Reviving Exnora's movement for a Clean Chennai from the 1990s

Children's Exnors discusses safe diwali in 2002. Photo: R. Ragu

Children's Exnors discusses safe diwali in 2002. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

The revolution almost happened, in Chennai. It was a middle-class awakening and was built around voluntarism, service and taking charge of one’s neighbourhood. In the late eighties and the nineties, the rapid acceptance of the grassroots civic Exnora movement illustrated how active participation by the community can lead to cleaner, and more active, neighbourhoods.

Residents took ownership of their streets, paid a monthly amount to get their garbage cleared, organised meetings with officials to air grievances, and had eminent persons in the neighbourhood as presidents. In just five years since its inception, the number of Civic Exnora units grew to 3,000 in the city.

As early as 1997, Exnora was proposing source segregation and recycling organic, green waste – 50 per cent of all of Chennai’s garbage collected. But the renaissance was short lived. Nearly 13 years after the contractor Onyx undercut the very basis of Exnora, M.B. Nirmal, its founder is now looking at its revival, in part based on solid waste management.

Of the 3,000 Exnora units, 600 are active today, he says. And, they are not working with blinkers on. In 1989, Exnora introduced door-to-door collection of garbage with the help of a modified fishcart, a vehicle that is still in use today. Residents would pay Rs.10 a month, and the ‘street beautifier’ on the tricycle would deposit the garbage in the designated transfer station of the Chennai Corporation.

“Our solution was to integrate the beneficiaries, be it dealing with open defecation, water-logged roads, open gutters where garbage would be thrown or water bodies in need of attention. It was the residents who initiated change,” he said.

A bank-employee-turned activist, Nirmal started with Kamraj Avenue in Adyar in 1989. “Each unit which could be as compact as a street or extend to a few streets, had a president, a senior citizen and a woman representative. Once we started it in a few streets, it gained momentum and residents from other streets joined in,” he recalls.

In 1997, they started propagating source segregation and zero waste management. The turning point came after private conservancy operator CES Onyx got to handle a share of the city’s neighbourhoods in 2000. He thought that the two could work together. But, that is not how it panned out, he says, as their ideologies were different.

Onyx modernised garbage clearance, and residents had to pay nothing. This, says Nirmal, led to a gradual decline in the motivation levels of residents.

Though the later private operators did not match Onyx according to him, he says Exnora wanted to wait for residents’ response before their revival. He now believes that he can build a community movement again.

My Chennai My Right, an inititative by The Hindu

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2020 7:12:21 AM |

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