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Informal Sector                              

Interpreting the informality of public roads and footpaths

In a recent blog, Ranjeet Joseph had described the efforts the Walkability team is making to create awareness about an inclusive street design, which is gender sensitive and where pedestrians, street vendors and other users share the space equitably. Vendors are often perceived as encroachers of essential public space by the authorities. Corporation of Chennai officials argue that widening footpaths will encourage informal markets to thrive on them, reducing the space available for pedestrians. Intuitively, spaces that have high pedestrian traffic, such as transport hubs, places of worship and institutions, tend to attract street vendors. However, it would be inaccurate to say that vendors are the only ones who encroach footpaths. Shops adjoining footpaths often extend their displays to footpaths, private vehicles park on footpaths, all jostling against telephone pillar boxes, electricity transformers, hoardings, and autorickshaw stands. Storm water drains, which are meant to be covered and designed to double up as footpaths, are left uncovered for large stretches. Yet, street vendors, an important part of creating a shared public ethos, typically face the ire of disgruntled pedestrians and planning officials.

In the past, cities in India were planned to include pedestrians and vendors, and had thoroughfares and public squares which catered to the commercial and social needs of the people. The informal bazaars on the streets of the Fort area in Mumbai, old Hyderabad and the planned city of Jaipur remain examples of inclusive planning which is not practised in modern days. But Indian cities are not the only ones which are the battling grounds between pedestrians and vendors, and it is obvious that what we need is a combination of regulation and enforcement, along with an approach to planning which is inclusive of the different uses of streets.

Image 1: Mumbai’s pedestrianised shopping zones

Image 2: Pedestrian lanes abut shop fronts in Jaipur

The multi-faceted use of streets, a measure of vibrancy, is often misunderstood as chaos and will remain so unless authorities plan for the unplanned. Fortunately, the parliament recently approved the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, which aims to protect street vendors’ rights to livelihoods, mandates local authorities to restructure the road and pedestrian space to accommodate vendors. However, legislations need to be accompanied by planning, regulation and enforcement.

A lot has been reported about the deteriorating and diminishing footpaths, but the question of prioritising people over motor vehicles remains neglected. Thirteen percent of Chennai’s land is used for roads, not all of them have footpaths. But this space is still insufficient for the number of vehicles in the city, something that is not regulated. Footpaths are reduced in the course of widening roads and building flyovers, and existing fixtures such as utility boxes and hoardings occupy much of the remaining space, forcing pedestrians to walk on the carriageway thus putting their lives at risk and also slowing down traffic. As a result, pedestrians are the worst affected in road accidents, as reflected in the data collected and maintained by the Chennai City Traffic Police. Rather than increase the number and space for roads, the government needs to discourage people from buying more private vehicles and improve the public transport network and facilities.

The city also needs a stringent parking policy to control unauthorised street parking that results from the non-adherence of parking norms by builders. Buildings not only encroach road and footpath space, but also do not adequately cater to the need for parking within the premises. On-street parking takes away anywhere between 15 and 60 percent portion of the road width. In addition, the parking charges in the city are illogically low and cannot be equated to the rental value of the surrounding real estate. Why should the government subsidise crucial public space for parking?

The Corporation of Chennai should also designate space to approved autorickshaw unions and public utility infrastructure, something that would require the local authority to coordinate with other public agencies that install or regulate these services. Utility boxes, transformers and street lamps should be organised such that they are not obstacles for pedestrian movement. Local officials are not able to prevent encroachments by other public agencies either, or enforce legal orders such as the Supreme Court’s ban on shrines and statues on public roads. They should also designate space for pandhals or tents during festivals so that they do not become obstructions to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. If we could resolve these recurring problems, the restructuring of roads and maintenance of footpaths would occur efficiently and smoothly.

Instead, the inadequate footpath space places pedestrians in direct conflict with vendors. Vendors are an important part of the informal market economy of any city and pedestrians are also consumers, which is why vendors are there in the first place. Unfortunately, inadequate attention has been paid to incorporate informal economic activities into official planning processes, and vendors have been marginalised by existing policies, which have tended to be elitist and exclusive to certain kinds of uses. They lack adequate access to formal markets and jobs, and also find it difficult to obtain vending licenses and space in the city. Often the only idea proposed and implemented has been multi-storeyed retail spaces, which is at complete conflict with the needs and rationale of street vending.

We have been involved with the design of the footpath along 4th Avenue in Anna Nagar, where both authorities and residents questioned the widening of footpath because they believe that it would encourage vending and result in encroachment. While we were able to convince the contractor and officials from the Corporation about the need to widen the footpath as per design, it has been an uphill task to get local residents to participate in multi-stakeholder meetings. Vendors have as much a right to the city as pedestrians, and the symbiotic relation between pedestrians and street vendors needs to be brought to the fore when creating safe and inclusive public spaces.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai

The Women of Tsunami Nagar – Wasted Potential

Ponniyamman Kovil. That is where I landed while trying to track down Rajesh of Aravind Association, and a waste picker I had met earlier in Perungudi. The Aravind Association is named after its founder president, Mr. Aravind of Ponniyamman Kovil and its aim is to protect the villagers from health hazards arising from the dumping of waste in and around their area. I was trying to identify associations of waste pickers to help take our work in solid waste management (SWM) forward and I hoped that meeting the elusive Rajesh would help me.

Ponniyamman Kovil is on the outskirts of Chennai, on the OMR (Old Mahabalipuram Road) near Sholinganallur. I could not locate Rajesh, but the villagers referred me to G. Saraswathi who is a supervisor of conservancy workers in Wards 97 and 98. Saraswathi akka is an admirable woman, dedicated to her work and the people she works with. She previously worked for the NGO Hand-in-Hand as a conservancy worker, now she works under a conservancy contract to collect waste in Wards 97 and 98. Trained by specialists, in Vellore in solid waste management, she has 12 years of experience in the field and is the coordinator for three self help groups (SHGs) consisting of 18 members each.

Saraswathi akka introduced me to Mary, a conservancy supervisor, and other waste workers in Tsunami Nagar. Tsunami Nagar is a resettlement colony constructed in 2006-07 to rehabilitate those affected by the tsunami and has about 6764 houses. The residents of Tsunami Nagar were originally from Orur Kuppam, Olcott Kuppam, Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Srinivasapuram and Santhome.

I learned that initially Don Bosco Anbu Illan, a voluntary association, collected municipal solid waste in Tsunami Nagar and other areas but was dumping garbage without segregating. In 2007 Hand-in-Hand started managing solid waste in the area, and implemented segregation at source, door-to-door collection of waste and composting. Two workers were employed for each 200 to 300 houses. These workers, Mary among them, were trained in source segregation and composting at Vellore along with a team of other waste workers. Interestingly, they had an obligation to bring in a minimum of 70 kg of organic waste every day for composting. The compost was sold to farmers and households with gardens. By August 2012 the workers earned Rs. 6,000/- per month and were regularly given safety equipment such as masks, caps, aprons, raincoats, coconut oil and soap. The waste workers I met reminisced about this and wished they could have these good work conditions once more.

Unfortunately, all this stopped in August 2012 when Hand-in-Hand’s contract came to an end. Some of the women have got jobs with the private contractor appointed by Corporation of Chennai and once again there is no segregation of garbage taking place. Some of the women I met with were those who once did collection and segregation with Hand-in-Hand but are no longer employed. They were eager to get back to work and put their training and experience back to good use. Despite the fact that garbage is no longer officially segregated in Tsunami Nagar, many people do so on their own initiative, leading to cleaner streets.

What Tsunami Nagar seemed to have till last year, from the accounts of these erstwhile conservancy workers, is an efficient solid waste management system that provided fair and dignified livelihood to the waste workers. This seems to have been traded in for a contractual system that is inefficient in garbage collection, bad for the environment and where the workers are not as happy as they were before. It is unclear whether this switch was due to the integration of these areas into the Chennai Corporation limit, a transfer of municipal function from the TNSCB to the Chennai Corporation or for other reasons. Either way, it indicates a failure of our system in recognising what works and what does not.
I was impressed by the hospitality and organising skills of the women I met. These women – young and old – have their own problems, which makes them think about their children’s future. Their formula for living is quite simple; they get up in the morning and they go to bed at night. In between they occupy themselves as best as they can.

P.S. I never did find Rajesh!

Written by Helen Sha Diana, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Notes from a Workshop

What is the precise meaning and the implications of term “informal”? – this is one of the questions that kept cropping up during a workshop called Paradigm shifts in housing: informality and incremental housing in Delhi, organised by micro Home Solutions and the Centre for Policy Research. Turns out, there are too many answers. The debate on this issue was intense, sometimes circuitous, and almost always came back to the issue of how citizenship, access to services and finance were linked to land ownership, title and super-secure tenure. One of the few things that remained constant through the debate was the fact that although the informal sector contributes massively to the economy of cities, they live between the interstices of the law, with poorly defined rights and hopelessly inadequate access to services.

On the one hand, Rahul Srivastav and Matias Echanove from URBZ confronted this debate by throwing it out altogether. They rejected the dichotomy between the formal and the informal, argued cities were incredibly complex and that settlements were impossible to define. On the other hand, others argued that skirting around the issue was not a constructive way to approach the question of informality, and that informal settlements had to be brought under some formal governance system. Moreover, what is considered to be formal – adhering to rules and regulations – is often not purely formal. Rules are pliant, blind eyes are turned and dubious transactions occur almost routinely in the corridors of power. Summarising the debate into three neat positions – accept, ignore or support, which served as a convenient analytical framework but did not ultimately address the question at hand.

The sessions at the conference were on themes ranging from access to municipal services, inclusive development and decentralised solutions to innovation, microfinance and disaster preparedness in slums and informal settlements. These sessions illustrated that answers to this debate are not in definitions themselves, but in their implications. For instance, the session on microfinance made clear that even though there were a slew of schemes targeting the urban poor, all of them require primary collateral: the ownership of land or property. Access to basic services like water and sewerage also seemed to be contingent on this. Transparent Chennai’s workshop on subsidised water and sewerage connections for the economically weaker sections revealed that households had to have some rights over the land and property to be eligible for the scheme.

The title of the conference suggested that the alternative to large scale resettlement colonies may be in incremental housing and self construction. While this may be one strategy to “address” the “informal”, I think that this shift must also include a commitment to divorce or delink municipal services from land and property rights.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Health Camp at Perungudi Dumpsite

During one of our first meetings with waste pickers and the Ambedkar Association, a political association to which approximately 200 waste pickers working in Perungudi dump site belong, their lack of access to health services was identified as a major concern. To address this, the Association’s president requested us to arrange a health camp at Perungudi. This was not something Transparent Chennai had done before, and it was only by accident that we learnt the procedure for getting the Corporation of Chennai’s permission to conduct a health camp.

We wrote to the Solid Waste Management (SWM) department at the Corporation requesting for permission to conduct the health camp at the Conservancy Inspector’s office at the dumpsite. The SWM department forwarded our request to the Deputy Commissioner (Health) from where it went on to the Commissioner, who happily for us, approved the request. The file then found its way to the office of the City Health Officer, which, if I may say so myself, is where the request ought to have been submitted to start with. The CHO gave us a letter of thanks with a two-page form with numerous undertakings that was to be filled in and signed. Once this was submitted we got official permission to conduct the health camp and advice to get in touch with the Zonal Health Officer for further assistance.

TC Researcher heading into the Perungudi dumpsite.

We had four very dedicated interns – Mullai, Indumathi, Santhoshi and Padma – from the Social Work Department of S.D.N.B. Vaishnav College for Women, who had some experience in organising health camps and knew which hospitals to get in touch with. They took up the responsibility of organising an eye camp and a general health camp. They approached Dr. Agarwal Eye Hospital, Cathedral Road and the Hindu Mission Hospital, Tambaram to volunteer the services of their doctors and staff for the health camp, both of which readily agreed. The interns also took it upon themselves to look for sponsors for bit notices, medicines, and refreshments for the camp. With the permission letter in hand, the hospital staff was given a tour of the CI’s office to plan the camp. On Day 1 Dr. Agarwal Eye Hospital sent two optometrists, one ophthalmologist, one counsellor and one coordinator and on Day 2 five doctors came from the Hindu Mission Hospital.

Unexpectedly, the hardest part of this entire exercise turned out to be bringing waste pickers from the dumpsite to the health camp for a free check up. Close to 70 waste pickers and Corporation staff came to the Camp on the first day, which was less than we had expected. The problem we had not foreseen on the first day was that the waste pickers were intent on collecting recyclables that would earn them their living for the day rather than get a medical check at the health camp. However, Transparent Chennai researchers and interns and the NSS volunteers from S.D.N.B. Vaishnav College for Women who came to help were undeterred and made forays into the dumpsite to explain to the waste pickers about the importance of the health camp. As a result 207 waste pickers came to the health camp on the second day. Not surprisingly, the most common ailments included eye and skin infections.

The busy reception desk on Day 2 of the Health Camp.

Written by Avni Rastogi, researcher, 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.

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.

Imagining Futures for Chennai

As part of a Consultation on Waste, Informal Workers, and the Future of Chennai, we, at Transparent Chennai, hosted a scenario planning futures workshop following two weeks of field research under Chennai’s roasting sun. The workshop brought together planners, academics, journalists, organizers, city bureaucrats, and workers – both formal and informal – including many people involved with Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) in Chennai.

One participant started narrating a scenario: “The winding Cooum River flows quietly; children splash about in the sparkling clear water while mothers watch, engaged in small talk. Little Boy wishes to join his friends in the river. But mom says ‘Tomorrow dear, we are going for a magic show; as soon as your father comes back from office’. Little Boy jumps in joy. Little Boy’s father is an engineer. As they enter their apartment complex they catch sight of Little Girl and her grandmother picking tomatoes. The apartment complex has a large garden, divided equally among residents. Little Boy who attends the neighbourhood school along with Little Girl suddenly gets an idea. “Mom, why not take Little Girl along for the magic show?” Mom agrees and seeks the grandmother’s permission. Grandma agrees and Little Girl runs in to get ready. Little Girl’s grandma used to be a waste picker.”

An engineer’s family and a former waste-picker coexisting without any class differences, every household getting ponni (a fine variety) rice for free(and home-delivered at that!) the youth having the freedom to choose their own partners instead of their parents ‘arranging’ their marriage, and the like were aspects of a futuristic Chennai that team Rajnikanth came up with.

Rajnikanth? The ‘Superstar’ actor? What has he got to do with waste?

Ah! patience. Let me tell you.

The workshop facilitator and futures expert, Tanja Hichert from South Africa, helped participants create a game board based on the challenges and issues faced by Chennai. The process began with the participants putting together a timeline of developments and changes internationally, nationally, and specific to Chennai from 1950 to present day, listing all the most important events and changes. Participants listed political events like the Emergency under Indira Gandhi’s rule and natural disasters like the tsunami, as well as aspects of life in an earlier Chennai that no longer exist – such as the large numbers of seasonal lakes that once dotted the city and the ability to walk on the roads safely.

The problems of present day Chennai and those in the year 2040 were then discussed. After listing the problems of the future that keep us awake at night, the two most important issues were chosen based on their impact and uncertainty as the axes for our game board. With these as the coordinates, we would generate four plausible scenarios of the future, as depicted below. The participants jointly named each possible future and divided into four teams to develop detailed storylines for each.

Team Rajnikanth took its name from the most famous of Tamil actors. With a pro-poor government that was excellent at coping with change, the team came up with a description of a perfect and utopian future – true to the actor’s image! It was fun to see middle-aged Kamala, a representative of a grassroots women’s organization and fondly called Kamala Acca (older sister), breaking into songs from Rajnikanth’s movies that fit with the narrative. She would relate Rajni’s well-known one-liners such as En vazhi thani vazhi (“My way is a unique way!”), to add to the fun of envisioning the future.

We delighted in making our translator redundant in 2040, as everyone would be educated and fluent in many languages, including English. Such a sport that she is, she joined in on the fun.

After coming up with our respective features of 2040, each team presented its visions to the others. Team Rajnikanth had chutes in all buildings, where a flip of a switch would segregate the waste to the right bin – to be carted away EVERY HOUR. The Chennai Corporation officials just could not control their laughter imagining that scenario.


Gated Chennai

Namma (our) Metro


Chennai Inc.

Government Autocratic and oppressive; govt inefficient &all services  privatized; govt limited to maintaining law and order Revolutionary

govt, inclusive but ineffective at solving city problems

Populist and effective; widespread government activity with a focus on equality of access& quality Well-run but not inclusive; less democratic; moneyed will push policies through.
Health Service Very expensive; only available to those who can pay Will be accessible but inefficient; you can go to a doctor but there won’t be any medicine Doctors a phone call away; universal healthcare; health insurance for all High quality healthcare available but prohibitively costly
Pollution Worsens because of government’s inability to tackle collective problems Substantial increase No pollution of water bodies because of localized waste water management & recycling Under control with technological intervention
Population Density Low as poor  live outside the city High density; more vertical growth Self-sustaining neighbourhoods with a house for everyone  
Water Scarce and expensive Rationed & priced more; accessible to those who pay Rivers will be flowing full; water bodies will be revitalised; All citizens have access to adequate free water. Adequate availability, but expensive
Open Spaces Few Few as there will be no evictions, and squatters may take over existing open spaces Lot of greenery and community gardens, divided equally among residents Public spaces are for the rich & poor can’t access
Cost of Living Very high Manageable More but everyone will have purchasing power Very high
People’s Participation Participation limited to those with means Inclusive city; poor and rich coexist; voices of poor will be heard All sections of society will have equal representation Voices of the poor will be ignored / suppressed; Unions have  less scope for existence; workers feel insecure
Society Enclosed spaces for rich; high crime level and unemployment More Amma canteens

(Note: This refers to the budget eateries that have been opened recently by the government across Chennai city. The Chief Minister is referred to as ‘amma’, meaning ‘mother’)

Very good standard of living; No rich-poor divide; no caste discrimination; no domestic violence; even for small problems, a Rapid Action Force will immediately respond; youth choose their own partners; kids go to school happily; Evictions in slums; logical conclusion of many of today’s trends happening; better quality education but geared towards rich
Waste Management Mechanised; Good recyclable recovery; rest dumped outside city; no place for waste-pickers Waste-pickers will have access to tradable waste; decentralized waste processing Decentralised, but all aspects of waste work are dignified and well-paying Waste reduction happens; rich recycle; no room for waste pickers
OTHERS’ COMMENTS   Typical ‘Our Metro’;

Decentralised waste processing? Everybody burns his / her own garbage!


In the 1980s when it took years to get a landline phone connection, no citizen would have imagined that within a couple of decades, most of us would be using mobile phones. None of us foresaw the vast changes in the country’s and the city’s landscape and in the personal domain that economic liberalization policies would bring. After attending the scenarios workshop, I have come to realize that the government might have been better prepared to cope with these drastic changes had it utilized the scenario-planning method. This method takes different possibilities, variables, and uncertainties into account, making one better prepared to deal with change.

The creative process brought out many novelties. I for one would never have imagined a left rule in Tamil Nadu, where only the two Dravidian parties have been ruling as far back as I know. But that plausibility emerged during the scenario narrative exercise. Aspects of future scenarios like the rich recycling all their waste and pollution-free water bodies, etc. seemed unbelievable at first; but given past experiences and that the scenarios are builton facts and various combinations of expected changes, they are indeed plausible. It also became clear that an actual future scenario would be around the mid-point of the coordinates that governed that particular scenario.

It was a discussion of serious issues in a fun way. But personally I felt that amid all the planning and playing out of scenarios, MSWM, the focus, became blurred instead of being at the crosshairs. However, given the lessons from the workshop that all the issues are interlinked, combined with the inspiring waste management solutions in Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai that we learned about, we are sure to come up with a innovative and sustainable waste management solution.

Written by Jency Samuel, researcher, Transparent Chennai

The informal waste sector – my first experiences in the field

I knew it would be a rich learning experience at Transparent Chennai when I joined the project on solid waste management (SWM) as a field researcher. Transparent Chennai along with Madras Institute of Development Studies and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives has undertaken the project on SWM as part of Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘Informal City Dialogues.’ The project co-ordinator suggested that I accompany an experienced researcher initially so that I could observe her in action and get an understanding of how to go about my assignment.

Jency and I surveyed the Anna Nagar area of Chennai together and started to gather information from waste shop owners. In the informal waste sector, which processes a large percentage of the waste in the city, waste marts form an important node. Itinerant buyers on tricycles ride through neighborhoods buying recyclables directly from households, and waste pickers pick up valuable waste from households, roadsides, and dustbins. Recyclables are also collected from waste by private and Corporation conservancy workers, who pick it out at transfer stations and from the trucks on their daily rounds. Domestic workers also pick up recyclable waste from their places of work. All of these workers bring these recyclables to waste marts, where it is classified, weighed, and purchased. Waste mart owners then sell to sub-dealers who then sell to wholesale dealers. The long chain of 4 or 5 middlemen ends with the recyclables being directed to the processing industry where plastics are converted to pellets that are used to make plastic carry-bags and waste paper is used to make packing material, etc. The informal economy in waste is substantial, but invisible. Even though at least 20 waste paper mart owners’ associations exist in Chennai with an estimated average of 200 members each, the informal waste sector has largely been left out of the broader discourse around waste management in the city.

One of the waste-paper mart owners in Anna Nagar referred us to a wholesale dealer who was buying from shops in and around the area. We went to meet the dealer, but unfortunately he was out of town. We requested the assistant manager to allow us to take a look at the place. As we approached it, the narrow spaces and dark interiors made the place appear spooky and we were a little apprehensive. But being together and because we noticed a lot of women workers, we decided to take a look. Since it was on the banks of Cooum River, the land sloped down giving the space the nature of a basement and we had to go down dark, dimly lit stairs to enter the workspace. The women in the basement sat in a row, sorting plastics into different grades. The plastic items were pulled from a big pile in the corner of a room. Each woman had a crate in front of her. Each person would pick a particular grade of plastic and push the rest on. They were working without ventilation. Though we had come with the aim of meeting the manager, we were unable to meet him. Instead we spoke to the assistant manager who was very reluctant to answer any of our questions. We had a little more luck with the women who worked there, who answered some questions about what they do and their working conditions, but not in much detail. They had been working there for three months. In a lighter vein I asked them if the lack of light and the resulting eerie atmosphere scared them. Their response was that having worked in that environment for three months, they were used to it. The next day onwards, I started my independent field research. During my field-work, most of the people at waste marts were very friendly. A few of them ignored me, some viewed me with suspicion and many were curious about me. They asked me questions such as “Are you planning to start a similar business?” or “Are you coming from the government?” At one waste mart, two bystanders commented that I was being paid good money to do the research. They continued commenting in the same vein, and as a result the shop owner stopped answering my questions! Some waste mart owners referred me to sub-dealers who bought plastic and paper in bulk from them.

It saddened me when I met a few children working in waste marts. I asked them why they did not go to school. They said that they had no interest in studies. Some said they did not have money to continue their studies. I asked one of them how he started working in a waste paper mart. He answered that he was from Tuticorin and that one of his uncles doing the same business brought him to Chennai. One of the children I met promised to show me more waste paper marts in his locality. He was even interested in accompanying me when I was collecting data.

I met waste pickers and itinerant buyers who buy old newspapers and old plastic items from houses and conservancy workers. What I observed during my research is that the waste paper shop owners are most concerned about their livelihoods and ensuring that the authorities do not hinder their work in any way. Even though some waste paper shop owners faced problems running the shop and profits were not high, they wanted to continue the same business. Most of the people were happy about the business but some people said they earned just enough to make ends meet.

I also met presidents of waste paper traders’ associations. They were happy to support members of their association. Some of the waste paper mart owners shared details about their entry into the

business. The most common reason was that they had a family member or relative or friend who was already involved in the work. They also spoke about their growth in the business. One waste shop owner I met had even completed his MBA. Out of curiosity, I asked him how he got into the business in spite of his post graduate degree. He said that he was happy doing waste paper business as he earns a net income of more than Rs 35,000 per month. “If I get a job, I don’t think I will earn more than this.”

I also met waste pickers, some of whom shared their pains, sorrows and the conditions of their life, and some who were content. One of the waste pickers I met said that her mother was also involved in the same job. She said that she was very happy to do this job. She married a man who is also a waste picker. They go together to a locality, but choose different streets to collect recyclables from roadside bins.

I can honestly say that I was completely unaware of the underlying informal economy of waste collection and processing and the different actors in the waste sector in the city. This is probably true of most other residents of Chennai who don’t realize what happens to their garbage after it leaves their homes. After my field visits I learned a lot about the informal waste collection and recycling industry that will, I hope, help us better in addressing the challenges faced by this sector and in solid waste management in the city.

My first experience in the field revealed the complex and multi-dimensional nature of what we are trying to accomplish. Coming into the project with no background in the workings of solid waste management or the workings of the formal and informal sector, my first field trip helped me get my bearings and a clearer understanding of Chennai solid waste management reality.

Written by Helen Sha Diana, researcher, Transparent Chennai

The Informal City Dialogues: An intervention into the nascent discourse on the Solid Waste Management ‘crisis’ in Chennai

The word ‘crisis’ has been used widely over the last year or so to describe the garbage and solid waste management situation in Bangalore (Bengaluru), prompting promising legislative and social interventions.

It is fast becoming apparent that terms like crisis are equally applicable to the situation in Chennai. Most of the 4,500 plus tons of mixed garbage generated in the city daily have for years now ultimately ended up in one of two massive dumpsites: Kodangaiyur, to the north of the city and Perungudi, to the south. This system, which is confined to the functions of collect, transfer and dispose, has never been particularly efficient, whether executed wholly by the Chennai Corporation (which is responsible for solid waste management in the city) or by a series of private contractors hired by them. The most visible failure is the large amounts of garbage left uncollected daily in various parts of the city. The problem facing this system today however goes far beyond inefficiency: it is simply unsustainable, and it seems to have no future in a modern city.

This was brought into sharp relief a few days ago (Feb 10th) when a fire in the Kodangaiyur dump-yard, an all too common occurrence, had the local residents up in arms to such an extent that the Corporation Commissioner paid a personal visit to the dump the very next morning. The possibility of the closure of the dump and the certainty of stiff opposition from local residents and environmentalists in any proposed alternative dumpsites means that the authorities must be aware of the need for a re-think of Chennai’s solid waste management practices.

A fire at Kodangaiyur dmp

It is in this context that Transparent Chennai project in partnership with MIDS (Madras Institute for Development Studies) and GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) is starting its project on informal workers in the waste sector as a part of the Informal City Dialogues, a project commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of their centennial celebrations.

As the city authorities and eventually (with concerted effort) the city itself begin to re-think SWM practices and evolve new strategies to tackle waste and attendant issues, we believe it is crucially important that the informal sector and an understanding of its role and contribution be part of the current discussion and of any proposed way forward. Through workshops and meetings, this project hopes to develop a dialogue and interaction between informal waste-workers and the city at large that currently does not exist.

Thousands of people in the city draw their livelihoods from informal waste work. Their work is a social good – they divert recyclables out of the waste stream – but, unfortunately, the state currently views their work as criminal. This means that these groups are often persecuted and are highly marginalized. The integration of these informal waste workers, including waste pickers and itinerant waste buyers, into formal and legalized waste management structures is important not only because of social justice concerns. According to researchers Saskia Sassen in The Hindu, the informal sector is the most resilient and adaptable aspect of any city, and can help the city cope with change and shocks.

Many SWM experts argue that decentralized waste management, segregation at source, and the incorporation of the informal waste sector is the way to a sustainable SWM system in Chennai and other similar cities. This is the model that Pune and Bangalore are following in their recent reforms. However, there are some alternative solutions that are also in the fray. Perhaps the most important of these is the ‘Waste to Energy’ a.k.a. Refuse derived Fuel (RDF). The Waste to Energy concept is an attractive option to policy-makers as it requires minimal changes to existing governance mechanisms (i.e waste will still be collected and transported to a central location, where it will be processed instead of being landfilled), and because it seems to avoid the complex managerial problems that a decentralized system would entail.

Former waste-pickers at work in a DWC in Domlur, Bangalore

Such an answer to the waste management crisis would be technologically oriented and capital intensive, characteristic of the options favored by the government in the past. However, such technologies seem to be unsuitable to the Indian context: the low calorific value (less plastics, more organic waste) and mixed nature of the garbage in India would mean that the quality of both fuel and compost produced would be low. The concept also excludes the informal waste sector, meaning that many workers would be left without their source of livelihood, leading to impoverishment and conflict.

As Chennai begins to acknowledge and understand the SWM crisis, it is important that a broader and more nuanced dialogue about new models takes place, one that does not place the informal waste sector in opposition to the proposed solutions. We hope that we can kickstart such a dialogue through this process, a dialogue that acknowledges the contribution of the informal sector to existing waste management processes in the city, and includes waste workers in its vision for the future.

Written by Harsha Anantharaman, researcher at Transparent Chennai

Street Vendors Field Work

Interview with Section Manager I Mr. Subramanium of the Land and Estates Department, Chennai Corporation, 6 July 2012

We were directed to Mr. Subramanium, a section manager within the Land and Estates Department, by Mr. T. Anbalagan, Assistant Commissioner of GA & P, whose meaning we have till date failed to find. This is where we found the bulk of the information we had at the end of the day.

Regarding what the legal status of street vendors in Chennai is, we learned that all vendors on footpaths and pavements are illegal because these structures are meant solely for pedestrian passage. A few exceptions are made in the case of handicapped vendors who have been set up with licenses; these could hence be considered legal. Issuing permits was halted as far back as 1993 because single permits were blatantly misused to set up multiple shops, followed by a resolution in 1996(/5/2?) that legally supported this. Our thoughts are, but what difference does this make? Are there not multiple shops being set up anyway?

In response to why the Tamil Nadu State Government has yet to codify and implement the recommendations of the 2009 National Policy of Street vendors, this official cited traffic problems but did not mention specifically if they had investigated the feasibility of the recommendations in a systematic manner, and had then arrived at this conclusion. The Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department would be responsible for the said implementation at the state level. On an unrelated note, there seems to a booming business whereby these spaces are rented out to others at rates higher than the nominal Rs. 100 the vendors themselves pay for their allotment within the hawking complex.

The Kanagaraj Commission had recommended that alternate locations be arranged in order to rehabilitate street vendors displaced as “encroachers.” Hawking complexes were supposed to be the solution to this. However, ongoing litigation surrounding the ownership of the land upon which the T. Nagar hawkers’ complex was built seems the reason why it remains empty now. Other complexes face occupancy problems because most hawkers demand right of tenancy on the first floor, and wish to avoid higher floors since they experience reduced footfall. Mr. Subramanium did not seem too concerned with the status of mobile street vendors; they seem to cause fewer obstructions simply because they keep moving. He kindly gave us the address of Justice Ramamoorthy’s Implementation Committee (the follow up to the Kanagaraj Commission) in R.A. Puram too.

Mr. Subramanium seemed to imply that there was no central place one could procure data regarding street vendors, and that we would have to visit each zonal officer for location specific data. Earlier, Mr. T. Anbalagan, the Assistant Commissioner for GA & P, had implied that statistics of street vendors were impossible to collect since they changed far too frequently, so we believe the data the zonal officers have must be regarding the hawking complexes or perhaps a few streets or wards.

Radhika Srinivasan, Intern at Transparent Chennai and student at Georgetown University