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An Ever-Green Friday Bazaar

While International organizations are still struggling to come to a consensus on ways to reduce our carbon foot print and pave way for sustainable development, some of the traditional practices followed by our communities are setting examples on this front that call for everyone’s attention. The ideas of reuse and recycle find manifestation in a century old Friday Bazaar or Sandhai (in Tamil) that is organized on every Friday at Pallavaram in the outskirts of Chennai.

Being a resident of Pallavaram, I have been a regular visitor to this bazaar since my childhood. However, I never saw it from the perspective of its contribution to reducing and reusing the city’s waste before I joined Transparent Chennai’s project on solid waste management. Eager to learn more about this century old weekly market, my colleague Pradeepan and I visited it one Friday. We even ascended the nearby Pallavaram hill to get a bird’s eye view of the bazaar in the morning. It was an amazing spectacle; to view the whole stretch of the road, filled with jostling crowds and rows of stalls sheltered under blue and yellow plastic sheet pandals on either side of the road. The entire bazaar stretched for a kilometer starting from Pallavaram railway station at one end to Trisulam railway station at the other. There must have been at least 1000 stalls selling a variety of goods to eager shoppers on that day.

On enquiry we learnt that this weekly bazaar in Pallavaram had started functioning from as early as the 1800s, when traders brought cattle from different places to sell to the soldiers of the British-Indian army settled in the nearby areas. As years passed the bazaar expanded and started selling a variety of goods to the British as well as to the locals. Till recently the Friday bazaar was conducted in an open ground under the control of Pallavaram Cantonment but with the Department of Atomic Energy acquiring the land the bazaar had to be moved to its current location. This shift has only brought good to this bazaar as it helped draw more attention from the public and increased its patronage.

It is no wonder that people from various places have been coming regularly to this bazaar for decades. They can buy almost anything they want from the bazaar at throw away prices and people who can draw a good bargain stand to gain handsomely. As one customer says “one can get anything from this bazaar except for one’s father and mother”. Our day long visit to this market made us realize that such high praise for this market stands true and is not a mere exaggeration. There are a variety of items from cloths to cattle; pets to pen-drives; mobile phones to motorcycles; detergents to DVDs; food stuffs to electronic items; table fans to air-coolers and air-conditioners; lamps, laptops, fruits, fresh vegetables, flower pots, furniture, antiques, an array of household appliances and what not. The most interesting thing to note is that most of the goods are second-hand and people get them at throwaway prices and the poor and middle class feel it to be a boon to them.

Most of the people visiting the bazaar are there to buy second hand goods which are not only cheaper but also in working condition. I too have fond memories of having bought a Panasonic cordless phone for just Rs.100 and it lasted for a whole year after changing its battery. Aside from households and members of the general public, this bazaar also draws professional electricians and mechanics from different places who are looking for spare parts for doing repair works. One vendor reports, “We often have customers looking for parts and accessories for their gadgets that they otherwise could not get from elsewhere”. There are also many engineering students who come to the bazaar looking for hardware to feed their curiosity to explore and experiment with them for their projects and coursework. This bazaar is also a treasure trove for those who love antiques; many people visit the bazaar every week in the hope of finding something precious. The bazaar also caters to the poor who come here to buy old flex boards, old doors and tarpaulin sheets to repair their houses. We observed buyers and sellers not only from all over Chennai but from places as far as Villupuram, Pondycherry, Kancheepuram, and Tiruvallur. As a vendor said, “We come from Chitoor district in Andhra Pradesh to get stuff from here and we sell it in our areas for better rates”.

The vendors who put their stalls in this market come from very diverse sectors. Some of them are raddiwallahs, who collect the goods from households throughout the week and bring them to sell in this market on Fridays. People who own old paper marts also spread out their wares here to sell their collections. Mr.Ganesh, a seller of second-hand furniture said that he sourced his goods through online sites like OLX, Quikr, Justdial etc. There are also people belonging to indigenous communities who earn their living by selling their collectibles and items like beads and jewellery operating in the market.

Technically, every week hundreds of kilograms of e-waste, plastics, fibres, metals and other wastes are being brought to this bazaar and sold, things which would otherwise have ended up filling the dumpyards. Thus this contributes immensely to the reuse and recycling of precious resources which is an important factor for reducing our carbon footprint and also a solution in disguise to the problem of waste management. This weekly bazaar is a good example to showcase how the informal sector contributes to sustainable waste management, something that often goes unnoticed. It is also remarkable for the benefits that it offers to the poor in terms of livelihood opportunities while at the same time helping the locals by offering them useful consumer goods at affordable prices. If working models on resource management like these are identified and promoted then it would become easier for cities to manage their waste sustainably. The draft sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations which are slated to succeed the millennium development goals (MDGs) post 2015 envisage that by 2030 countries should substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction and reuse[1]. Community driven working models like the Pallavaram Weekly Bazaar would help immensely to achieve these if replicated elsewhere in its true spirit.

A bird\'s eye view of the busy bazaar roadJostling crowds in the bazaar.First come! First Served! Curious customers waiting to grab their favourites.A customer is checking the working condition of a generator before buying.Curious eyes looking at antiques that are on display.People of indigenous communities selling their collectibles in the bazaar.The bazaar offers livelihood opportunities for the indigenous communitites.These are used tyres that would otherwise have filled the dump yards.Electronic gadgets like mobile phones are sold at throwaway prices.A cupboard being transported to its new homeTVs, LCDs, home theatres, laptops and what not, you get anything in the bazaar.People who can draw a good bargain stand to gain handsomely.Can you believe these are second-hand products that are up for resale?The bazaar is a treasure trove to people looking for old music albums.Rain or shine the bazaar will not disappoint its customers.A lady selling home-made phenyl and detergents.These are products sold in the bazaar that are otherwise not affordable to the poor.

Written by Vijay Senthil Kumar, researcher, Transparent Chennai


[1]Web Reference: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/focussdgs.html

Livelihoods around a Waste Transfer Station

Earlier this month as part of our work to map the waste picker settlements, Vijay, Aruna and I visited a Corporation-run garbage transfer station located in north Chennai. A garbage transfer station is a place where garbage trucks empty their loads before they are carted to one of two dump yards in the city. This is one of the eight transfer stations functioning in Chennai and also one among the few that allow waste pickers inside its premises. On our visit we were quite surprised to learn that unlike other transfer stations, a vast area around this particular transfer station has a large section of people dependent on waste picking and waste reprocessing for their livelihoods. The entire stretch of the road that leads to the transfer station is dotted with several waste paper marts and a few household establishments that make use of discarded materials to stitch cushions, mattresses, and pillows. There is a hutment located just opposite to the transfer station where one could see several women and sometimes even children segregating recyclables (mostly metals) from the waste accumulated at the station.

Women collecting wastes at the transfer station

The area next to the transfer station and opposite the hutment was once an open dump yard. The dump yard was a source of livelihood for several waste pickers in that area and also for those coming from other parts of the city. Subsequent to the opening of the transfer station a decade ago, the dump yard was closed and an herbal garden (now covered with thick, wild vegetation) was planted. With the closure of the dump yard, the incomes and livelihoods of the waste pickers, and the small recycling industry that had developed around it were also affected. Waste pickers from other parts of the city stopped coming here and those that were from the nearby settlements were faced with the hard choice of looking for other occupations or to go out further to areas like Kodungaiyur dump yard to find waste.

But the people here decided otherwise. Unlike elsewhere, the waste pickers here protested the closure of the dump yard and they tried to barge inside the station premises. According to an official from the transfer station, there was even a scuffle between the locals and the officials. To defuse the situation, the local Corporation officials then allowed the locals to pick wastes inside the transfer station, though the officials are careful to mention that this is not done ‘officially’. Thus, the access to waste is a hard won fight for the waste pickers here who were often at the receiving end of the ire of authorities who disregarded the fact that the dump yard is a source of livelihood for many.

So as to know more about the waste pickers and their work we went inside the transfer station, which was guarded by the Corporation timekeeper. A timekeeper is appointed to keep track of the trucks entering the transfer station and the amount of waste being loaded and unloaded in the station. He was very cordial and also allowed us to interact with the waste pickers inside. The timekeeper also said that they do not monitor the activities of the waste pickers there and they work there at their own risk. He emphasised that as per the rules trespassing is prohibited, but the locals are permitted inside only to avoid any hostility with them. He also said that there had been a plan to rehabilitate them in the plastic shredding unit started in the premises. They even went ahead with the plan and enumerated the waste pickers and also got their consent to the plan. But eventually the shredding machine stopped working and so did the plan. We then spoke to some of the waste pickers who said that they still work there because they had no other option, and they had been engaged in waste picking since their childhood. With little education and no skill set beyond waste picking,they felt that it would be very hard for them to get into other occupations.They also liked the flexibility their work gave them: they said that they pick wastes from 7.00 am to 6.00 pm (with flexible break times) in the evening and sell their collection in the scrap shops nearby, and they felt such flexibility would not be there if they went out for work.Waste pickers also said that they make a daily income of about Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 depending on the quality of the recyclables they collect. Though their daily income out of waste collection seems to be high, the risks they undergo and the occupational hazards they are prone to, overshadows that advantage.

Woman segregating waste

According to people outside of the station that we interacted with, there are approximately 80 households around the transfer station that predominantly depend on waste picking and waste recycling for a living. Out of this only 30 people (26 women and 4 men) pick waste inside the transfer station. Some of the others go to places like Integral Coach Factory (ICF) colony, Kodungaiyur and Parrys to pick waste, and the remaining buy bulk wastes from places like Pudupet and engage in segregation and sale of recyclables (metal parts) as a household activity. The high number of waste paper marts near the transfer station is also an indicator of the once thriving waste related business activities in the area. Interaction with one such scrap shop owner revealed that a decade ago, there were about 500 people who come from other areas of the city to collect waste there, but the number has reduced drastically owing to the closure of the dump yard.

The trip to the waste transfer station and the interactions we had with the waste pickers helped us see and understand how informal waste picking and recycling sustain the livelihoods of a large number of people (not just the waste pickers but also the significant number of others involved in waste processing and recycling). The waste pickers’ consent to take up alternative works in the proposed plastic shredding unit highlighted the willingness of the people to take up other occupation provided it gave them a sustained income. The government action of closing the dump yard with scant regard for the people (waste pickers and many others) dependent on thisworkfor their living and their subsequent protest which forced the corporation authorities to open the transfer station for picking wastes calls for some introspection: perhaps it is time for a change in the government’s attitude and policies towards the informal waste pickers? An all-inclusive policy of solid waste management that accommodates the needs of the informal waste pickers is the need of the hour.

Written by Pradeepan Ravi, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Piloting the Sample Survey: Process and Lessons

In a previous post, Avni had detailed the sample survey on waste Transparent Chennai conducted in Ward 173. We piloted the survey to eliminate any redundancies and ensure integrity of the survey. After the mapping exercise we divided the ward into blocks of 250-300 households. The survey was conducted in fifteen blocks while the pilot was conducted in one of the fifteen blocks across 50 households and 4 shops that were shortlisted through systematised random sampling. The chosen block covered part of a low-income locality, Govindasamy Nagar, and part of a high income one, Krishnapuri.

Researchers and volunteers approached the households over two days to request participation in the pilot. The participation of the residents involved segregation of garbage generated in their household into organic, inorganic and sanitary waste before handing it to the team engaged to collect them. The sampling method allowed for a 20 percent rate of refusal, which meant that we could afford no more than one-fifth of the houses we approached refuse to participate in the pilot. Prior interaction in the ward showed us that residents in low-income areas were more willing to cooperate in such efforts. As a result, there was a degree of anxiety about the response we would receive from the residents of Krishnapuri.

With this in mind, the team decided to engage residents and discuss the pilot with them as a precursor to the recruitment process. We met with office bearers of the Resident Welfare Association in Krishnapuri and informed them about the nature and purpose of the pilot. They were very receptive and promised to solicit the cooperation of residents.

In Govindasamy Nagar, the outreach team had previously met with Maheshwari as part of workshops held in the ward. Maheshwari is a popular member of the community, actively involved in various causes and known to speak for the welfare of the residents. She played a vital role in spreading the word about the impending survey and in the recruitment process. A challenge faced in this regard was to explain the process of random sampling to volunteers from the community. The general tendency of the volunteers to veer from the process to select households they felt would adhere to segregation or were appropriate candidates or their friends, had to be kept in check.

The process we followed for recruitment was simple. Once we reached a selected household, we briefed them on the work done so far and the purpose of the pilot. We obtained their consent for participation and provided documents that would help them better understand the process. We also provided them with four bins – two for inorganic waste, one for organic waste and one for sanitary waste and the requisite number of garbage bags. Since segregation was paramount to obtain the necessary data, its importance was stressed repeatedly. Lastly, we administered a short survey to gather details about the number of residents in each household, number of rooms, current method of waste disposal and questions to determine their socio-economic category. The dustbins were handed out two days prior to the first day of collection and participants were asked to ensure that only one day’s waste was deposited by the residents during the time of collection on each of the three days.

In the recruitment stage, our fears proved to be well-founded. We faced more resistance in high-income areas than in the low-income one. We were close to crossing our upper limit of allowable rejections in Krishnapuri, resulting in some tense moments. We had one household that returned the bins and refused to participate on the first day of collection, and one that only gave us garden waste for three days. But most of the others were very cooperative and appreciative of our efforts. In Govindasamy Nagar, the situation was polar opposite of that in Krishnapuri: there was interest in the survey from all quarters, and residents wanted to understand the method of selection of households and why they were not part of the survey. We collected the contact details of those who were interested but were not part of the survey, in order to approach them during further engagements in the ward.

We began the collection stage of the pilot on October 27th. For three days we collected waste from the doorsteps of the residents between 7 A.M. and 9 A.M. with the assistance of conservancy workers. The bags were labelled with a code assigned to each household and with the category of waste, and then transported to the area designated by the Corporation of Chennai for analysis. We weighed each bag individually and recorded the results. The sanitary and organic waste was disposed into the Corporation dustbins and the inorganic waste was further segregated. With the help of two informal waste workers, the recyclable materials were extricated from the inorganic waste, and the weight of recyclables and the residuals from each household was recorded. The residuals were deposited in Corporation dustbins while the recyclables were given to the waste workers.

In Govindasamy Nagar, the issues encountered during the survey included locating households, too little space for the dustbins provided and more than one household making use of the bins provided contrary to instructions. A sample household and sample shop were found to be locked through the period of the survey, so no waste was obtained from them. In Krishnapuri, the households that agreed to participate, segregated waste more effectively.

Compliance with segregation was found to increase with each day of the survey as instructions for segregation were reiterated to each household. Sanitary waste was obtained only from a few households over the course of the survey. Possible reasons could be the stigma attached to the nature of waste that included condoms and sanitary napkins. Feedback from the residents and volunteers prompted the redesigning of survey instruments to be more visually appealing. The number of dustbins provided to the slums was reduced to three owing to the lack of space in the households. The pilot gave us an idea of the scale of the logistics that would be required to carry out the larger sample survey. The lessons from the pilot certainly aided in better planning and efficient organising of the sample survey.

The Corporation of Chennai, especially the officials and staff at the ward office, were very supportive throughout the process, providing us with space for conducting the analysis, electric connections for the weighing machines, and space for storing the rented weighing machines overnight. Their assistance continued during the final nine day survey and was invaluable to its successful completion.

Written by Aruna Natarajan, researcher, Transparent Chennai.

Towards the organisation of informal waste workers in Chennai

On the morning of August 14th, 2013, 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., in a small marriage hall near the Thiruvanmiyur temple tank under a large banner that read “Chennai Corporation waste pickers meeting for demands/entitlements,” the first official meeting of informal waste workers from across South Chennai was organised by the Chennai Metro Construction and Unorganised Workers Union.

The meeting was attended by about 200 waste pickers belonging mostly to the Narikuruva, Irular, and Dalit communities from Thiruvanmiyur, Besant Nagar, Kotturpuram, Saidapet, Thoraipakkam, Semmencheri, and Perungudi. It was an uncharacteristically rainy morning, and while we waited for attendees to trickle in, a mollam (traditional drum) player and two folk singers kept the assembly entertained.

The proceedings began with the welcoming and garlanding of the guests at the dais – Comrade S.S. Thiagarajan, the All India Vice President of AITUC, R. Leelavathy from Pennurimai Iyyakkam, and Saidai Anbudasan, the President of the Ambedkar Association.

Leelavathy, fondly called akka (elder sister), was first requested to address the gathering. She spoke of the services that waste pickers provide for the Corporation, by cleaning the city and reducing waste sent to the landfills. Instead of being acknowledged for their contributions, she said that they face regular police harassment. She said that the city of Pune, where households segregated waste at home and where waste pickers were integrated into the formal waste management system of the city, should be a model for Chennai.

Leelavathy also mentioned a survey done of waste-pickers at Kodungaiyur by the Community Environmental Monitoring group, along with other local organisations, a few years ago in 2007 that led to recommendations being made to the Corporation of Chennai for recognition of the contribution of waste pickers. Although the Corporation said it would take action, no action has been taken since. She ended her address by saying that waste pickers should come together in a union so they will have strength in numbers while seeking better living and working conditions.

Kudisai Perumal, Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Gudisai Vaazhvor Sangam and Project Coordinator for National Alliance of Women, then spoke briefly, and said, “No one has done anything for us, it is about time we did something ourselves!”

Members of different communities and settlements of waste pickers then addressed the gathering, sharing the problems they faced and articulating their needs. For example, Godavari of the Narikurava community at Kotturpuram, argued that waste-picking should be recognised by the Corporation, because their work actually helps the city. “We’re not criminals,” he said, “we’re only trying to help through our work.” Instead, waste pickers face regular police harassment and taunting. He also said that waste-pickers were often taken advantage of by private waste collection companies. In the past, some waste pickers had been offered jobs at Rs. 4,000 a month, and only received Rs. 2,000. Godavari concluded by saying that waste-pickers’ immediate needs were for ID cards, health insurance, and housing.

Godavari speaking on behalf of the Narikuruva community at Kotturpuram

Another waste-picker, Vijaya from Saidapet also spoke. She works at the Perungudi dumpsite, and said that the dumpsite was like her home. She said that the police would frequently accuse waste pickers of theft, take away the men, beat them up, and put them in jail for weeks at a time. Only the Thooimai Thozilalar Sangam (Waste Pickers Association, which is part of the larger Ambedkar Association) would intervene to prevent arrests.

Based on the experiences shared by attendees, the waste pickers assembled that day adopted the following resolutions:

  1. Issue of ID cards to all Waste Pickers by the Chennai Corporation as recognition of their work and to end police harassment.
  2. Enrolment under the Chief Minister’s Health Insurance Scheme.
  3. Enrolment under the Tamil Nadu Manual Workers’ Welfare Board.
  4. Night shelters for homeless waste pickers along with provision for community kitchens.
  5. More Amma canteens to benefit waste pickers.
  6. More TNSCB tenements within the city with priority of allocation to waste pickers.
  7. Ration cards and Voter ID cards to homeless waste pickers.
  8. Old age pension for all waste pickers above the age of 60 years.
  9. Annual or bi-annual health check-ups for waste pickers and their families at Corporation Dispensaries.

After the resolutions were adopted, Saidai Anbudasan, the president of the Ambedkar Association, spoke about the negative attitude of the government towards waste workers. Four years ago, he had been invited to a meeting that he thought was about the welfare of waste-pickers. It turned out that the government wanted him to warn waste pickers affiliated to his organization.

Finally, the meeting ended with an address by Com. S. S. Thiagarajan, who spoke poetically about the conditions of waste pickers. He argued that policemen do not harass private bus drivers because of their strong union, and waste pickers should similarly unionize to fight effectively against harassment. He guaranteed the support of AITUC for waste workers in their struggle.