Who Moved my Garbage: Chennai in Action

In India, we’re often satisfied with letting go of bits and pieces of our civic rights.

Potholes on roads ? “No problem, we’ll drive around them”! Garbage dump piling up? “We’ll take a walk elsewhere”! Broken footpaths? “Wait, what are footpaths”?

Against the backdrop of the far greater challenges that we face, such issues are viewed as inconveniences and luxuries that we can make do without, rather than a more fundamental loss of rights. That’s why I’m really excited to write about a case of civic action that I was privy to, in which a government body acted surprisingly swiftly and thoroughly.

Garbage trouble

Opposite my house in Chennai lies a garbage bin, where residents of our locality dispose of their household waste. The bin fills up through the day, until a garbage truck comes by in the morning and empties it.

This system had worked decently until recently, when some of the restaurants and hospitals nearby began to illegally use the same bin to dispose of their waste — everything from ordinary landfill to heavy debris such as broken toilets.

With this additional influx, waste began to overflow onto the street and debris, some of which simply didn’t fit into the bin, began to gather in piles around the bin. Since the garbage disposal trucks are only sanctioned to handle the emptying of bins, and not the collection of the piles of debris around it, with time, the area turned into a garbage dump and a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Enter, the crusaders

My mother, a caped crusader in her own right, decided to do something about it. After making a few enquiries in the area, she was told eventually to report the issue to the Chennai Corporation (phone number 1913). And here’s where the love story starts — it turns out that the Chennai Corporation works quite professionally.

Chennai Corporation Helpline (credit The Hindu)

Telephone agents begin the call by identifying themselves with a number (e.g. Agent 113) that allows them to remain accountable yet anonymous. Upon understanding the issue, they register a complaint number, which is used as a referral point for status updates going forward. The complaint is subsequently referred to the officer in charge of such matters for the identified area, which in turn is referred to by a specific ID (Sector 117A in my case).

After a few calls to the Corporation, my mom was eventually referred to the CI of our sector, a lady by the name of Ramya. On learning about our issue, Ramya instantly assured us that she would send someone to clear up the debris within a few days. And lo and behold, within the week, she was present herself with a team of 6–7 people, a JCB loader and a clearing lorry. The team got down to work, and within a few hours, managed to clear the area of all overflowing debris and landfill! What’s more, the next day, the CI organized “gang work” as 10 government workers cleaned and sanitized our entire street with bleaching powder and insecticide. The result — our locality is now much cleaner and relatively freer of mosquitoes!

A JCB Loader, incase you don’t know what they are

Customary 10k foot analysis

I found the entire series of events to be quite impressive. Prompt response, thorough execution and humility to boot — the government officials were soft-spoken and insisted that they were only doing their duty. And all of this to tackle a problem which in days gone by would’ve been dismissed as something that one had to learn to live with. I sure hope this is the new norm, and not a reflection of a particularly zealous CI, or the fact that this issue occurred in a school area.

All of this has got me thinking that in order to completely restore civic rights, three forces need to come together:

  1. Government-led processes: Had the system been better setup, the offenders would’ve been warded off or perhaps not felt the need to act as apathetically as they did. Failing this, the municipality should’ve identified the issue even before a citizen complaint was registered. I believe that these core processes will get better/be instituted with time and wealth.
  2. Government machinery: This article was a description of how government machinery came together to fix a problem once it was identified. Such municipality-centric operations, and grievance redressal systems setup by the central government seem to be working really well by the looks of it. My naive analysis here is that the primary challenge ahead is to ensure that these bodies are allocated sufficient resources — my CI did confess that it was a struggle to put together the team and machinery that solved our issue, due to a shortage of resources and an excess of complaints.
  3. Citizens: A lot of these problems are self-inflicted. Had my neighboring hospitals/hotels not broken the rules in the first place, this issue wouldn’t have cropped up. What’s more, in the weeks following this clean-up, I find that garbage is beginning to build up all over again since people aren’t willing to place their trash inside the bin. Our ability as a community to self-police and act in the interest of the greater good, rather than for localized individual benefit is perhaps the most difficult step that remains to be taken. I worry that this equilibrium will take generations to change.
Garbage goes inside the bin!

I suspect urban India will regain its civic rights only when all three forces step up. My hope is that as the populace grows wealthier, governments-led processes and machinery will be held to higher standards and become more accountable and empowered. This will in turn gradually drive citizens to move from a state of self-centeredness at the cost of societal gains to one of selflessness and collaboration, potentially kicking off a virtuous cycle of progress.


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