One of the first sounds many residents of T.P. Chathram - a jumble of lanes near Kilpauk - wake up to is Sundar’s shrill whistle. A conservancy worker, who collects garbage from households on his tricycle and deposits them in the common bins, he is the first, and a crucial link in the collection chain.

From the bins, it is cleared by the compactor lorries of Chennai Municipal Solid Waste Pvt. Ltd (Ramky Enviro Engineers) or Chennai Corporation. Solid waste management within Chennai Corporation limits is handled by Ramky Enviro Engineers in three zones, and Chennai Corporation in the other 12. The green and grey bins in the corners of the road feed compactor lorries anywhere between 5-7 tonnes of garbage in one trip, said those on the field.

The conservancy workers, three per Corporation vehicle and two per CMSW vehicle, hinge the four-wheeled bins to the rear of the lorry; the bin gets upturned and spills the waste into the jaw-like opening of the lorry.

On Thursday morning, however, all was not well. At 7.45 in the morning, a CMSW compactor lorry stopped beside a bin on Nungambakkam High Road and two men jumped off the vehicle and struggled to push the bin which was missing a wheel. The lorry by now had partially blocked the busy road, and as they tried to mount the bin, it upturned, spilling the filth. The men rapidly scooped the trash and fed it into the lorry. But, as they quickly paced towards the next collection point, some garbage remained.

Elsewhere, the conservancy workers of the CMSW lorry worked like men on a mission, as they spent just over two minutes clearing each of the bins. As they briskly moved through P.S. Sivaswamy Salai, R.K. Salai, Judge Jambulingam Road, Avvai Shanmugam Salaiand Natesan Road , they emptied the bins meticulously, but did not always clear the leftover garbage on the road. On enquiry, they said that the mat, which prevents the garbage from spilling on the road while offloading was torn, and would be repaired soon.

K. Ezhumalai, CMSW supervisor of ward 121, was in charge of the operations. “Our first trip starts at 6 am, and a medium-sized lorry with a driver, and two people who empty the bins, covers close to 40 bins and collects up to 7.5 tonnes of garbage in a trip,” he said. This is as opposed to the 20-25 bins covered by conservancy workers employed by the Chennai Corporation, who clear streets in Shenoy Nagar. The latter too faced similar issues. If the wheels on bins were fixed properly, it would take them much lesser time to clear the area, they said. “It is extremely difficult to push the garbage bin without wheels towards the lorry, especially when they are full and heavy. My back hurts,” said Raju a conservancy worker, as his colleagues Abraham and Mahesh nodded in agreement.

On Wednesday, most of the bins of their beat on Third Main Road and Eighth Cross Street (West) in Shenoy Nagar had been cleared but some garbage was still strewn around. On Thursday afternoon, these spots too were cleared by the compactors. Raju pointed out that the responsibility was not just theirs. “Everyone wants clean streets. If people dump their garbage responsibly inside the bin, we would not have to clear the litter that accumulates outside,” said Raju on Wednesday.

(Names of some workers have been changed on request.)

My Chennai My Right, an inititative by The Hindu

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