Change is a slow process and to implement it in cities on a large scale requires active citizen engagement and participation. Through a mix of traditional and non-traditional means, Alby John Varghese IAS, Regional Deputy Commissioner (South) has attempted to make inroads into the areas of waste management, rainwater harvesting and restoration of water bodies. In this exclusive interview, Alby John takes us through the various initiatives and challenges faced in implementing them.
How is the zero waste initiative picking up in the South region of Chennai?
If we look at the South as a region, there are five zones, covering the areas of Adayar, Alandur, Valasaravakkam, Pallikaranai and Sholinganallur. The total population here is 17,15,799, Zone 13 being the most populous with a population of 5.6 lakh. Seven months ago, this South region used to send 1500 Metric Tonnes (MT) of garbage each day to the landfills. The number has reduced to 1250 MT a day today.
We have 27 Micro Composting Centres (MCC) with a combined capacity of 170 MT to compost the waste. We have proposed for 14 more centres with 86 MT capacity. Also, we have activated Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) across the region, where we are processing the recyclable waste. But we have a long way to go and there are a number of challenges ahead of us. But we are definitely on the right track and are certain of reaching our goal.
What is your opinion about the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) in the south? Are they willing to embrace change when it comes to waste management?
RWAs play a major role in sensitising all stakeholders — housewives, domestic help and in some cases, even the conservancy workers. The South region has a pro-active RWA network; their suggestions and interventional measures have been instrumental in every activity that we undertake. They also bridge the gap between the bureaucracy and people.
Many RWAs have successfully ensured hundred per cent segregation in the apartments and residential colonies. In fact, there were many complaints on the quality of the conservancy under a private operator in Zone 13 of South Region and we were able to bring about a lot of improvement with the help of the vibrant RWAs of Adyar region. Similarly, when we took up plogging in and around Porur lake, the RWAs of Zone 11 gave us a steady helping hand. Similarly, we are engaging with RWAs of all the zones on a daily basis to make zero waste Chennai a reality.
Small kabadiwalas don’t take low waste plastics and the recyclers do not pick them up unless it is of a large quantity. Where does an average household drop its recyclables?
There are separate bins in the tricycles for the recyclables, and sanitary workers are instructed to collect them accordingly. In addition to it, we are trying to bring about a system where citizens can drop off their recyclables in the concerned MRF. As far as e-waste is concerned, we already had a collection drive last month, and we are planning on similar drives on a regular basis.
When will three-way segregation be mandated in Chennai, like we see in Bengaluru?
I agree that a lot of our focus is currently on wet and dry waste. However, we have already started three-way segregation — dry, wet and hazardous waste — in many parts of the city, with conservancy workers going to the streets with three bins. It should be streamlined in no time.
Tell us about the funds allocated for the flood mitigation project for the south region?
A total of Rs 8.9 crore was allocated to focus on flood prevention measures, which primarily constitutes rainwater harvesting in streets and residences, unclogging the canals and stormwater drains and desilting water bodies. The south region of Chennai has prominent canals such as Veerangal Odai and Buckingham Canal. The Public Works Department (PWD), the custodian of these canals, has started desilting them. These canals, along with Pallikaranai marshland, play an important role in draining the excess rainwater into the Bay of Bengal. With regard to the street drains, work has started in all the divisions and we expect to complete it by the third week of October.
Chennai Corporation was keen on developing rainwater harvesting structures in the residences. Where does the project stand in the south?
The plan has three components: reviving the community wells, restoration of water bodies and setting up of 1000 RWH structures in each ward. We have inspected 60,000 large properties in the region for RWH structures and ensured that 53,000 of them have active and efficient RWH structures. Notices were issued to 5,300 houses without the RWH structures to erect such structures within two weeks. We are following up on it.
Out of the 111 water bodies, 61 of them have been taken up for restoration. Work is happening at a fast pace. Desilting of water bodies and bund creation has been completed in most of the ponds. We need to convert them into public spaces with walkways and greenery to ensure that the surrounding neighbourhoods have a sense of ownership of these water bodies. That part of the project is under progress and I expect it to be completed in around six months.
You managed to create awareness about plogging. How is the initiative progressing?
We are taking it up on regular basis. We had a plogging event in Besant Nagar Beach near Ashtalakshmi temple in the first week of October. We plan it to do on a biweekly basis. The idea behind plogging is not a one-time clean up of the place, but generating awareness against littering in the community. It also creates a sense of ownership of public property, which would help preserve our shared community spaces.
What are the three things you want to achieve in the South as an RDC?
Oh, there are so many things. With the Commissioner’s instructions, we are working on reducing the volumes of garbage that reach the landfill by around half. We are also working on ensuring restoration of all water bodies in the region. More vibrant urban public spaces — both through infrastructure addition as well as civic engagement — would be another priority.
Chennai Corporation is divided into 3 regions with a regional joint/ deputy commissioner in each region. All the regions are divided into 5 zones each. In addition, there are 4 deputy commissioners in the Head Quarters who look after Works, Revenue and Finance, Health and Sanitation, and Education. The regional DC’s administer the day to day functioning of the Corporation through zones while the various departments of GCC are under the supervision of the DC’s in Head Quarters.