Pammal is a lower middle class suburb, well outside Chennai's city corporation limits. Governed by a Panchayat (local village body) controlled by hooligans, its disenchanted citizens are all but forgotten by the official machinery. One of its residential layouts, however, is a case study for exemplary administration. Spearheaded by the local women's association, the streets are clean even though the garbage collection truck comes by only once a month. This is because every morning, 450 homes have their segregated household waste picked up and taken to a common compost yard. Here, systematically spread over a dozen bins, rubbish is gradually converted into high-quality organic manure - a tonne every month which is sold with no back stocks.
Besides keeping their surroundings clean and hygienic, the residents of Sankara Nagar are also proving what every city planner in the world knows - that waste has to be managed, not disposed. An acronym for Ex-cellent, No-vel and Ra-dical, the Exnora Movement which began in Chennai in 1989 is the brainchild of M B Nirmal, a former bank executive who has turned citizens' civic initiatives into a widespread network of 900 to 950 self-help groups of about 75 families each. Together they collect approximately 18 per cent of the city's garbage and provide employment to 1,500 people.
The Exnora Movement started as a clean-the-streets campaign. For a nominal sum of Rs 10 (1US$=Rs 49) per household, common areas were swept, the garbage collected daily and carefully deposited in the municipal bin. The residential committees also ensured that municipal corporation lorries cleared the waste regularly. As with many self-help initiatives, Exnora's scope grew along with its success. Hence, its efforts can be seen everywhere. For instance, the Friends of the Beach Exnora has cleaned the southern Elliots Beach of rubble. It also employs women of the nearby kuppam (fishing commune) to keep it free of litter. Members of the R K Nagar Civic Exnora have constructed a pay-and-use toilet for the nearby Sivakamiammal Nagar slum. And the wage labourer youth at the Uyaipalar Salai tenements have provided an embankment to line the adjacent sewage canal in order to prevent it from overflowing in the rains.
In all these efforts, the families of the workers who sustain the efforts are cared for as the most important link in an efficient system. They are paid decent salaries, reimbursed medical expenses, covered for children's schooling and, sometimes, also given uniforms and provident fund benefits.
As the Civic Exnoras - which now have the credibility of a reputed brand name in Chennai - involve every household in a locality, social audit and accountability is automatic.
Says Nirmal, "Garbage is a misplaced resource, an unrecognized wealth. Going back to a self-sustaining community is possible even in our cities, which generate the highest concentration of garbage. Western countries have the funds to run scientifically maintained dumping grounds with stringent rules governing them. It is not ecologically sustainable but at least it is some sort of a system. In our country, garbage is burned within city limits, the smoke from which is a health hazard. Or else it is dumped in the fast-developing outer limits, leeching into the soil and contaminating the water supplies of upcoming residential areas. Truth actually is, garbage is wealth, a potential source of income. Why waste waste?"
There are three kinds of waste: compostable (kitchen or 'wet' waste), recyclable and hazardous. Compostable waste - which is biodegradable and includes everything from vegetable peel to paper - forms 60 per cent of all garbage generated. This is also the most voluminous component of civic waste.
Moreover, slums generate only one-third the per capita quantum of garbage - but the population density equalizes the volume to the amount produced in the more posh localities. Explains Padma Kalyanaraman of the Chrompet Association, "It is the better off who use more of everything - food as well as packaged goods, which in turn generates more waste. It is the carry bag culture compounded by a NIMBY attitude - Not In My Backyard."
Segregation at source is the mantra of waste management. Households are required to maintain separate colored bins for wet and recyclable waste. A 'street beautifier' collects both varieties every morning and takes it to a compost yard.
For a community of 500 households, a 20 by 40 square feet of land is all that is required. Earthworms are introduced into the waste, and over a period of 40 days the waste turns into dry organic manure in a cyclical use of the bins. There is no foul smell - not even flies. The manure thus produced is sold for Rs 10 per kg to a market that seeks its suppliers of cheap, high quality fertilizer.
The general model remains the same for all the areas, though some of the groups modify it to suit their parameters of space and funds. For instance, at Pammal, they even raise cows - and grass for fodder - since cow dung assists in speedier composting. The recyclable component, which includes plastics, metals and glass, is sold to scrap dealers by the 'street beautifier' whose income it augments by way of a bonus.
All this, however, is not an easy task. Says Mangalam Balasubramaniam, an activist who also heads the Sankara Nagar Civic Exnora, "It is extremely difficult to educate every member of the locality and I am not referring to the level of literacy. There is also a great deal of scepticism." He adds, "I am asked why we should be doing the government's job. Most of all, people cannot be bothered to make the effort of source segregation. We assure everybody that a hygienic, sustainable environment will benefit all of us and even the worth of our real estate will go up. Once most people are agreeable - and some never are - it is the results which motivate further improvements."
The greatest obstacle for most groups is finding a common piece of land that can accommodate a compost yard. Local administrative officials keep dragging their feet over allotting public land, even if it is otherwise abused with either encroachments or, ironically, piles of garbage.
Once an otherwise worthless stretch is identified and sanctioned with sustained appeals, the compost yard becomes the crux of all activity. While activists at Exnora were busy spreading the word by involving schools and children, the Tamil Nadu government allotted a phenomenally lucrative collection contract for some parts of the city to Onyx, the solid waste disposal wing of French multinational Vivendi. Since March 2000, the company collects at least 1,000 tonnes of garbage at a cost of Rs 6,50,000 every day. It is presently dumped in the low-lying freshwater wetlands of Pallikaranai, the city's critical southern aquifer.
Mired in controversy right from its inception, the company is now facing notices from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board which is trying to protect the marshes crucial to future ground water supplies, a strangely paradoxical example of the administration working at cross-purposes. Says Nirmal, "Onyx, and the Chennai Corporation do not strive for waste management. We do not even have lined landfills. They are just shifting the garbage and creating an even bigger problem."
The Exnoras, on the other hand, prove why waste must not be rubbished.