning local bodies or contractors or politicians, while still others feel good about the number of concerts attended in the music season of this heritage city, but few think about these matters.

How many of the seven million citizens of Chennai really stand up for their own neighbourhoods? Whose City is it, anyway? The conservancy worker’s ‘How much can we do?’ bores into my mind like an old gramophone record.

This article originally appeared in Madras Musings, May 15-31, 2018, and can be read here 

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