Chennai’s administrators should start looking at what is making the city decrepit

Once again, it appears that Bangalore is gathering speed and will move ahead of Chennai in the way a fast-growing city is run.

A recent order of the Karnataka High Court in a public interest litigation on how solid waste should be managed in the software metro, has the potential to achieve good results. For once, the functioning of civic officials in this area has been put under the lens. What stands out in the Karnataka order, and is of significance to Chennai, is that waste should be segregated at source, transported in a segregated manner without mixing, and handled scientifically at the end of the cycle. This reinforces the law of the land which came into effect in 2004, although most urban governments have ignored it (in spite of provisions in force to penalise those not implementing it).

Chennai is a notorious laggard when it comes to adding new urban infrastructure to match the needs of a growing city. The project to build a Metro rail system has miraculously survived political upheaval, although other initiatives in the transport sector suffer from administrative anaemia. The city has broken no new ground in the expansion of urban rail, while the introduction of mini-buses appears to be forgotten and the MTC bus fleet is largely outdated and hopelessly inadequate.

On garbage, the throwaway habit is strengthened by Chennai’s mallification, and the amount of refuse on the streets is fast increasing. Obviously, getting rubbish out of sight gives us all the comfortable feeling that we are clean and green, and the Chennai Corporation has happily given us eyeshades against trash — those blue ‘group’ waste enclosures that eat up scarce road space — in which mixed garbage is kept hidden. If you can’t see it, it is simply not there.

Yet, away from the average Chennai resident’s street-level horizon, the waste is piling up elsewhere, and to reduce the size of these stinking mountains created by crass consumerism, someone is regularly setting them on fire. One of the sites on fire is Kodungaiyur. Naturally, there are protests against this system of ‘management and handling’ of waste. To buy peace, the Mayor has announced that the area available to dump city waste will be expanded by 25 acres. Currently, one hundred acres out of a 269-acre area function as a rubbish dump.

Contrast this with what is happening in the software city. Under court orders, the ‘dump-it-and-forget-it’ attitude is a thing of the past. Not only has decentralised waste management been given a boost, an official agency, Karnataka Compost Development Corporation that creates compost from wet waste is getting additional support under the order. That is certainly an advance over hiding waste behind blue metal sheets in overcrowded streets before trundling it off to a distant dumping ground where it pollutes the environment.

Chennai’s urban administrators should stop expending their energies on regularising unauthorised commercial structures and allowing politically-convenient encroachments on public space, and start looking at what is making the city decrepit. Also, since Karnataka’s order reinforces the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, Chennai’s citizens should compel their civic body and pollution control agency to implement the law.

With adequate notice and a display of sincerity from official agencies, Chennai is sure to participate in such an effort wholeheartedly.

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