For a long time, the residents of Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing community, north of Elliots Beach, have been suffering filth, stench and mosquitoes due to poor garbage disposal. They also wondered how the rest of upscale Besant Nagar seemed far better maintained. The residents pinned their complaints on the sanitation workers employed by Ramky Enviro Engineers, the private agency contracted to collect solid waste in four zones of Chennai Corporation, including Adyar. Frequent squabbles ensued between the residents and the sanitation workers.
The sanitation workers found the demands of the residents untenable. One sweeper was being forced to cover roads unassigned to her, and the residents were also demanding that she collect the household waste. Equipped with only a small bin to collect waste on the road, this was forcing her to make multiple trips to a dumpster, immensely increasing her work load. She was getting tired of explaining her position to the residents. Another sweeper, frustrated with this situation, became irregular with work only adding to the woes.
Even after repeated complaints by the residents to the supervisor and other officials at Ramky, the issue remained unresolved. Saravanan, a local panchayat leader, with the help of Garbage Watch, an initiate of Vettiver collective, conducted a survey of their area and the rest of the neighbourhood. Comparing their field data with the Micro Plan submitted by Ramky, they realized that Ramky had under-reported the number of households and length of road to be covered in Urur Kuppam. Ramky also understaffed this area, failing to meet the norms set by the Corporation of Chennai.
Urur Kuppam has 980 households with about 5000 residents whereas the Micro Plan has estimated the population at 3000. The internal roads here add upto 3 kms but the plan only covers 1.6 kms. In stark contrast, over 95% of the remaining residential and commercial areas of ward 176 are covered by the Micro Plan. While the norms require that a minimum of 3-4 door to door collectors and three sweepers be appointed to clean the area and efficiently collect solid waste, there are only 2 sweepers and 1 collector. This number has been corroborated by the supervisor.
The report of the survey titled ‘Discrimination by Design’ was released by the leaders of the fishing panchayats of Urur, Olcott and Thiruvallur nagar. Pradeep, the principal investigator with Garbage Watch highlighted that 6 out of the 9 major garbage dumps lie within the settlement. “The workers are being overburdened because of such under-staffing, this creates conflicts with the community which only results in further fall in service.” he said.
The workers, speaking anonymously with us, also highlighted the lack of necessary staff and felt that at least 2 more male collectors need to be assigned to the area. While the supervisor denied any systemic bias and maintained that it was only a temporary problem, it was clear that in order to cut corners, Ramky had under-reported and under-staffed the low-income area, while ensuring that the upscale neighbourhood remains serviced efficiently. This not only resulted in unhygienic conditions in the neighbourhood, but also increased the physical and emotional stress of the workers who had to carry the burden of such management. As a result of the survey and action by the residents, the company has taken immediate steps to clean the area, but a sustainable resolution will be possible only if adequate numbers of workers are assigned.