Sticking around to see what happens to garbage at the day's end is not a job for the faint-hearted

It's 11 p.m. The shutters are down in the shopping haven of Pondy Bazaar. But it isn't night yet for a small band of workers. In fact, their day has just begun to unfold. They walk down the dimly-lit, near-empty road to make it emptier still. These men from Ramky Enviro have to clear the road of the day's refuse and spruce it up for another round of commerce. Out to spend the night with them — and possibly take out some of the trash, if we can stomach the odour — we wait in front of what is probably the only petty shop that is open for business.

Venkatesan, general manager of Ramky's operations in Chennai, meets with us and recommends that we join a team assigned for the vegetable market — near Natesan Street — that runs parallel to the Mambalam railway station. As we alight from the SUV, the stench of rotting vegetables threatens to knock us out. Holding our noses, we survey the scene. The entire street is submerged in heaps of vegetables. Teams of garbage collectors have fanned into the nooks and crannies of Corporation Zones 9, 10 and 13. However, this section — which comes under one of these zones — will be visited by a team only after two garbage-swallowing giants have dealt with it.

Vegetable refuse

Our olfactory glands begin to cope with the strong smell. We walk gingerly down the stretch, avoiding the forbidding mounds of vegetable refuse. A white mongrel that has volunteered to accompany us gently paws these heaps and sniffs what he has uncovered. He walks away disappointed: Not his idea of a wholesome moonlight dinner, obviously. In contrast, a cow gobbles up whatever she lays eyes on.

A mess of squished tomatoes. Potatoes bearing tell-tale marks of a stampede. Spring onions in the throes of a slow death. Drumsticks lying bent and sapless. The vegetables resemble fallen soldiers in a battlefield. Only bundles of coriander leaves — piled high in front of a shop — appear to have survived the massacre. The leaves are still fresh. With a sigh, the owner explains that the vegetable contractor delivered a surplus quantity — in a pre-dawn hour, when he was not at his post — and he has to bear the losses. “At this market, nothing is carried over to the next day,” says the hapless seller.

Lack of storage facilities

“Small-time traders, they lack storage facilities,” explains Venkatesan. The discussion is cut short by the brain-shattering rumble caused by the approaching feet of the two giants. A humungous JCB loader and a tipper trundle into the war zone. The wheeled JCB advances, while the tipper stays in the sidelines. With one of its arms, the JCB sweeps through the street and gathers the garbage in one huge pile. As the curved blade — at the end of the arm — sifts through the refuse, a pungent stench pierces the dew-kissed night air. Our noses wrapped in shawls and tissues, we try to bear the ordeal.

Bystanders — mostly shopkeepers on the nearby Natesan Steet who have stayed late for some banter — instinctively reach for their noses. “Nobody — not even regulars — can get accustomed to the smell of these vegetables, when they are being scooped up,” explains one of them. “During the monsoons, the stench will churn your stomach!”

As the JCB accumulates and pushes the garbage towards a common point — uncomfortably close to where we are parked — we spontaneously break into hyperbole. It's like a 2-ft high tsunami of garbage, moving towards us. We step back in haste.

The JCB goes about its business with admirable nonchalance. Sending out a robust iron rod and using it as a prop, the JCB clambers over the mountain of trash and, with what appears to be a telescopic arm, lifts and shovels the putrid matter into the tipper. When the giants turn their backs on the market, they leave behind an evidently clean road. Armed with brushes and rakes, a team of cleaners removes the trash adamantly clinging to the surface.

When we return to Pondy Bazaar, we notice Ramky's men have worked magic on this stretch. Gone are the papers, the fruit peels, the plastic covers, the cardboard boxes and all the other things that marred its appearance. The men take a short, well-deserved break before heading to another road that awaits the magic touch.

Road reversal

* A whopping 1,500 tonnes of garbage is collected every day, across three zones.

* Markets and commercial areas are cleaned at night, residential areas are cleaned during the day.

* Around 400 cleaners work at night.

* Mechanical sweepers are employed to brush the roads.

* Tippers and JCBs are pressed into action in markets where huge quantities of garbage have to be cleared.

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