Madras Week gift for Chennai – Third dirtiest city of India!

As Madras Week celebrations were underway in August came news of the city's dismal ranking in the Swacch Survekshan 2020. What's going wrong?

As the city celebrated Madras Week this month, the results of the Swachh Survekshan survey – an initiative under Swachh Bharat to monitor cleanliness in different cities and towns in India – were released as well. It seems to be a mixed bag for Chennai.

While our city has jumped up the rankings from the 61st place last year to the 45th this year, it also achieved the dubious distinction of being tagged the third dirtiest city in the category of those with a population of more than 1 million, with only Patna and East Delhi below it.

Authorities unhappy with rankings

The city authorities are reportedly unhappy with the results, expressing dissatisfaction over the metrics used to measure a city’s sanitation and hygiene levels.

With a daily garbage collection amounting to 5,400 metric tons, the Greater Chennai Corporation website specifies the various measures it has taken to improve sanitation in the city, including the implementation of door-to-door collection of municipal solid waste in all zones.

Further, the authorities are also reportedly taking steps to educate households about the need to segregate household waste as well. GCC’s work has actually received positive attention in recent years, with reports that the city has managed to considerably reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. So, it is understandable that the survey results are a bit of an unpleasant surprise.

Potential for improvement

However, without discounting the achievements of the local authorities, it must be acknowledged that our city has the potential for marked improvement when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene.

For instance, despite the claim of widespread door-to-door collection in all zones, the practice of dumping household waste in street corner bins still seems to continue in all areas, with said bins often seen overflowing with garbage. Also, it is estimated that only around 40 per cent of Chennai households segregate their waste. Buildings and complexes which generate waste in bulk, rarely segregate the waste they generate, with such unsegregated garbage ending up in the nearest street bin.

It is felt that a plan to disincentivize street-corner dumping (or incentivise segregation for easy door-to-door collection) is the urgent need of the hour and the lowest hanging fruit in improving sanitation – not only is it deeply unhygienic to leave mounds of waste lying around on street corners, it is also hazardous to sanitation workers and ragpickers who help empty the bins and sort out the waste.

COVID complications

Of course, it must be pointed out that the pandemic has complicated matters in the past five months. Door-to-door collection has understandably dropped, with conservancy workers helping disinfect buildings to help keep the corona virus in check. The use of disposable protective equipment such as masks, gloves and sanitizer bottles is also on the rise.

Such waste is not segregated by users, even though they are requested to dispose it in a separate bag – some have the unfortunate habit of throwing such items on the ground once they are done with them. In addition to spreading public awareness, perhaps it is time that our local authorities implement a model that discourages such behaviour – a fine, perhaps, like the ones levied in some cities.

Citizens hold the key

We’re fairly fortunate that Chennai is home to quite a few citizen initiatives that work on bettering the city – the city is home to fledgling ventures which work on repurposing solid waste like plastics into useful goods such as furniture, for instance. These initiatives must be encouraged by local authorities – such collaborations give the city an opportunity to not only reduce landfill waste but also nurture local green businesses that are good for commerce and community alike.

It may also be prudent to conduct a comparative analysis between Indore (the cleanest megacity in India according to the recent survey) and our own Chennai to understand how we can improve city sanitation and hygiene.

However, one thing is certain from a preliminary analysis of the Swachh Survekshan reports – improving city sanitation depends not only on local authorities, but also on the cooperation of the citizens. It is a thought worth chewing on as we bask in the afterglow of Madras Week.

[This article first appeared in Madras Musings, Vol. XXX No. 9, September 1-15, 2020, and has been republished with permission. The original article may be read here.]

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