Talking Trash--in Chennai

Understanding waste in one of India's largest cities.

"Clean Chennai" Campaign Launched


The Hindu, among India’s most prominent news outlets, recently launched an auxiliary to its “My Chennai, My Right” campaign: Clean Chennai. G. Annanthakrishnan, in a crisp yet informative article, outlines the impetuses for the new initiative, and the importunes the necessity for avid public participation in order to maximise the potential benefits of the initiative.

Especially after the reported garbage production per day hit 5,000 tonnes earlier last month, there has been a renewed push to better address waste in the city. The Corporation, meanwhile, has been trying its hand at its own kind of scheme—offering gold for people who segregate their trash. In one municipality, Maraimalai Nagar, the effort has been specifically focused on the reclamation of the thin plastic bags (below 40 microns) which have been especially detrimental in choking sewerage drains and which cannot be recycled or incinerated (and which were banned already by the Corporation, as delineated in the Municipal Solid Waste Handling and Management Rules of 2011). There, they get a gram of gold for every 125 kilograms (.001 ton) of plastic collected.

Yet what’s being left out of the explanations of this effort is how the livelihoods of informal waste workers would be affected. Can they still qualify to get the gold, even if they are not a resident but are segregating? Possibly in the Maramalai Nagar example, but in other zones, the idea is for conservancy workers to go door-to-door and give a token for those people that have segregated the waste; then, a winner will be selected to receive gold. Although the purpose does seem to be more about incentivising general citizens to segregate, the question remains as to what he unintended consequences of such schemes would be (like taking away livelihoods from waste workers).

The Clean Chennai campaign is promising, given it can garner enough public support and attention, and is a crucial step in making the process of waste management a more participatory one.

If you’re interested in participating in an online discussion forum organised by The Hindu about garbage in Chennai, visit:

ExNoRa: Ideas and Action


M.B. Nirmal, long slated as being the first man to pioneer and institutionalise waste management efforts in Chennai, is still going strong after more than two decades of devoting himself to environmental and social causes in Chennai and other Indian cities through his organisation, Exnora.

He’s a man of mottoes, and word puns. His business card, for example is a prolix, multi-sided conglomerate of various slogans. The one he received an award for is “waste is not wasted until it is wasted,” which to me rang a bit tautological, but is undoubtedly memorable, which he contends is one of the primary goals of any social movement: make people think about what you say—forever. 

When I inquired about the pecuniary status of the organisation, he gave a mirthless chuckle, explaining that there is no financial health to be spoken of because he has been bankrolling the organisation for many years, costing him upward of Rs 80,000  to maintain. Later, at a general Exnora meeting in the RKV Film Studios, where Mr. Nirmal was giving a presentation, averred, “I don’t want to make any money out of Exnora because I am the founder.”

And while most of my middle class informants talk about Exnora as being an—important, nonetheless—organisation of yesteryear that has lost its luster, Nirmal and his right-hand man, an energetic recent college grad named King, are quite self-assured that Exnora continues to be the leader in waste and other issues—from women’s rights to mosquito prevention. Exnora’s seniority keeps it on the radar as an expert organisation, especially as it is a central node for many projects that have sprung up around the city having adapted its models (such as the municipality-wide effort to make waste management in Pammal more sustainable).

Like Mr. Indra Kumar and his zero waste home in Pammal, Mr. Nirmal keeps his house as a model. With over 2,000 plants, it is, as he refers to it, mimicking a jungle. “I don’t even want to leave sometimes,” he chuckled. He continues to experiment with different models, with a keen focus on user-friendly composting mechanisms. The most recent is the creation of four different white boxes each with a different colour lid, sitting in square in his plant-ensconced living room. They look like innocuous pieces of furniture when in reality they behold anaerobic compost, dry waste, hazardous waste, and vegetable waste (which becomes compost). When I enquired how he kept the compost from developing an odour, he answered, matter-of-factly, just add this pith (dry remains from coconut skin, for instance).Further, the waste does not typically consist of post-consumer food waste, only vegetable peels and scraps, because very little food is waste in the home.

Mr. Nirmal’s gated community has 300 flats, of which a small fraction are now participating in source segregation and providing vegetable waste for what they call the “City Garden,” which borders one of the open parking lots, but, according to King, it’s Mr. Nirmal’s house that is producing a majority of the compost.

It’s clear that Mr. Nirmal has established his identity—from the flat-level to international-level—as a man of ideas, of solutions. At the aforementioned meeting, which happens weekly and occasionally bimonthly, he averred to the crowd of about 50 Exnora members that it’s imperative that, when they’re delivering speeches to the public, they fixate not on the problem but the solutions.

The meeting consisted mostly of people hailing from middle or upper middle class strata, with exceptions. Of the fifty odd people in the room, only three were women, myself included, an observation which runs counter to the general trope that women are predominantly involved in the waste management milieu and activist issues. Each rose at the start of the meeting to share their “success story” with Exnora, by way of an introduction, but as the meeting proceeded, it became clear that the meeting also served as a space to air grievances. One elderly man, stood up and proclaimed—to scattered ovation—that in order for any change to take place, the “old Exnora” must be resurrected. Specifically, he means going back to the origins of the organisation which was founded on the principles of waste collection, hygiene, and cleanliness. While this proposal was countered vehemently by a loquacious woman who has been working on—most recently—cleaning up the Cooum River, Mr. Nirmal seemed to address it as a possibility for the future, despite her point that efforts would be rendered moot by the Corporation which chooses to contract out its waste collection to private companies (albeit only in three zones).

Mr. Nirmal thrives on the people. He believes that the people, “the social capital,” will be the wheels that drive success of any and all social movements. While he maintains that Exnora is called upon by the Corporation and that they routinely provide expert guidance on a spate of issues, he personally finds it futile to fight with the Corporation and keeps out of fractious politics as much as possible. Change lies in the hands of people alone, a philosophy he intimates as being Gandhian in nature.

The Exnora community provides a window into the pockets of action manifesting throughout Chennai—from the rural to hyperurban areas—with Mr. Nirmal as an ongoing powerhouse, whose energy continues to inspire people to not just move, but to question, to challenge, and to change.


The Plurality of Urban Space


About 20 km south of central Chennai is Sholinganallur, an area most renowned for its elaborate temple. It earned the sobriquet of Tsunami Nagar as it became a place for victims of the 2004 Tsunami to be resettled in predominantly billowing apartment buildings.

I visited Sholinganallur with three local activists, Srinivasan of Save the Pallikarnai Marshland Forum and Darmesh Shah of GAIA, and (also) Mr. Srinivasan an individual that has been dedicated to labour rights—predominantly in terms of construction workers—for the past 10 years.

We took a few buses and share autos to get to the rather secluded area, which has recently been claimed into the Corporation municipality. The whole area is marshland, according to Shah and Srinivasan. As we rode further into Sholinganallur, a warm, silty breeze brushed our faces. The luscious green patches of grass amidst the sun-kissed water are disappearing beneath the cement towers. “It’s all getting encroached,” sighed Shah. Indeed, one area which Srinivasan pointed out used to be a dump yard until it was cleared and restored, only now it’s fenced off for ostensibly more construction.  Slowly and surely, these treasured ecological havens are disappearing beneath the inexorable gaze of development.

Despite the fact that Sholinganallur is within the Corporation municipality now, they are still dealing with a different waste management system. In 2011, the Corporation began outsourcing their waste management to a private company to deal with biodegradable waste. JP Enterprises has been handling the composting for the past year, before which another company was in charge of constructing and handling the segregation process as well as the composting shed.

According to one of the operators of the shed, they get segregated waste from five wards—about 5,000 people—each day. When we expressed doubts that such collection is happening, the worker explained that the actual generation of waste is not much. These people are mostly not wealthy. Hence, there’s limited post-consumer food waste.


Plastics and other recyclables are also minimal, but they do have some recyclables segregation happening. A heap of mostly thin plastic bags and a few sacks of glass liquor bottles are sequestered off in a room adjunct to the composting area. Again, we were surprised that for 3 months there was hardly half of the room filled. Only the low quality plastic comes here because anything of value is sold by the residents themselves. The composting process takes form in four phases: First, the waste is laid out in the cement bin and treated with diluted cow manure. Second, the treated waste is shifted to another cement bin where it continues to breakdown. Third, earthworms are applied to the waste in the last cement bin to officialise the composting. Finally, the compost gets sifted to get rid of any remnant inorganic matter leaving a fine, sandy material that is being sold according to demand at Rs 10 per kilo (US$0.2).

As written about in an earlier article about composting happening in the Pammal municipality, there are such small-scale efforts happening throughout Chennai, mainly in these outer fringes. An NGO, Hand in Hand also recently launched, in June, a project in the Kancheepuram district to construct a solid waste management system consisting of composting and recycling.

Contrary to the technocratic discourse that seems to be common among my middle class informants, Shah of GAIA as well as Mr. Srinivasan maintain that these decentralized models are more appropriate for a city like Chennai. This is not to say that governmental orders are unnecessary, but that they can take place in a more localized format as opposed to the centralized approach the government has been fond of since the 1980s intervention of the World Bank in not necessarily waste management but general development.

While the trope of “thinking globally, acting locally” has come to even be both well-accepted to the point of becoming somewhat trite, the urban space brings forth a more nuanced discussion of this concept. There are multiple localities within the local itself, which complicates and problematises the traditional western model of development which calls for a one size fits all package deal to “fix” an entire city.

The multiplicity of urban space thus merits a far more careful deliberation into how best to address city-wide problems like waste. While they may be shared problems by each of the urban modalities, they exist in different forms and degrees, complicated by constantly shifting ecological, social, and political dynamics.

The Rural/Urban Divide and Caste Politics


About 30 kilometres (18 miles) outside of the Chennai city is Kuthambakkam, a peri-urban area slated as a model village, thanks in large part to the arduous campaigning of one particular activist, Mr. Rangaswamy Elango, and former President of the town panchayat.

Town panchayats are—in theory—autonomous local bodies located in rural or peri-urban areas of Chennai, that should, like the municipalities (including Pammal, discussed for its sustainable waste management initiatives in an earlier post) exist beyond the realm of the Corporation of Chennai (the government arm handling municipal services) or government. However, as Mr. Elango would describe to me, the level of autonomy depends on the leadership; he considers himself to be one of the few, if not only, leaders that has been fully transparent and unwilling to participate in bribery schemes that ensnare politicians, whether in the panchayat, municipality, or Corporation level.

The village itself is a few kilometers from the “downtown” area, which has a hodgepodge of commercial centres—from the typical small but fully-stocked roadside convenience stores to a lopsided KFC and a Café Coffee Day (India’s Starbucks).

Mr. Elango is most renowned for his Gandhian philosophies and attempts to make Kuthambakkam village panchayat into a model for other Indian villages to be self-reliant and resilient. He has been an active voice in bringing to bear inter-caste tensions, establishing, for instance, “equality housing” areas where a “backward” and “forward” caste must share a building. Through his political activity and persistent litigation, he has also contributed to solid waste management issues in the town panchayat. Among his most renowned efforts is helping to successfully put a stay on a proposed plan to construct a dump yard in Kuthambakkam, where some of the Corporation of Chennai zones’ waste would go. This proposal came in conjunction with large-scale rezoning of Chennai to include 5 more zones within its jurisdiction.

While a local activist and writer averred to me earlier this month that the proposal was particularly problematic because Kuthambakkam is predominantly a Dalit (lowest caste) village, Mr. Elango—of Dalit background himself—was hesitant to frame it in this way. “It’s not necessarily because it’s Dalit, but because there is land available here.” According to Mr. Elango, the major opposition to the proposal came not out of some notion of not wanting “their” waste “here,” but that the project itself was not environmentally or socially feasible.

“They were proposing to create it upstream on a major reservoir, the Chembarambakkam Lake" that not only serves as water source for the village but several areas of the Corporation. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. Meanwhile, the engineers proposing the project were promising that there would be no issues, and didn’t take the panchayat folks seriously, claiming that their project was “technically sound.” “What right does the Chennai Corporation have to dump in a local body?” he asked me. After all, the town panchayats are supposed to exist outside the grips of the Corporation.

In Mr. Elango’s descriptions of the village’s waste management, it’s obvious that he sees a rather clear distinction between the habits of the city and village folk. Still, although he characterises Kuthambakkam as being peri-urban, he tends to see the breakdown as a binary system, with peri-urban belonging in the village ambit.

“If it’s a real village, there is no concept of solid waste management,” he mused.  “The whole culture doesn’t allow them to waste.” This is due mainly to the overall impecuniousness of the population, which coincides with the availability—or lack there of—of non-biodegradable products. Food scraps are thrown into a pit behind the hut or house. Farmers with cows will have manure which they either sell off or use in their fields. But his major point was that food does not go to waste in such poor households; only that which can be consumed is prepared each day, leaving very little for the dustbin. When he was growing up, there would even be people who would collect residual animal bones from which phosphorous was extracted.

But such a culture doesn’t exist anymore, especially in the city, he said. Instead, people “recklessly generate solid waste” unable to understand the ramifications.


“The caste system, this system of life that splits the people and creates the importance of community around caste. The pity of the caste system is that it is the only system in the world that says that someone ‘dirty’ should be ‘dirty.’” While most of my middle class informants have shied away from discussing caste, and instead point to class as being more of a social indicator in Chennai nowadays, Elango is insistent that “development and economics are masking the social, caste system.” Urbanization is just a process; caste is a system, a way of life so deeply entrenched that it has become taken for granted. This caste system entrenchment has in turn translated into not only a lack of empathy, but a sense that certain people belong or deserve certain tasks, such as clearing garbage, or waste picking. Elango’s words reminded me of a Ramky Group (a private company in charge of waste disposal for a few Chennai zones) street sweeper in Mylapore with whom I spoke in April, who echoed this idea that people don’t stop to think that someone is coming behind them to clean up the garbage they throw on the streets.

Whether rural, urban, or peri-urban, caste politics persist and are evermore present in how trash is dealt with in Chennai. The people handling the waste whether the formal Corporation employees or the informal waste workersare almost certainly of “backward” castes. And while it may be convenient to push aside caste and contend that we’re now dealing with solely class issues, the realities of the system precipitate in such quotidian narratives of struggle and symbolic violence.

450 Acres of Trash: Kodungaiyur Dump


Tucked away in North Madras behind a formidable cement wall is Chennai’s second official refuse dump, located in the suburb of Kodungaiyur.

While waiting for an engineer to arrive to whom I could speak, I surveyed the dump. At 450 acres, it’s the size of 150 baseball fields put together. Cranes were lethargically shifting garbage from the road to hill. Open lorries hobbled down the road with fresh loads of trash that would be dumped in the distance. Flea-bitten dogs flitted about, pawing through small heaps of trash in pursuit of edibles.

The evidence of the previous night’s heavy rains was immediately apparent, not least because my feet disappeared beneath me for a few seconds as they sank into sludgy mud that clotted the road.

I met the engineer outside the two-story office building where workers were lounging, and a few puppies and their mother were cooling off in the shade. Flies were abound, especially around my mud-doused feet. Perungudi is nothing, he told me as we sipped our chai from stainless steel cups, compared to this dump. I noticed a hint of pride in his voice again, as was the case with the engineer at the Perungudi dump. It takes a lot to manage this waste—about 3,000 tons per day from six zones of Chennai—and if they stop what they do, havoc is wreaked.

As in Perungudi, the roads were created out of existing trash, but there is also a cement road beneath the dump that was recently laid a few months ago. Further, there are fewer residences and shops nearby, or at least they are slightly further from the dump. While not officially a marshland, Kodungaiyur is on a waterway, and is considered a wetland, according to Mr. Srinivasan of Save the Pallikarnai Marshland Forum.

The driver of the car I had hired for the day refused to go up the hill, so Selvaraj, a worker at the dump, and I walked up, where he said photos were prohibited. He took my hand as I teetered on the edges of the hill’s road, explaining how he’s been working here for seven years now. He took this job because the pay was better than his previous work, and he has two children to put through college. As we walked, we saw small fires that had cropped up here and there. “Oh, that’s just smoke,” he assured me. “It goes out by itself.” That’s debatable, according to several local activists I have spoken to who attested to the deliberate burning happening at the dump. But deliberate or accidental, the burning is causing problems for residents, as indicated in this recent article.


 Indeed, it was to enable prompter response to the fires that the government put forth nearly 6 crores (US$1.1 million) to lay down a cement road.

Further up the hill we paused, and he discouraged us from going further. A few hundred meters away we could see informal waste workers mulling through the garbage, and white burlap sacks were bulging with recyclables. According to the engineer, they remove a couple hundred tons of waste out everyday. “It’s good for us, and for them,” he explained.

Waste provides livelihoods for people, whether it’s the informal waste workers or people like Selvaraj who help with the the upkeep of the dump. While immersed in these waste fortresses one can easily get lost in thoughts of pragmatic disdain towards the improper management of waste, of the sheer enormity of its existence, of the brutality of conditions for people to work.

Yet, whether it’s a dump or a landfill or an incineration plant, one need only step onto the site to realise that the 5,000 tons of stuffs going to each dump every day is testament to how this city is one of plenty, of multitude, of wealth. In some ways, the dump gives a wisp of hope, that one day this city of plenty will see that the consumption that is abound by its millions of people cannot possibly be sustained by the suffocating land, air, and waterways its byproducts are cast upon.

There has to be another way.

"Don’t Transfer the Waste, Transform the Waste"


In 1996, Mr. Indra Kumar, a machine operator for a multinational company left his job to “turn his passion into his profession.” He constructed a home in Chennai’s Pammal municipality, a house that would come to be renowned as a model zero-waste home. He was—and continues to be—involved with the NGO Exnora (EXcellent, NOvel, RAdical). To Mr. Indra Kumar, activism begins at home. “If every house is made into a paradise, then the whole country will be paradise,” he mused.

He has since built a second floor to the home to serve as an educational unit, which is frequented by individuals from all over the globe. When I visited him, we were joined by a family from the neighbouring town of Salem looking to implement composting and organic mechanisms in their own agricultural practices. Dressed in dark green shorts and a cotton, button down shirt, he explained the ins and outs of his home before giving us the grand tour.

While the house is no doubt impressive—kitchen and bath water are channeled to gardens, organic waste is vermicomposted, rainwater is harvested and treated to use for drinking, the roof is covered with a multitude of plants including okra, lemongrass, and mint—its replicability in the hyperurban areas of Chennai is still in question. The doubt arises both from the infrastructural and spatial demands, as increasingly apartment buildings are cropping up in lieu of independent homes, as well as well as changing cultural values of consumption (e.g., packaged foods, delivery of meals) that are unique to the more urbanized areas of Chennai.

For instance, Mr. Indra Kumar has constructed his own septic tank to manage human waste, which he treats and then uses for gardening purposes.

But, according to a managing director of the CEEBROS construction company, building septic tanks for apartment buildings is far more complex, not least because it has to be managed meticulously.

The need for labour is a challenge that Mangalam Balasubramanian of Exnora Green Pammal also pointed out—while her organisation’s schemes to collect segregated waste as well as maintaining cleanliness of public spaces is working in Pammal, according to her, these efforts are not being replicated because of it is an extremely labour intensive process.

Further, no soap can be included in the mix (he uses mushed orange and lemon peel to clean his toilet), nor can there be toilet paper, constraints that may not be hard to overcome in more rural areas such as Pammal, but in the increasingly westernized areas of Chennai where toilet paper has become at least an option (in addition to traditional watering hoses or buckets and pails), these are serious logistical and cultural constraints.

Still, the basic philosophies that govern his actions are ones that can be adopted or at least understood, even if not each of his practices can be fully apprehended on a large scale. For him, waste is not only an environmental question, but a moral one. He became particularly somber as he explained that “in our country we’re wasting food like anything.” According to him, one kilo of rice requires 4,000 liters of water to produce. “What happens when it rains in the city?” he asked me. “We go inside, close the doors, and turn on the TV, right? Not the farmer. When it rains, he goes to the field and sometimes never come back. Farmers are sacrificing their lives, so don’t waste.” He’s not far off on this point. Not only are farmers dying due to flooding or lightning while in the fields, but rates of suicide among Indian farmers have been climbing.

As we opened the creaky iron gate to leave the zero waste abode, ensconced by reigning coconut trees, he flashed us a bright smile and exclaimed, as if to sum up the three hours we spent at his house, “don’t transfer your waste, transform your waste!”

Positive Contributor vs. Activist


After I posted Waste Activism in Chennai, I met with Mangalam Balasubramanian of Exnora Green Pammal, located in the Chennai municipality of Pammal, continuing to nuance the idea of waste activism in Chennai. The parent organisation, Exnora (Excellent NOvel RAdical), is an NGO started by M.B. Nirmal and is credited for being the first such organisation to raise awareness and initiate action around waste management in Chennai.

Donning a bright sari, a sparkling necklace,  and a perfectly round bindhi, Mangalam met with me a few days ago in her office. Mangalam immediately dove into the multifarious challenges they have faced in initiating Pammal-wide sustainable waste management programme, and was explicit in distinguishing her organization’s work from that of other NGOs and individuals. To her, waste management has been reduced to segregation, composting, and recycling, and moreover, the focus has been too individualized. “That’s what I’ve been voicing in my forums,” she said. “The issue is really very complex. It’s not, as they’re saying, just keep one basket for dry waste, one for kitchen waste.”

But in expanding upon the complexities, upon my query, her narrative was mostly around the challenges with collection itself, not the actual management. As Mangalam herself averred, the entire organisation began with a “group of ladies committed to maintaining cleanliness and hygiene.” This is the familiar trope of waste-related environmental initiatives that scholars have noted, including Kaviraj (1997) in Calcutta and Baviskar (2003) in Delhi, in that the maintenance of clean, green public spaces leads to the marginalisation of the poor as they are the ones that tend to reside in these areas and are slated as being culturally unhygienic (e.g., public defecation, although the reason for this—the lack of public restrooms—is often left out).

Exnora Green Pammal is responsible for all solid waste—from residential waste to construction debris to animal cadavers. Therein lies the complexity, the diversity of the type of waste being generated on a town-wide level which their “Green Ambassadors” are responsible for clearing and disposing of in as conscious of a way as possible. Daily, they’re clearing 35 metric tons of waste, of which 5 to 7 tons are construction debris, about 10 tons are organic and food waste, and 4 tons plastic. The organic waste is either vermicomposted (the shed is neighboured by the municipality’s dump as pictured above) or converted into biogas, which is used to power lamps on three streets. 


But the issue is also with the level of participation from the residents to segregate, an issue which is again laced with implications of class and caste dynamics. According to Mangalam, only 40% of the people they deal with actually do the segregation, while the remaining 60%, people from lower income areas, fail to do so, and “they say it’s because of a lack of space.” “How can you get to these people?” she asked rhetorically.

Even so, according to Mangalam, their concern is not so much with changing the attitude of the residents. While most of the  individuals I been speaking to—both middle class informants and local activists or NGOs—have been focused on the need for attitude shifts among the mass public, Mangalam and her organisation are more concerned with getting the government on board. Still, she laments, “very little can be done to change the mindset of the government.”

Given that Exnora has prided itself on being an activist organisation, I asked Mangalam if she considered herself an activist. “I am not an activist,” she responded. “I never call myself an activist. Activists are the ones who have a loud voice, and they can influence because of their language or good status. But they hardly have experienced any action. Activists are the ones who make a big issue out of nothing, and they can’t provide solutions. I’m not an activist. I’m a positive contributor.”

Burning Garbage: A Smoke Screen for the Real Problem


Chennai has been buzzing with proposed plans to shut down the two dumps in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi, the latter which has been constructed on the Pallikarnai marsh. The proposed alternative is launching waste-to-energy plants in the rural town panchayat areas of Minjur and Kutthambakkam.

Last week, the Director of Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA) India, Darmesh Shah, laid out in a comprehensive article the hazards posed by the proposed waste-to-energy projects that would supplant the two refuse dumps in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. Waste-to-energy, which ultimately involves incineration, has been the much-touted alternative by the Corporation and allied industries.

In addition to the very real logistical constraints and hazards posed by setting up these plants that Dharmesh outlines in the aforementioned article, including its environmental unfriendliness and high cost, he also pointed out to me during a discussion last week that incineration makes the waste simply go away. While by no means encouraging landfills, he explained that the visibility of the waste acts as a way to sensitize people to the problem, and the proximity to it allows for a sense of consciousness that is not emulated by sophisticated incineration plants. Thus, as a very last resort, after all measures have been taken to properly recycle or compost the waste, a sanitary landfill—as opposed to the refuse dumps currently in place—is ultimately preferred to incineration.

As Dharmesh explained, the plants have arisen as “a response to the political situation” in the two dumps, caused by ongoing complaints against the burning, stench, and contamination of the groundwater. “They have no road map,” he said. “They just want to shift the problem.” The inevitable consequence of encouraging incineration is that there is no disincentive to stop producing waste, since the very food for the plants is waste.

Mr. Srinivasan of the Save Pallikarnai Marshland Forum also maintained, during his consortium’s efforts to put a stay on further expansion of the Perungudi dump, that their proposed solution did not include incineration, and implored that source segregation and composting must be at the heart of the alternative.

The plants’ proposals have been heavily contested by the residents, especially in the Kuthambakkam panchayat (town), which has mobilised to resist previous efforts as well to build dumping yards in the area. Further, as a local activist and writer mentioned to me, the proposals tend to be in areas with high concentrations of Dalit (low caste) individuals, bringing to bear the indelible interconnectedness between the geographies of waste and the socioeconomic/caste profiles of residents.

Waste Activism in Chennai


As John Harris (2005) has pointed out in his extensive study of activism in Chennai, the term bears multifarious meanings, complicated by interactions between middle class and poor activists.

During a discussion yesterday with a long-standing activist against waste dumping in the Pallikarnnai marshland (also known as the Perungudi dump), a trend common in other Indian cities was brought to bear: by and large, the activism taking place around waste issues is being led by middle or upper middle class individuals.

When it comes to environmental justice litigation and policy alteration attempts, there is a level of education required to effect change, as Mr. Srinivasan of Save the Pallikarnai Marshland would point out, but also “litigating is expensive in India” and “the poor cannot even afford to sustain a fight.” “It’s hard for the poor to be involved because they need money, they need time,” he explained.

The judicial process is one that necessitates an ability to speak English, as well as an ability to foot the associated expenses. In the case of a lawsuit Mr. Srinivasan was involved in, the litigators had to put forth the several thousands of rupees, a reality that cannot be accommodated by the poor.

However, there is ostensibly a difference between the type of activism characteristic of the middle classes and of the poor, and those which are led by the poor. Mr. Srinivasan dubs the latter as “radical activism,” that is, actions inspired typically by political and economic justice issues. In this sphere, the urban poor are particularly active. Thus, there appears to be an activism for the middle class that presupposes an ability to read and make sense of legal, political, and scientific studies (in this case, Environmental Impact Assessment reports, for instance), and one that is more focused on an intimate understanding of and desire to alter the political dynamics of the city.

Still, even middle activism manifests in different forms. The campaign that Mr. Srinivasan and his colleagues in the Save Pallikarnai Marshland Forum led resulted in ensuring the protection of 1,000 acres of the marshland. While Srinivasan is extremely active in the urban governance realm of waste management a la discouraging landfills, he is also working to effect change within the confines of his own apartment complex, which again requires some investment of capital in terms of money and time. In his complex in the middle / upper middle class neighbourhood of Adyar, Mr. Srinivasan has pioneered the effort to get around a 80% participation rate  in his complex to segregate organic waste and recyclables, the former which is composted within the complex and the latter which is left near the entrance for waste pickers. But it is not this effort which grants him the label, whether by outsiders or by himself, of an activist. Rather, local efforts within one’s home are siloed into a field of “interest,” which I observed in MRC Nagar: while none of my informants would describe themselves as being activists, there were at least three individuals that have been working arduously to formalise composting and source segregation within the complex, as well as participating in an initiative led by Transparent Chennai to develop a comprehensive plan for sustainable management in the neighbourhood—but none consider themselves as being “activists.” As one engineer cum housewife who’s been composting along with a few other women in the complex told me, “I do it because I know it’s the right thing to do, and want to contribute some small amount to saving this planet, but I wouldn’t say I’m an activist.”

As indicated in a previous post, activism around waste in Chennai tends to counter the idea of “bourgeois environmentalism.” While movements are largely being led by middle classes, the impetuses are not centred around cleanliness but ideas such as anti-incineration, segregation, and improved livelihoods for waste pickers.

This is not to glorify waste activism here, or cast it as an exception. As with any social movements, there are deeply entrenched power dynamics  that are keeping the movement divided between middle classes and the poor. While the middle class-led movements try to involve the waste pickers or other low income stakeholders in the discussion, the efforts are inevitably designed to be implemented by the middle class on behalf of the poor with the presumed best interests of the latter at the core.

Indian Coral Tree leaf…at a Zero Waste house in Pammal, Chennai.

Indian Coral Tree leaf…at a Zero Waste house in Pammal, Chennai.