Bin there, done that segregation

One zone in north Chennai has consistently been achieving over 90% source segregation of domestic waste, even as the rest of the city struggles with it. The team making the difference in the field is an all-women ensemble of drivers, collectors, compost generators, sweepers and managers

May 08, 2022 01:11 am | Updated May 10, 2022 04:10 pm IST

The all-women team of drivers, collectors, compost generators, sweepers and managers has made Manali a crown jewel of the Chennai Corporation.

The all-women team of drivers, collectors, compost generators, sweepers and managers has made Manali a crown jewel of the Chennai Corporation. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Watch | The bin revolutionaries of Manali

There is something undeniably settling about a series of battery-operated vehicles (BOVs) filing out of a yard in clockwork precision, orderly, particularly in striking contrast to the chaos on the highway roads of Manali in north Chennai. What adds to the decided assurance of this scene is the women at the helm of the vehicles, smartly attired in blue uniforms with characteristic orange panels, their confidence. Conceivably, in this scene, are embedded reasons why this one zone in Chennai city has achieved a nondescript milestone, and yet one that must be shouted out from the rooftops and emulated.

If good solid waste management defines an urban local body, then Manali, Zone 2 of the Greater Chennai Corporation, would be a crown jewel, with its consistent over 90% source segregation. On good weeks, it could go up to 96%. “In Manali alone, roughly about 56 tonnes of waste is generated in a day. Over 51 tonnes is segregated, and only 4.5 tonnes reaches the dump yard at Kondungaiyur,” claims Ravi Subramanian, deputy project head, Chennai Enviro, the service unit of Ramky Enviro Engineers, a private solid waste management operator, now rebranded as Re Sustainability. Since February 2021, it has been tasked with conservancy operations for Zones 1, 2 , 3 and part of Zone 7.

Manali has marked a consistent success with over 90% source segregation, sending only a small percentage of the total garbage to the landfill. There is further processing of waste through composting and resource recovery centres, leading to results that make one sit up and take note.

Segregation mantra

Source segregation is globally acknowledged as a key aspect that will result in effective and sustainable solid waste management for cities and towns, reducing the quantum of waste and the financial and environmental cost of maintaining large, sprawling legacy waste sites. As per the solid waste management (SWM) rules, every one who generates waste has the responsibility to segregate wet waste from dry waste before disposal, ensuring separation of domestic hazardous waste too.

While wet waste refers to food and kitchen waste, soiled food wrappers, hygiene products, garden waste, tissues and paper towels generated in homes, dry waste refers to paper, packaging material, plastics, glass, cardboard, metal, all of which find their way into bins in households. According to the SWM rules, hazardous domestic waste includes “discarded paint drums, pesticide cans, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, tube-lights, expired medicines, broken mercury thermometers, used batteries, used needles and syringes and contaminated gauge, etc., generated at household levels”. E-waste is also processed separately now. Incentives can be offered for compliance with segregation principles, as also fines for non-compliance.

Chennai has been toying with the principle of source segregation of waste for at least a couple of decades now, while the implementation on the ground is more recent. The quantum of waste generated in this rapidly growing city is constantly on the rise, and for decades, the waste has just been dumped at the two landfill sites at Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. It is only in the last few years that concrete efforts have been made to remediate the landfill sites, segregating waste and bio-mining the mounds of waste to garbage them into manure, and work proceeds apace.

Chennai generates about 5,200 metric tonnes of garbage every day. “Of this, 1,600 metric tonnes is segregated at source and processed and the rest is sent to the landfills. Our aim is to bring the quantum of source-segregated waste to 3,500 metric tonnes at least over the next few years,” says Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi. He says the Manali zone is the best performer in the city, clocking 90% source segregation consistently.

“We do believe that this has something to do with having a full team of women managing the garbage in this zone. When it started, right from our (then) Regional Deputy Commissioner (North) Divyadarshini to Re Sustainability’s team of managers and people actually doing the conservancy work, every one in the line-up was a woman,” he explains.

Female factor

The women in Manali too have a sense of the female factor having a role to play, in general. They fancy themselves an army of well-meaning soldiers marching out with their BOVs and bins every morning, afternoon and night, doing their jobs, winning over residents, so well that the area’s compliance remains the highest in all the zones. What’s the magic, there?

“It was not always like this,” says Mohana, 36. The band of women claim they do not have one leader, that they’re all a “team”, but naturally some are more voluble than the rest. Mohana is one of them. “Initially they refused to separate the garbage, they’d throw out the waste and we would have to do the segregation. They would tell us, ‘This is what you’re being paid for, right? Do it, then.’ They showed their revulsion openly,” she says. But then, as the women chorus, “something changed”.

All explained

“We did the segregation, but politely explained what the process involved, nothing for them. Over a period of time, most of the people started doing the segregation at home, they have begun to wait for us and hand over the garbage personally, with some chit-chat. If we don’t go one day, the next day they ask us what has happened,” she says. Her colleague Manimekalai chips in, completing her train of thought, “We have become like members of their family. What’s not to like about this job then?” And the others take up the chorus earnestly again, “We love this job!”

R. Priya, a BOV driver, who takes care of two children, says the turning-point was probably the outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic. “When people were all sitting at home, afraid to go out and meet people, we went every day, even to the homes of people who had COVID-19, to collect the waste in separate bags. We were all kitted out in personal protective equipment and went every single day. I think this is what took us into their homes.”

Besides the way the women work their charm in getting people to comply, a great deal of information, education and communication (IEC) activity has been employed to get this off the ground, explains V. Bharani, IEC manager, Chennai Enviro. “We conduct awareness meetings in parks, street plays, distribute pamphlets and do focussed camps in areas where we see lower compliance with segregation.”

Mr. Ravi Subramanian, who has been in private conservancy operations in Chennai for the last 22 years now, points to the demographic features that have made the north of the city easy to operate in, as far as conservancy goes. “In my experience, people are far more friendly here and easier to engage with — they listen to what you say. One other factor is that the density of population here is lower, comparatively. It is classified an industrial zone, but there is a large floating population, and that is always a challenge when it comes to compliance with source segregation.”

Improved services

N. Magesan, Chief Engineer (SWM), Greater Chennai Corporation, also credits the efforts of the private conservancy operator. “Services began to improve with the focus that Re Sustainability brought to the task, yes. The amount of compost being generated has also increased, we are now sharing it with the Horticulture Department for use in farmlands, gardening and horticulture. There are of course some gaps, and we are trying to rectify them too.”

However, governance measures seldom work without inter-agency collaborations and in this case too, it’s a close relationship between the implementer and the Chennai Corporation that oils the wheels. Akshata Jain, zonal head for Manali, Chennai Enviro, explains that all the key performance indicators are reviewed every fortnight with Mr. Bedi.

Every bin and vehicle and material resource is fitted with RFID tags and is traceable at any given point of time, and the staff have to swipe their cards before roll-call. Data from this — location of the staff on the field, location of vehicles, status of bins, volume of garbage collected — is available at the command and control centre of Re Sustainability, and is shared on a real time basis with the Corporation authorities. Independent engineers also do their own assessment of the project simultaneously, she says.

What truly is a morale booster for the workforce though is the monthly pay, and benefits, ‘just as any office-goer would get.’ “We have PF, ESI and leave and double pay and all that, can you imagine! Not that we take leave often, only when there is an absolute need. We also get double pay for working on holidays,” explains K. Samundeswari, a BOV driver in Manali.

She earlier worked as a sweeper in south Chennai as a daily wage labourer and is intensely aware of the dignity her current job gives her. “People’s perception of us has changed. Maybe, it is the uniform we wear, how well groomed we are, or because we drive the vehicles, or the fact that come rain or shine, we are present every single day.” The confidence that dignity of labour confers, along with the benefits that are assured monthly, shows in the swagger and easy camaraderie of these women, who are constantly pulling each other’s legs and when necessary, even their share of the labour.

Scaleable model

It’s this bond that they have managed to establish with the community that is working wonders, surmises Masood Mallick, joint managing director, Re Sustainability. “This group of women have somehow created an unprecedented level of engagement, that goes beyond the transactional. An undefinable bond has been created between them and the community. Everything else remaining constant (in the other cities in which we work), I’m tempted to think that it is woman power,” he says.

Is the Manali model sustainable, replicable and scaleable then? “We are celebrating this model within the organisation, yes, but we are certainly looking at replicating this model in other cities, including mega cities in India,” Mr. Masood Mallick says. “I’m confident that there will be more to the Manali model — the way we look at it, you take a group and give them power and purpose, they will deliver. We also listen to them, take their inputs on systems and processes seriously, and make necessary changes.” Ultimately, the test of the Manali model will be in how it changes the approach of local body managers to the philosophy of solid waste management and particularly source segregation. For the women, though, this is not on their list of things to do. For now, they take one day at a time, one household at a time, and focus on every kilo of segregated garbage, on every bin. Is that what makes them so successful? Focus and hard work, with a little inspiration, are known to have that effect.

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