Trapped in Stench

A sprawling sea, amusement parks, art galleries, cultural centers, places of worship-this is the city of Chennai. It is the fourth largest city in India and recently celebrated 350 years of existence. But repeating the list over and over again has made no difference in a city that cares little for its poor. A quarter of Chennai's 4.5 million population lives in the slums. The Census of India defines a slum as "a compact area of at least 300 in population or about 60-70 households of poorly built, congested tenements in an unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities".

Dr. C. Chandramouli, I.A.S, involved in census operations, pointed out that the basic characteristics of a slum are: dilapidated and infirm housing structures; poor ventilation; acute overcrowding; ill-lit streets; faulty alignment of streets; scarcity of safe drinking water; lack of toilet facilities; and absence of basic physical and social services. 

Oduma Nagar is a fishermen's colony in the heart of one of Chennai's posh, upper middle class areas: Besant Nagar and fulfills the characteristics of a slum. Facing the sea, it lies on the famous Elliot's Beach. The disenchanted citizens of this slum are all but forgotten by the Municipal Corporation. Matters of personal hygiene are more or less ignored by the government. Amongst a host of other problems, garbage disposal from the area is one of grave concern. Depending on the location of their houses, the slum dwellers essentially see three ways of disposing of their waste. Only the people living close to the main road enjoy the benefit of the services of the Municipal Corporation vans. Those living close to the famous Vailankanni church use the dustbins provided by ONYX (the solid waste disposal wing of the French multinational, Vivendi). Since March 2002, the company has been entrusted with the responsibility of cleaning some areas in Chennai, Oduma Nagar being one of them. All ONYX does for this slum is; place two dustbins near the church. There is no activity of garbage collection from within the slum. People living in the deep pockets of the slum find it a hassle to collect garbage and walk up to the dustbins. As a result, they choose to dump their waste into the sea. The 'pucca' or concrete houses in the slum are one-room houses and eight such houses are clubbed together in a building. On an average, about four people live in each house. The space being limited, all the houses pile up the garbage behind the building and it continues to lie there for days. As a result, the prevalence of diseases relating to the gastro-intestinal tract and the skin is very high. 

The residents of the slum claim that the chief reason for the absence of a garbage disposal system is the lack of an appropriate road system. The lanes within the slum are extremely narrow and hence do not allow the Municipal Corporation vans to drive in and collect the garbage. On being asked for comment, officials of the Municipal Corporation, Besant Nagar, said that the Oduma Nagar slum falls into ONYX's area of services and that ONYX is performing its duties fully well. He simply refused to accept the fact that there is no activity whatsoever by ONYX in this slum. The sight that meets the naked eye on walking through the slum is quite contradictory to the Municipal Corporation's claims. Garbage lies in the narrow spaces between houses and across the sands of the beach. Ironically, many of ONYX's employees belong to this slum. On being asked why they don't clean their own locality, they said that they would clean it, if only they got paid for it. 

According to Dr. C. Chandramouli, I.A.S, 30 percent of the households in the slums of Chennai do not have drainage systems and are exposed to the grave risk of diseases like malaria. Oduma Nagar is no different. The drainage system is existent only for the houses along the main road. The ones on the beach just dig up tunnels in the sand and the sewerage from their houses flows into the sea. Some residents of the slum prefer to use public toilets as a result of the absence of a drainage system. But the condition of the public toilets is deplorable as well. Moreover, there are only two public toilets near the slum, which do not cater to the needs of the hundreds of people living here. Some of the residents thus prefer to defecate on the beach. This in turn is another source for the spread of diseases. It also creates a problem for women in particular, as they do not have privacy on the beach. They wake up at 4 am so they can defecate in privacy but with the spotlights coming up as part of the beach beautification project, they are left with nowhere to go.

A question that needs to be examined in depth is ' who is actually spreading the litter? On examining the garbage, one finds that it mostly consists of coke cans and tetra packs. These are almost never used by slum dwellers. Much of the garbage on the beach is actually created by the tourist who can very well read the 'use me' sign on a dustbin lying fifty meters away. But the blame for littering the beach falls on the slum dweller. There is another major difference between the litter spread by the tourist and that by the slum dweller. The slum dwellers mostly spread around biodegradable waste (vegetable peels, fish bones and human excreta). The tourists on the other hand, spread litter that is non-biodegradable (coke cans, plastic bottles and polythene bags). In effect, the litter created by the tourists is a greater environmental hazard.

The spread of awareness is required in the area. The residents have almost no knowledge of the diseases that can be caused by the piling up of garbage in their locality. Spreading the word with the help of social service groups and involving schools and children could be a feasible option. In addition, the media reportage on situations like these has been miniscule. The Government in the meantime chooses to keep its eyes closed and simply denies the existence of the deplorable conditions that the Oduma Nagar slum dwellers live in.  


More by :  Mridu Bhandari

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