Pammal cuts its waste: Community at work

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: May 30 2012, 07:51am hrs
Pammal is a small town in Kancheepuram district of the state of Tamil Nadu, with a resident population of 85,000 and a floating population of 15,000. This little town, less than half an hours drive from the Chennai international airport, made a transition from a town panchayat to a Municipality only in 2005, but it has shown what community action can do to solve the problem of solid waste management.

Like any other city or town in India, Pammal suffered from garbage, put out by households, rotting in unattended dustbins, and spilling over on to the streets and pavements. Since Pammal has no underground sewerage system and the Municipality has been constructing open storm water drains on both sides of the roads/ lanes in recent years, the problems of managing solid waste are compounded by the absence of the infrastructure for managing liquid waste.

In 1993, a group of middle class women in Ward #1 of Pammal decided to take charge of their physical surroundings. They decided to buy a cycle rickshaw for collecting garbage from the 260 households in their Ward for delivery at the roadside dustbins, and charged the households R10 per month for the service. When residents living near these dustbins objected, the group decided to minimise waste by recycling a major part of it. They started segregating kitchen waste from the rest and used the former to make compost under a tree in Danvantri garden. This would mean less garbage at the roadside bins and less work for the local authorities to move this from the dustbins and arrange for its disposal.

In 1994, they formed a self-help group (SHG) and received some land as donation from the Sankara Eye Hospital so that their composting work could expand. With a loan of R40,000 from a bank, they put up a vermicomposting shed and began the process of converting waste into wealth. This was before 2000, when the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Management and Handling Rules were first announced by the Government of India, requiring (i) daily house-to-house collection of segregated waste, and (ii) recycling and composting to minimise disposal in landfills.

For the SHG in Pammal, the next break came in 2004-05 with a grant of R13.25 lakh from PepsiCo for building infrastructure on the site, and buying vehicles for carrying waste. By 2004-05, they were covering 7 Wards and by 2006, all 21 Wards. PepsiCo helped out with R17 lakh towards meeting the operating expenses in 2005-06 in the course of the expansion.

The transition from a SHG to a non-government organisation was made in 2006 when they registered as Exnora Green Pammal (EGP), an Indian non-government organisation. The town panchayat gave them 1.1 acres of land. They bring residents, local government, schools and businesses together to comply with the MSW Rules.

EGP spreads awareness of the impending disaster. Solid waste in India is projected at 260 million tonnes (five times the current level) by 2047; plastic waste has increased fourfold since 1999, and is projected to increase tenfold by 2030. The problem can be made more manageable if much of the garbage is recycled, and only 20% or so of the waste is left to be properly disposed.

EGP has been building capacity in waste management and enterprise development, while raising awareness of the importance of reducing and recycling waste to improve the quality of environment in which we live and the public health conditions we create for ourselves. They have integrated their activities with those involved in the recycling of materials.

The kitchen waste is converted into vermicompost (organic manure), charcoal briquettes and biogas. The compost is packed as EXORCO brand and sold to farmers in the nearby villages. It fetches a good price because of its good quality, resulting from the use of segregated waste. The Central Pollution Control Board of India tested EXORCOs compost samples and found only 11 mg of lead content per kg, much below the safety standard of 100 mg per kg. The daily average generation of biogas is 50 cubic metre. Dry leaves are converted into charcoal briquettes and sold. Thin plastics (carry bags and water pouches) are sent for recycling and converted into handbags, office files, wall hangings, etc. EGP has received an EESO certification for reducing carbon emissions by over 8,000 tonnes by 2011.

What started as a simple initiative to clean up the surroundings of their homes in 1993, has turned into a civil society movement to work towards a clean environment. EGP has responded to the call to go beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu by adapting their model of solid waste management to suit local conditions. Their 500 Green Ambassadors serve over half a million residents in six localities in four states of India. These include, besides Pammal and Mangadu (a temple town of about 40,000 population) in Tamil Nadu, Panipat in Haryana and, more recently, Sangareddy in Andhra Pradesh and Kamarhatti and Panihatty in West Bengal.

Until two years ago, households in Pammal paid R10 to R25 per month for collection. The Municipality has taken over this responsibility in their budget. Households contribute their segregated dry and wet waste at source to EGP, which by and large covers their processing cost. Financial support for Panipat and Sangareddy is provided by PepsiCo under their CSR plans through an annual MoU with EGP. For Kamarhatty and Panihatty, the Municipalities pay for the processing cost, EGP and Bio Vision (a private firm) pay for the management cost, and the community pays for the primary collection cost.

When I visited Pammal a few days ago, the town was in the midst of a major month-long campaign (sponsored by PepsiCo) to raise awareness of the importance of segregating dry and wet garbage at source. This was in collaboration with the famous Muguvari team from Trichy, using street theatre and folk dances through Parai and Oyil type methods to communicate. The performances are combined with door-to-door field work, and residents are given a white bag with instructions on how it is to be used for carrying dry waste to the Green Ambassadors, some of whom I saw at work, whistling as they approached the door of each household to collect the waste. There were others fast at work cleaning the streets. Ramya, the young and enthusiastic coordinator of the month-long campaign, is a gold medallist from Loyola College.

Among the numerous awards received by EGP and its dynamic founder leader, Mangalam Balasubramanian, is the UN Habitat-Dubai award in 2008-09 in the Promising Practices category for the Pammal SWM project. Mrs Balasubramanian has reservations about the role private sector can play in this field. As she put it, Rewarding waste managers on the basis of tonnage of trash transported and dumped, leaves no incentive for waste reduction. The community has to get involved in the primary task of waste reduction and waste segregation.

On the economics of the solid waste management operation, the experience of EGP shows that only about 50% of the operating costs are covered by recycling, etc, and the rest have to be provided either by the community or the local government or a corporate social responsibility budget. There is a good case for more government spending in this vital area, which has serious implications for public health. A green tax can help mobilise funds. But even more important than the spending is the need for local governments to engage their communities in addressing the challenge of waste reduction, waste segregation at source and waste recycling. Disposing of the rest of the waste would then be a manageable business. Pammal has shown the first steps in this direction.

Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia is Chairperson, ICRIER and also former Chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services, which submitted its report to MoUD in March 2011