Search archives   
author-Harsha Anantharaman                              

A Legacy of Protest and Progressiveness: A summary of a first-hand account of the struggles of Pennurimai Iyakkam, past and present

Many of us spent last Friday afternoon at Pennurimai Iyakkam’s (P.I.) office in Purasawalkam. P.I. is a movement and organisation that works with and for underprivileged women. Most of us at Transparent Chennai have worked with PI on a number of occasions but this was the first opportunity we had to sit down and hear about their history, the nature of their work and how it has changed over the years in detail.

Leelavathy amma, Kamala amma, Revathi amma and Suguna amma, all veteran members of the organisation began with a brief account of the origins of the group and its early history. Each of them grounded their recollections of the operations of PI in their own experience and provided insight into how joining the movement changed their lives. We learnt that one of the first important challenges to be taken up by the group after its founding in 1979 was that of dowry related deaths. Throughout the 80s and after, PI has worked to help affected women and families, providing support through counselling as well as litigation. This aspect of the group’s work has stayed core to their activities ever since and is supported by a number of women lawyers who lend their time and expertise to fight the cases that are brought on a weekly basis to PI by women and families seeking aid to redress the crimes committed against them.

Leelavathy amma related how in the mid 1970s against the backdrop of the activities of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, PI began to take an active interest in issues facing slum dwellers, especially women in the city. It was through this sphere of action that she herself first entered the group after various PI members helped stage a protest against slum evictions in the slum she was living in. In the following years PI established itself as one of the primary voices of slum dwellers in the city. The fact that for much of this time Chennai had no locally elected representatives as it does today meant that groups like PI played a crucial role in helping people get their grievances and demands heard by the government. The record of success and credibility established by PI in these years makes them an important and respected actor in these spaces today, despite the increased presence of other actors such as political parties.

After a compelling and thought provoking account of the history and activities of the group over the years, the floor was thrown open to questions. When asked how the problems faced by women had changed over the years, Kamala amma responded that that in many ways they had stayed the same. Freedom, agency and safety or lack thereof was all still major considerations for all women in the city, across classes. She added that certain newer issues had also become more prominent in recent times such as sexual harassment in the workplace, harassment by male social acquaintances etc. One question requested a clarification of the relationship PI had with the Unorganised Workers’ Federation, a group they work with closely and share many members with. It was explained that in 2001, it was decided that unorganised workers needed a level of representation greater than what existed. While, the various occupational groups had some sort of organisation only the construction workers were properly represented. The fact that women form a large part of the informal workforce made this a key issue for PI. Since then PI has worked with the women in the unorganised sector in conjunction with UWF in an effort to secure them the rights and entitlements they otherwise have little to no access to. It was particularly interesting to note how that it was/is through the vehicle of the women’s’ movement that many sections of the informal workforce, such as domestic workers and waste pickers (albeit slowly) are being brought into the fold with their issues receiving greater attention than before.

When talking about some of the challenges they face in their continuing struggles, the ladies reflected on how the constituency of PI had evolved over the years. The group was founded primarily by a group of like-minded educated women, many of them professors, lawyers, etc. Over time, this has changed considerably to the point where most members come from slums around the city and belong to the underprivileged classes. This development made the group a much stronger entity able to function and effect change at the grassroots level. However, the retreat of the middle and upper classes from the sort of activism and social consciousness that saw such groups as PI formed in the first place has handicapped the movement in some ways. One of the PI members stated how they had very little online presence and access to media outlets. In order to take full advantage of these avenues of operation it is necessary for educated women (and men) to once again make them, their time and effort available to PI and groups like them. PI also plans to hold recruiting drives in women’s colleges across the city to infuse new blood into the movement.

Before the meeting was closed, all of us from TC enrolled ourselves as members in Pennurimai Iyakkam and made ourselves available to help with both the group’s routine activities and the particular ways in which they need help from the educated classes. The membership fee is Rs. 65 for slum dwellers and Rs. 105 for others. Family counselling sessions usually happen on Fridays, and slum issues are dealt with on Saturdays. In order to enrol as members (and only women can be members) or help out in any way (men and women can help!), do get in touch with Leelavathy amma by calling +91 9840620367.

Written by Harsha Anantharaman, researcher at Transparent Chennai.

The Chennai Innovations Workshop: An exercise in bulding an inclusive waste management future

Over the last two days, many members of the Transparent Chennai team were engaged in an Innovations Workshop as part of our work in the Waste and Informal Sector in Chennai. The workshop was part of a months-long process of research and outreach undertaken by Transparent Chennai (TC), Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Informal City Dialogues initiative. The meeting, which employed the Futures Scenarios technique of envisioning and planning for the future, was facilitated by Tanja Hichert and TC’s Priti Narayan. With Tanja bringing expertise in the Futures method and Priti supplying both contextual awareness and experience in facilitating community meetings across Chennai, the workshop was encouraging in its content and outcome.

The workshop, attended by a broad cross section of voices and stakeholders from around the city including informal sector workers, corporation officials, active citizens, and representatives of commercial and other institutions, aimed at evolving ‘resilient, inclusive and innovative’ solutions for the city’s Solid Waste Management problems.

To focus the discussion and rein it in from the vague abstractions and blind alleys that such meetings sometimes meander into, it was decided that the group would try to understand and develop ideas for inclusive and sustainable waste management reform in Ward 173. Ward 173 was chosen as the site of a possible de-centralized, source-segregation inclusive waste management pilot by a similar group of stakeholders a few months ago. TC has been gathering data and undertaking outreach in the ward for a while now and the Innovations Workshop was a good place to vet that progress and try and chart a route forward in the ward.

The meeting was attended by community leaders from a number of slums in Ward 173 and the issue of under-served areas where garbage is not picked up or picked up only very rarely, was brought to the fore. This is one of the key shortcomings of the status quo, and therefore a key challenge for any future system.

Another key issue discussed was the positive role and contribution of informal waste workers (Waste pickers) in Ward 173. These include recycling and other sustainable waste management practices. The fact that waste pickers face continual police and government harassment and have little to no access to basic health services, housing and other essentials was also established early in the meeting. The necessity of introducing policy to change this situation was notable as a primary matter of concern and discussion for the group.

The workshop in progress

The end product of the workshop was three closely related potential initiatives that would help achieve the oft re-stated goals of inclusivity and sustainability in waste management. The project proposals were evolved through a process of fleshing-out ideas that the group had thrown up over the two days. The first proposed a detailed mapping exercise in Ward 173 (setting a template to be replicated elsewhere) that would ascertain waste generation levels, nature of waste, types of generators etc., thereby helping the CoC or any other implementing body make informed decisions when planning interventions into the sector. Another idea that was developed was that of a variety of benefits being made available to waste-pickers. The basis of such a programme was outlined as being an enumeration exercise followed by the handing out of official identity cards. This would open the door to providing access to other benefits and schemes such as health insurance and provision of protective gear and other necessities for a more secure working environment. Finally, a proposal for the forming of neighbourhood, area and ward level committees of stakeholders to take the issue of de-centralized and inclusive waste management forward was also put forth.

It would be remiss not to mention that at no point during the two-day workshop was there a time when there was no Corporation of Chennai official in the room. Their contributions to the discussions were valuable and helped ground the discussion in the difficult realities of implementation and effective service delivery. The fact that they were in a room with a cross-section of citizens with stakes in waste and waste management, including waste pickers and slum residents, and listened to their concerns and opinions is undoubtedly of great value. Especially since these group often find avenues of communication with the government closed to them.

We are hopeful that some of the ideas generated during this workshop and the platform that has been generated over the past few months will lead to tangible change in first Ward 173 and ultimately Chennai’s SWM landscape, to make it both more environmentally sustainable and more inclusive. Perhaps the best thing to come out of this particular workshop so far is that one slum representative’s complaint about the lack of provision of a bin in their locality saw the Zonal Officer reach out to him during lunch and make the phone calls to correct the oversight.

Written by Harsha Anantharaman, researcher, Transparent Chennai.

Food for Thought

After an afternoon of kindly requesting officials at the Corporation of Chennai for data on basic municipal services, we stumbled upon the Herbal canteen at Ripon building. The food was absolutely delicious. While we had planned to sample only one plate of vadai, we found ourselves devouring two plates each. The canteen also seemed to be managed well, looked clean and hygienic and was very affordable. If the standard of the Herbal canteen is anything to go by, Amma canteens (comparable in terms of menu and price) are probably just as fabulous.

Enough has been said about the phenomenon that is the Amma Canteen. For instance, sample this, this, and this. The Corporation of Chennai is opening new canteens at breakneck speed. This programme, launched in February 2013 with 15 canteens, now has about 200 canteens in the city with one in every ward. [1] With a double-digit food inflation rate making essential food items unaffordable for many, these Amma canteens are a welcome alternative, especially for the urban poor. The food is healthy and nutritious: on the menu are items like herbal tea, sambar with assorted vegetables and ragi puttu. But what really are the hidden costs of Amma canteens?

Our field work at Transparent Chennai has unintentionally proven revelatory about what these canteens mean to the existing municipal infrastructure of the city. For instance, when we were mapping and surveying night shelters for the city’s homeless, a regular user of the Nandanam shelter on Chamiers Road told us that the Corporation was seriously considering converting that shelter to a canteen before they identified an alternate location. At another Corporation shelter for the homeless on Third Line Beach road we learnt that one dormitory had been converted into a canteen. In another instance, a typically devoted AIADMK councillor casually mentioned the pressure he was facing to open a canteen in his ward. We also noticed that a conservancy office in Alwarpet has recently been converted into a canteen. There was also an article about a public toilet in Thirumangalam that was renovated and converted into an Amma Canteen. The report states that the Corporation was in a hurry to open a canteen as soon as possible and this led to an allegedly unused public toilet being converted.

Spurred by the tremendous response the canteens have received from the public, there are reports that the government is considering opening them all over the state. This level of efficiency in the implementation of a government initiative is unprecedented and raises questions about why we do not see a similar drive and efficiency in other development programmes.

Another matter of concern is one raised by the renovation of existing public facilities to adapt them for a use other than their original purpose. This entails a significant cost, not just the actual costs of renovation but also the loss of important public buildings, such as libraries and even the Tamil Nadu Secretariat. Public infrastructure must be planned according to the need and demand for them by people who need them most. The possible difficulties involved in identifying and acquiring land in every ward for a canteen and the pressure on existing Corporation infrastructure may be very real. Yet allowing transient political priorities to supersede planning processes involve real costs too, costs that must be made a part of the cost-benefit calculation of any infrastructure and service initiatives.


Written by Priti Narayan and Vinaya Padmanabhan with inputs from Harsha Anantharaman, researchers, Transparent Chennai

The way ahead? Experiences and experiments in solid waste management from Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore

The first of a series of workshops and consultations on waste, informal workers and the future of Chennai was held at IFMR on the 11th and 12th of March involving representatives from Government, workers’ groups, civil society, and academia. The meeting started with presentations by guests from Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai on how those cities have found solutions to their solid waste management (SWM) problems, solutions that are both environmentally sustainable and include informal sector workers. While informal sector waste workers play a large role in waste management in many Indian cities, they are often forgotten in discussions about improving municipal waste management processes. These cities provide models for other cities at a time when many cities are facing waste crises – rapidly increasing amounts of waste, unreliable contractors, and active resistance from residents near existing and planned landfills.

Since these models are not widely known, we thought it would be useful to provide short summaries of each of the three presentations undertaken by representatives of SWaCH (Pune), Stree Mukti Sangathan (Mumbai) and Hasiru Dala (Bangalore), with some background. A fuller and deeper understanding of the models implemented and the complex issues and obstacles they have faced will help us to understand their overall relevance for us in Chennai.

Over 4 lakh households in Pune (of a total 10 lakh households) have their daily waste collected by SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), a co-operative of thousands of waste-pickers in the city. SWaCH, formed in 2007, was a culmination of over 14 years of work by the KKPKP (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat), a waste pickers’ union established in 1993. 

The PMC (Pune Municipal Corporation) authorized SWaCH to collect waste daily in 2008 and since then SWaCH employees, mainly comprising female former waste pickers and other urban poor have been collecting waste door-to-door and transporting it to decentralized waste management facilities provided by and paid for by the PMC. A nominal user fee of Rs. 10 to 30 per month is charged from each household.

A SWaCH employee washes her hands with water from a half-full plastic bottle while sorting trash.

The SWaCH model has the following elements

  1. Segregation at source by citizens into dry and wet wastes: 
Individual households are required to segregate the waste they produce and a fine is levied on non-compliant households.
  2. Decentralized management and processing of waste: 
SWaCH follows the principle that waste created in an area should not leave that area. Dry waste is collected in sorting sheds where secondary segregation is undertaken before being moved on to recyclers. Wet waste is composted. As of now some 15-18 tons of wet waste is composted daily.
  3. Continued access to livelihood for the city’s waste-pickers numbering in the thousands:
The entrance of private contractors into urban SWM has put thousands of waste-pickers in the country at risk of permanently losing access to recyclable waste and therefore their livelihoods.[1] SWaCH’s intervention in this regard has been crucial in ensuring access to livelihood for Pune’s waste-pickers. About 2,300 of them are directly involved in door-to-door pick up alone. Training for these workers is provided by the KKPKP.
  4. Improved working conditions for waste-pickers: 
The PMC provides pushcarts and protective gear such as bags, gloves and boots twice a year to its waste-picker workforce. The intervention also provides workers access to cleaner and more valuable recyclable waste.
  5. Fiscal and environmental sustainability: 
The PMC has made an outlay of Rs. 8 crores in the period 2008-13 towards SWaCH’s management expenses. Along with other costs, such as building and maintaining decentralized waste management centres, the total costs for the PMC still fall well below what they would otherwise be spending on SWM with major savings coming in the form of vastly reduced transportation costs. 
The diversion of a sizable portion of the city’s waste away from landfills also contributes to the system’s environmental sustainability.

While the above paints a deservedly positive picture of the SWaCH model, it has faced a few challenges and problems. For example, there continue to be low levels of segregation at source by citizens (the model ‘Zero-waste ward’ is an exception). Efforts to enforce segregation through refusal to collect mixed waste and levying of fines is central to the continued success of the SWaCH experiment. The fact that SWaCH does not collect waste from bulk generators is another issue. Additionally, the model has faced opposition from some. The political establishment in a city may often have stakes in the maintenance of the status quo. This has proven an obstacle to the expansion of SWaCH’s activities to serving the rest of Pune.

Stree Mukti Sangathan (SMS) is a women’s welfare group that became involved with waste management and waste picker issues because of their membership: the great majority of waste-pickers in most Indian cities, including Mumbai, are women (for instance, the membership of KKPKP, Pune’s waste-picker union is almost exclusively female). Since their involvement in the waste sector, SMS has registered and given ID cards that were subsequently validated by the local government to over 3,000 waste-pickers.
Currently, 600 women are working at over 200 locations in the city through Self Help Groups/Cooperatives providing a variety of services including: Door-to-door collection of waste and fine segregation, processing of waste, and recycling of dry waste.

  1. Collection of non-medical waste from hospitals.
  2. Collection of dry waste from malls.
  3. Maintenance of bio-gas plants.
  4. Collection of post-consumption Tetra Pak cartons for processing.
  5. Collection and disposal of dry waste from Special Economic Zones.
  6. Collection of dry waste from corporate offices and providing them with recycled paper.
  7. Collection of waste from school and college campuses.

As is evident, SMS’s primary focus is the integration of waste-pickers (especially women) into more formal waste management/processing in order to safeguard their livelihoods and provide them safer working conditions. They also strongly advocate the use of bio-gas plants (as developed by BARC, Mumbai) for the processing of recyclable wet waste.

The Bangalore case is perhaps the most relevant for the Chennai context. In October 2012, Bangalore was plunged into a crisis situation due to the closure of the Mavellipura landfill. The Bangalore Municipal Corporation (BBMP) closed the landfill because of sustained protests from local villagers over the hazards it posed to their lives and well being, a situation mirrored around the Kodungaiyur dump in Chennai today. This caused garbage to pile up on the streets, lying uncollected for days. Coincidentally, around the same time, a Public Interest Litigation was filed in the High Court of Karnataka asking for the implementation of the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2000. 
This stark situation, which also presented an opportunity, spurred multiple actors and groups to action including the SWMRT (Solid Waste Management Round Table) – a coming together of non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, environmental entrepreneurs, and individual volunteers who function as waste management facilitators in the city. SWMRT continues to engage with the BBMP to strategize and implement a long-term solution.

The new SWM policy, which has been given effect through directives issued by the Corporation Commissioner, separated waste generators in the city into ‘Bulk’ and ‘Others.’ Both categories are bound by the following:

  1. Segregation at source.
  2. Segregation into six different categories, which was subsequently been scaled down to three categories: dry, wet, and sanitary, for individual households.
  3. Segregated decentralized processing.
  4. Penalties for non-compliance.

In addition, bulk generators were made responsible for their own waste management. Bulk generators include hotels, restaurants, residential apartment complexes of 10 units and above, and any other institutions generating more than 100 kgs of wet waste daily. These bulk generators account for about 40% of Bangalore’s daily waste output. As of now, wet waste is collected on a daily basis and dry waste on a weekly basis in Bangalore.

Some of the groups and NGOs involved in the conceptualization and implementation of this strategy have held as a priority the integration of waste pickers and other informal workers into these new systems. In partnership with the BBMP, Hasiru Dala, a year-old waste-picker co-operative and member organisation of SWMRT, has handed out ID cards signed by the Corporation Commissioner to over 7,000 waste pickers. The city and NGOs realized that the new policy would result in the absence of garbage in neighbourhoods and in landfills, and waste pickers who made their livelihood in these areas would have to be accommodated elsewhere. Hasiru Dala has adopted multiple strategies to pursue informal sector inclusion. As in the case of SMS, Mumbai, Hasiru Dala approaches commercial and other establishments to place waste-pickers on their premises to manage their solid waste. Hasiru Dala also assists in placing waste-pickers and other informal sector workers in the new decentralised waste management spaces called ‘dry waste collection centres’ that are being created as part of Bangalore’s new SWM strategy.

DWCC at Freedom Park fronted by newly installed murals depicting waste management processes.

These dry waste collection centres (DWCCs) are essential to Bangalore’s attempt to truly enable decentralized waste management and employ waste workers. It is planned to have a DWCC in every ward. The BBMP will provide the land and physical infrastructure while groups from the informal sector, NGOs, or RWAs will come in as operating partners. Currently 51 of the intended 198 DWCC’s have already been constructed and 9 are being operated and managed by Hasiru Dala with waste-pickers and scrap dealers. These DWCC’s are particularly important for handling low value waste like laminates (for ex. Kurkure, chips, and biscuit packets) and Tetra-Pak wastes that are not suitable for recycling[2] and make up an increasingly significant portion of the municipal waste.

Groups in Bangalore are also trying to use the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to fund some of these efforts. Corporations that use laminates and Tetra pak packaging will be tapped to sponsor DWCCs for a 3-year period as part of their commitment to EPR. The informal waste sector has traditionally ignored such wastes because they were unprofitable. Wet waste is to be handled either in-house in the case of bulk generators or in community composting facilities. As in Pune, outside of certain high performance zones, the percentage of households that segregate is still lagging. An electronic fine levying system is set to be in place shortly.

Relevance for Chennai
One can see that concrete steps have been taken in other cities that generate waste in amounts comparable to or even greater than Chennai to evolve and implement new, sustainable and more inclusive strategies for SWM, strategies that move beyond the no-longer-tenable Collect-Transfer-Dispose system. Crucially, these strategies acknowledge and incorporate the immense contribution made by the informal waste sector: in Bangalore they divert 600-800 MT of waste a day to recyclers out of a total of 3500-4000 tons, accounting for about 20% of the city’s daily waste.

All these models are still relatively new, especially Bangalore’s, and their long-term success is not yet certain. However they have some important lessons for Chennai: they all divert waste away from overflowing landfills and towards recyclers, they insist on segregation at source, and they integrate the informal waste sector to ensure their continued access to livelihood. While simple replication will not be possible, it is important for Chennai, its government, and its citizens, to be aware of the options and alternatives available as its own SWM crisis approaches. Such an awareness and understanding can help form a process of debate and dialogue among all the stakeholders over the way ahead and what solutions may fit best in a Chennai context.

External Links:,

[1]Our preliminary research in Chennai found that contractors employed by private waste contractors make less money than many informal sector waste workers.
[2]The multi-layered nature of laminates which fuse plastic and metal elements makes them problematic to recycle and their low monetary value means that the recycling industry is not interested in undertaking their recycling.

Written by Harsha Anantharaman, researcher at Transparent Chennai.