It is a chilly winter morning in Mysuru, but Bharat Kumar, 25, has been at work since 6: he is going door-to-door in T.K. Layout collecting domestic waste.
At the other end of the city, on top of Chamundi Hill, Manu is getting ready for his daily chore of ensuring that the public toilets in the tourist spot are squeaky clean. “They have to be ready at least 30 minutes before the stream of tourists begins around 6.30 am,” he says. He is busy ensuring that the flush systems and the mini sewage treatment plant are in working condition.
At Kumbarkoppal, a densely populated settlement on the outskirts of Mysuru, once a village before being subsumed by the urban sprawl, 15 civic workers are busy segregating dry and wet waste at the zero waste management plant here.
Dawn in Mysuru finds an army of poura karmikas , as the civic workers are called, already out and on their toes, turning waste to wealth.
By 10 a.m. a steady stream of auto tippers — with trash collected from nearly 10,000 households in three residential areas of the city — starts arriving at the Kumbarkoppal plant. The waste is segregated into 32 components, each of which is stocked separately and relayed to scrap dealers.
From beer bottles and medicine strips to discarded keyboards and leftover food, nothing is left out. “It all has a market that helps earn the revenue that maintains this facility,” says K.S. Nagapati, a retired professor who teamed up with D. Made Gowda, a former member of the legislative council, to establish the zero waste management plant at Kumbarkoppal.
Among cities with a population under a million, Mysuru has consistently stayed at the top of the country’s ‘cleanest city’ list compiled by Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. It was No. 1 in 2015 and 2016, No. 5 in 2017, only to come back to the top spot last year.
Given the legendary squalidness of urban India, especially in its tourism hotspots, what is this city doing right?
Mysuru had something of a head start in sanitation, thanks to the initiatives of the maharajas who established an urban planning body (City Improvement Trust Board) in 1904. All houses were linked to an underground drainage system by 1910. Residential layouts were well planned, the roads were broad and tree-lined, piped drinking water was supplied, and infrastructure put in place for sewage treatment.
This legacy was carried forward by local authorities. Since 2007, Mysuru City Corporation (MCC) has used a public-private partnership (PPP) model to set up plants like the one at Kumbarkoppal and to adopt other innovative practices in waste management.
The city took the vital step of declaring that no new layout plan would be given clearance without an underground drainage facility. This helped Mysuru quickly become ‘open-defecation free.’ Today, several toilets have been constructed across the city with CSR funds. “Not surprisingly, the best practices of Mysuru are being emulated by other cities,” says MCC health officer D.G. Nagaraju.
In 2013, a year before Swachh Bharat was launched, a group of citizens floated an organisation called Let’s Do It Mysore to supplement the efforts of civic workers. “The group’s success was due to the conviction among residents that Mysuru should not go the Bengaluru way,” says Venkatesh, an entrepreneur.
With a population of nearly one million, and a floating population of tourists that’s pegged at nearly 3.5 million each year, Mysuru generates 400-450 tonnes of solid waste a day. To collect this, a 2,400-strong army of civic workers is engaged across the 65 wards.
Helping them is a convoy of vehicles: 170 auto tippers, 37 tractors, 5 compactors and scores of trucks.
And technology. Almost 10 years ago, MCC had already adopted GPS technology to ensure efficient trash management. “It meant vehicles were constantly tracked and contractors couldn’t dump garbage anywhere they wanted,” says Nagaraju.
Now, a new software is being developed exclusively for MCC by an IT company, which will flash the predetermined route fixed for each vehicle and the wards it has to cover.
Today, roughly half the solid waste generated is recycled at the sewage farm in Vidyaranyapuram which has a capacity to handle 250 tonnes a day. Besides this, there are nine five-tonne decentralised units as well, but only seven of them are working. This means that almost 150 tonnes of waste still enter the landfill. To resolve this called for an out-of-the-box solution, and that’s what MCC has found. It has signed a MoU with a private company to procure all the dry, non-biodegradable waste the city generates directly from the civic workers. Each poura karmika will be paid ₹100 a day for every 100 kg of dry waste collected and sold.
Since the civic workers will receive the payment every day on the spot, and continue to get a monthly income, the arrangement is expected to not only keep the workers motivated but ensure that garbage collection is efficient and eases the burden on the system.
“We have put this in place in two wards on an experimental basis, and we will soon cover all 65 wards. It will make Mysuru the first city to eliminate landfills altogether,” says Nagaraju.
A slew of toilets were constructed across the city, many of them sponsored by local companies. The facilities at the major tourism hub in Chamundi Hills is an example of this.
The complex, an initiative of CII’s Mysuru chapter with Automotive Axles as partner, has, besides the 42 closets and urinals, a roof-top solar system and sensor-based taps to ensure minimal water wastage. The runoff water is reused for gardening and flushing. “I rate it 9 on 10 for cleanliness,” says Navneet Agarwal, a tourist from New Delhi visiting with his family.
Similar facilities can be seen at Mysore Palace, the zoo, the main bus stand and more. This is besides the 67 public toilets across the city. MCC gets technical assistance on water and sanitation issues from the Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies at the National Institute of Engineering.
Realising that technology without public participation would be futile, MCC roped in religious institutions to exhort their followers to participate in the cleanliness drive. Sri Ramakrishna Ashram’s monks led a street cleaning drive every Sunday for 40 weeks to make the mission a mass movement. The students of around 500 eco clubs launched similar drives in a year-long exercise to make residents collectively responsible for the city’s cleanliness.
Technology and innovation have played a key role. But it’s been supplemented by a strong sense of ownership among residents. Everything has added up to give Mysuru the clean chit it prides itself on.