On 23rd March (Saturday), a bunch of us as part of a UDC field trip, visited the Hand-in-Hand India Solid Waste Management facility in Mammallapuram, 60km away from Chennai (or as it is popularly called Mahabalipuram). Blessed with a large amount of patience and exceptional organisational skills, Vidhya Mohankumar managed to arrange transportation for everyone, so that we were all car pooling. People caught buses to strategic locations and were picked up by others and we made it to Mammallapuram just before midday. So the contingent that made it included- Zoyab Kadi, Tahaer Zoyab, Nikith Ashok, Hareesh Haridasan, Advait Jani, Roshan Toshniwal, Shruti Shankar, Mahesh Radhakrishnan, Vidhya Mohankumar and yours truly, Nithya Ramesh.
Hand-in Hand India is an NGO that has been in operation unofficially since 1988 and officially since 2002 and works on a wide variety of issues that include elimination of child labour, women empowerment and waste management. They started work in the Kancheepuram district, and currently work in several places in Tamil Nadu and are thinking of expanding to other parts of India.
They follow a model of facilitation where they work with the local panchayat/municipality for a period of time, and when the local body is capable of running the system in a sustainable manner, they pull out moving on to the next project. Each ward, each district has a different approach and budgetary constraints, and hence they have come up with innovative ways of working suitable to context. Some local bodies have sufficient funds to provide a free service to the residents and some even provide free bins, whilst others barely have land to accommodate the facility.
We were greeted by a young and enthusiastic Mr.Keerthi and a very composed Block Coordinator, Mr. Porpatham -both have been part of Hand-in Hand India for several years. They explained their working methodology, approach and their financial model and cheerfully answered all our questions.
In Mammalapuram, they handle the 3-5 tonnes of waste every day from 5 wards, consisting of 3600 households. The facility is adjacent to the landfill, and is spread over a few acres of land. One would be hard pressed to guess that this is a waste management campus, as they have painstakingly landscaped it, resulting in composting sheds amidst a green garden and a riot of flowers that almost drown out the presence of the neighbouring landfill. The campus is a testament to the pride they take in their work, and breaks all set notions of what a waste management facility should look like.
The project was kicked off with an initial stakeholders meeting which brought together the local body, residents, womens groups and other organizations in the a community, followed by an intense awareness and sensitising campaign, which involved volunteers going door to door, distribution of pamphlets and autos that drove around the neighbourhood spreading the message.Every household in the 5 wards were provided with a green bin for organic waste and a grey bin for inorganic waste. They were also provided with a sack to store recyclable items such as milk covers and glass bottles.
Segregation at source is of utmost importance, for the system to work efficiently, and is also the biggest challenge. Many households fail to segregate properly, and the mixed waste cannot be composted and unfortunately joins the landfill.
The waste is collected door to door by “green friends” who operate a tricycle. On an average each tricycle, with two green friends can cover 300 houses per day, and a little less if the terrain is hilly.These green friends are the government waste collectors who are provided with uniforms, masks and gloves. As they are often from disadvantaged backgrounds,and their new name in itself lends dignity to their profession. Certain municipalities have the funds to pay for the entire operation, but in Mammallapuram a nominal monthly fee of 30 Rs is collected from the each household.
According to Mr. Keerthi, people often prefer to throw their waste into a vacant plot rather than pay Rs.30/- to have it collected from their door. To thwart this, Hand-in Hand India spends the initial weeks in cleaning up the neighbourhood and removing all municipal garbage bins to break the habit of people dumping waste on the street, without segregation.He strongly feels that awareness and sensitization of the average citizen is of critical importance, to be able to tackle waste management.
The collected waste is then brought to the campus, and the organic waste is composted. They have two compostingsheds with rows of concrete tanks. One shed is devoted to vermi compost and the other to organic bio-compost, a system which is aided by the use of cow dung. When both sheds are full, the excess waste is arranged in neat rows (wind rows) to turn into compost naturally, which is the slowest process of the three.
As far as compost goes vermi compost is the most nutritious as the waste passes through the body of a worm, and the soil gets turned naturally. The temperature needs to be controlled for optimum comfort of the worms and they need to be protected from ants and rats which sometimes choose to attack them. Hand-in Hand India is also developing a prototype where through drip irrigation they get vermi-water from a pot full of vermi compost which can be diluted and used to water plants.
Cow dung is sourced from neighbouring farms and villages for the organic compost which is faster and involves less maintenance, but is also less nutritious. Some of the compost is sold, and the rates reduce as the quantity increases and the remaining is used for the filling and landscaping of the campus itself.
The inorganic waste is segregated further, the recyclables are sold and the remaining is either stored or sent to the landfill. They have a machine, that compresses plastic bags and into pellets and were kind enough to give us a demonstration. These pellets are the main raw material for the manufacture of plastic and have a higher resale value than the bags.
As Mammallapuram is a popular tourist destination for both international and domestic travellers it has a large number of hotels and restaurants. 500 kg of Food waste is collected from these establishments every day, ground, and fed into a bio gas plant. The hospitality establishments are charged based on the weight of the food waste that is collected, Radisson Temple Bay alone produces 1-1.5 tonnes of food waste everyday.
The plant is a large tank that floats in water. Excess gas escapes via the water, and the constant gurgling lets you know that the plant is functioning normally. The gas thus produced is used to power 25 street lights on the ECR ( East Coast Road)
After a tour of the plant, we watched a video they had submitted to the BBC world Challenge, a well made overview of their work, with the people, workers and volunteers airing their views. Unfortunately they came second and didn’t receive the funding which they were going to use to set up a bottling plant for the bio gas.
This initiative has prevented 60% of the total waste generated from the 5 wards from ending up in a landfill, provided empowerment and employment to the community, and resulted in a cleaner Mammallapuram.
The whole visit was very heartening and has shed a lot of light on community participation and the extent of progress small acts can achieve. I do hope that visits like this stay with us, help us choose our everyday consumer products wisely, sensitize us to segregate, sell our recyclables and start small compost units at our home /street/neighbourhood.
If anyone is interested in knowing more please write to us here, we can help you find a tailor made waste management solution for your house, or discuss other waste management techniques/ideas.
Photographs Courtesy– Mahesh Radhakrishnan, Shruti Shankar and Porpatham
Nithya Ramesh is an Architect – Urban Designer, passionate about experiencing and changing cities. She currently works in Jana Urban Space Foundation, Bangalore creating better streets and public spaces.