In Puducherry’s Vambakeerapalayam, many homes now sport a QR code on their front doors. Sanitation workers scan them everyday before collecting segregated waste from each home, which is then deposited at a transfer station — a vehicle on which there are more codes — and taken to a recovery facility. All through this process, the collected waste is being digitally traced.
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A diverse group of urban planners, designers, journalists and individuals from the development sector that make up the collective, ReCity Network, has made its presence in the coastal city to tackle waste mismanagement and littering. Puducherry is just one of the many tourist locations that the collective is concentrating on, in the past four years of its existence.
A need to contribute towards the cities they live in was ReCity Network’s driving point. Says Meha Lahiri, one of the directors, “We understood cities, we knew that the city’s waste, land, water, transport are all resources. The moment they are looked at as resources, citizens might feel an ownership towards their city.” This is the origin of the collective which was founded by urban planner and architect Suraj Nandakumar and marketing professional Meha.
Cut to 2021, they have multiple projects that span across Nainital, Goa, Mussoorie, Puducherry, Mahabaleshwar, Munnar, Konark, Dalhousie and more, in collaboration with different partners.
“Most tourist cities in themselves are small but the influx they have to manage is at least 10 times more than the population. How does a city prepare itself to manage this much pressure, especially from a waste perspective?” asks Meha. The team believes that the way forward is to create circular waste management systems that would ensure that the waste diverted from landfills is reused. Now, they are bringing the material back to brand owners to reuse. With the help of technology, they measure the plastic movement from one’s door to when it is back into the product of one’s brand.
Their work in Puducherry is part of a three-year project called Keep: Namma Pondy Clean. Done in collaboration with Godrej Consumer Products, Puducherry Corporation, PUDA and Swachatha Corporation, and started during the lockdown in 2020, the vision is to make Puducherry one of the cleanest coastal cities in India. “We have already done a pilot in one of the wards where segregation of waste as biomedical, hazardous, dry and wet was carried out.” A wall mural activity in collaboration with Paint Puducherry group will also be executed in the city through August. Marina beach and Rock beach in Puducherry also sport isolated artworks that pin on the perils of littering. The project is now operational in six wards and works with 145 sanitary workers across the wards.
While waste collection, segregation and management form the core of their work, ReCity Network also concentrates on the welfare of sanitation workers.
“Waste workers require a professional approach to their work and a change in social identity,” says Meha. By digitally empowering them, and warding off the stigma surrounding their work, they hope to see a collective change. To that end, large scale portraits of these workers have by now appeared in Nainital and Goa.
“If you find a city so visibly clean and beautiful, your behavioural response will be to not litter. There need to be design changes in the city that propagate the idea of anti-littering,” she says. Initiatives like using multi-layered plastic waste of the city to make benches, help. In Mussoorie, Nainital and Dalhousie, there are 20 such benches for tourists.
The long term goal for the collective is this: “We are looking at diverting 10,000 million metric tonnes of waste and have worked with at least 5,000 waste workers across cities,” Meha concludes.