Gandhi Chhadi set for Rs.300? Is Swachh Bharat Mission kidding?

So I decided to consider getting a “Gandhi Chhadi” [Gandhi stick] which is a long stick with a pointed metal tip that is useful to pick waste objects off the road without bending. It has been highlighted by Swachh Bharat Mission Urban since last year and a couple of addresses of manufacturers have been provided in a YouTube video.

On enquiry with the first supplier listed in the above video, it turns out they want Rs.300 for a set of these litter pickers and the Mission – yes, a whole Central govt Mission – has no distribution mechanism for this. So it can only be couriered.

Clearly, this shows the emptiness of such campaigns. This low tech device should have been outsourced for production, and made available for everyone to make, like a broom. In fact, modern versions of such pickers are today sold on Amazon, and these have a lever that operates as a gripper.

Not surprisingly, the Mission has not made known a plan to distribute even the old-style Chhadis to municipal workers, who have to keep bending everyday to pick up the trash that you and I toss around carelessly.

This is the one on sale on Amazon India for about Rs.500:


Biogas from household waste – The Hindu column highlights potential

Today’s Urban Jungle column in The Hindu highlights the potential of using vegetable waste from municipal garbage to run biogas plants at the level of individual houses and beyond. Read the column here. A related story that appeared in Engadget a couple of years ago is here, but the biogas idea now seems more attractive than ever. The Union Budget has indicated that subsidies from the Centre for LPG and other fuels for the majority of consumers (editorial in The Mint here) will be withdrawn.

The piece also touches upon the lack of incentive for Ramky Enviro Engineers, which now has a contract with the Corporation of Chennai to collect and transfer municipal solid waste in three zones, to do the same. Ramky is empowered to sell recyclable waste and transfer the rest to the dumping grounds.

Most interestingly, one of the biogas models discussed in the column won an Ashden award for the Pune NGO Appropriate Rural Technology Institute five years ago. Watch that system at work in this video.


New life for discarded CDs, plastic containers

I am always looking for ways in which discarded CDs headed for the waste bin can be reused. Recently, an old CD and another item of plastic waste,  a medicine container, came together nicely to become a pen stand.

It will stay steady even if it gets heavy.

Here’s what the result looks like.

The only material used was rubber adhesive compound available in most stationery stores.

This may not be a terrific invention, but I am keeping two items out of the bin. In the process, I also discovered that CDs can be used as a stabilising base for anything that tends to topple over.

If you have any ideas about CD reuse, I would love to hear them.

India at Copenhagen: What it must do

I believe the following are key issues that the Government of India and the State Governments must address quickly, to make a convincing case about our intentions to reduce carbon emissions:

1. Massively invest in solar energy – this will help meet the target of 20,000 MW of production, as well as take electricity to those who don’t have it. So far, the Government of India as a public stakeholder has paid lip service to the idea, and recently announced the above production target to make a case for Copenhagen.

2. Our transport policy is a major hole in our climate efforts – Most cities in India are running transport models designed for 50 years ago, and that too badly. There should be a cess on petrol in each State and the funds should go to fund buses first, and trains next (because buses can be deployed virtually off the shelf, and each of our cities needs thousands of affordable, comfortable buses). The transport operations should be brought under regulators with state governments not keeping them as restricted monopolies for political reasons. Common ticketing for bus and rail operations should be introduced on a war-footing, and in any case within one year. All roads in cities and towns must have clear, walkable footpaths, failing which they must be denied central assistance of any kind. In all new urban planning, bicycle pathways must be made compulsory. If necessary, overhead cycling tracks can be built on arterial roads, to encourage use of this green form of transport.

3. Buildings, which are increasing power demand, must be engineered by law to include green energy, and use solar energy optimally. This can be achieved through design passively, and actively by including solar photovoltaic generation as well as heating. At present, the building approvals process is handled by semi-literate people at the local bodies, and the urban development authorities are corrupt. This situation cannot continue.

4. The energy efficiency sector must be completely revitalised. A base must be created to manufacture LEDs light-emitting diodes, which are the best available technology to make the optimal use of electricity for lighting. India does not have a good manufacturing base.

5. The CFL lamp schemes promised for long, such as Bachat Lamp Yojana, must be implemented immediately.

6. Stop the loss of wetlands, which are important for water security, which is threatened by global warming.

7. Compel State Governments to manage organic waste without contributing to methane emissions in open landfills.

8. Provide for escalating power costs to consumers, to curb ostentatious use of power on air-conditioning. Essential consumption should be affordable, and the green alternatives such as CFLs, LEDs and energy-efficient gadgets promoted.

I believe that these and similar issues can be handled without the public giving up a good quality of life. What this needs is Government policy, not so much citizen sacrifice (although that will happen anyway because of environmental concern at the individual level). An issue like climate change requires Governments to lead from the front.

Neel Metal Fanalca’s farcical waste management in Chennai

Recently, Neel Metal Fanalca began a process of ostensible source-segregation of waste in its areas of operation in Chennai. I have had the benefit of examining the whole thing personally, in Kodambakkam.

Apparently under pressure to show source segregation of waste, NMF issued polythene bags to residents for storage of recyclable waste. The organic waste is to be handed over to the personnel of NMF each morning and evening, during one-hour window periods. The waste collector attracts the attention of residents by blowing a whistle repeatedly. The plan is farcical in the way it is implemented, though.

1. There is no downstream system to manage the waste. The organic waste is not composted as a measure of ‘disposal’, as required by the Chennai Corporation’s contract with NMF, but is simply shifted to the dumping ground.

2. No plan exists for recyclable waste. I found, for instance, that NMF personnel simply sell the waste to local ‘raddi’ shops in the vicinity, simply displacing the waste from their own bin to the street in front of the waste shop.

3. Waste in the form of CFL and tubelights (containing small amounts of mercury), batteries, other household chemicals are being dumped along with the organic waste.

In addition, the NMF crews also want the residents to put up their own waste bins in their respective apartment blocks or houses. This is a difficult proposal to implement, even if it was sound in other respects, which it is not for the reasons stated in 1 to 3 above.

Disappointingly, Exnora International, which launched citizen-led initiatives in the 1980s to compost waste, is now a partner in the NMF scheme. This may be good in principle, but Exnora has not been given any solid role in deciding the waste management plan. What is more, EI is also relegating sustainable waste management to the back-burner by going along with the NMF model.

Time for the citizenry to ask the Chennai Corporation some searching questions, rather than treat waste as someone else’s problem.

Can Chennai Corporation clear the air on waste management?

The Chennai Corporation has apparently promised to stop burning the garbage generated by this city of about 6 million people at its Perungudi dump, seen here in its usual smouldering state. That is what the report in today’s The Hindu states. Unless Commissioner Rajesh Lakhoni can work some miracle, it is not likely to be a promise that will be kept.

The handling of waste in Chennai has been a scandal, with private for-profit companies enjoying long-term rights to transport unsegregated waste to the suburban dump where it is burnt to make room for more. At first, it was CES Onyx which had the privilege, for seven years and more recently, the concession has gone to Neel Metal Fanalca. The bottomline is that the burning operation is illegal, and violative of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, which are in force under Supreme Court orders from 2004. This is a continuing scandal, one that exemplifies India’s disregard for environmental pollution. More on the Neel Metal Fanalca scandal can be found here.

If you are a concerned citizen and wish to pursue the solid waste question in Chennai, the first thing to do is ask for the copy of the contract signed by the city corporation with the concessionaire, Neel Metal Fanalca. This can be done under the Right to Information Act, 2005. The officers who should provide answers, including documents and files to the public under this law are given in this page of the Chennai Corporation’s website.

Do we have a survival instinct ?

Survival is a hardwired instinct of all living beings, but then, why are we so indifferent to our safety? That is the logical question to ask, considering that an average of one person dies a day on the railway tracks between Beach and Tambaram (over 400 died in 2007 according to the Southern Railway), and scores are killed in motor vehicle accidents on our busy roads. Of course, life goes on, treating death or crippling injury as the unavoidable price to pay for a growing Gross Domestic Product.

The World Health Organization adopted in 2004 the theme “Road Safety Is No Accident” for its special focus on the subject. It is difficult to believe that the Chennai City Traffic Police believes in that kind of goal at all. If the report in the New Indian Express is correct, a fatal accident was actually caused by police on Model School Road, Thousand Lights, in his hurry to get a Corporation lorry out of sight near the venue of a meeting at which the Chief Minister was participating.

This is what the Express report says, “When they spotted the Corporation lorry removing garbage from the road, the policemen asked it to be removed too.”

The police don’t seem to have denied it, while the reports in the Times of India and The Hindu are somewhat cryptic on the actual cause of the accident.

The story of J Agnes of Tiruchi should shock the conscience of the city. This young woman died when the Chennai Corporation lorry was moved by an untrained worker, allegedly (and quite plausibly) at the instance of the policeman.  The actual driver assigned to the vehicle was away “having tea.”

The Chennai Corporation was of course quick to pounce on the two staffers. The original driver Meghanathan was suspended while the man who was asked to move the vehicle, Simpson, described as a malaria programme worker aged 28, was dismissed. For the family of Agnes, a solatium of Rs. 50,000 was announced. A case of causing death by a rash or negligent act was filed against the man who was at the wheel. Could it not be argued that the policeman (if the story is true) is equally guilty about causing death by his rash act?

Of course, there is stony silence about the role of the policeman who “authorised” the movement of the corporation vehicle that ended up killing the woman. Somehow, policemen can never make mistakes in our system. They come in when things start going wrong and then again, only to “nab the culprits.” Their accounts would be more credible, if they can instal surveillance cameras on all city roads, and produce the video evidence in support of their claims. They will not do that because the evidence will then be in black and white. It would have been evident, for instance, that the untrained driver had been goaded into removing the lorry.

One would imagine that the death of Vagheesan, in an accident caused by a poorly trained Chennai Corporation driver, and now Agnes, would have led to a shame-faced response from the Traffic Police and the civic body about safety. Far from it.

Today, in Kodambakkam, I watched the employees of the civic body and Neel Metal Fanalca pushing giant pieces of earthmoving equipment into the small United India Colony Third Main Road, just as students of Fatima Convent were rushing into their school in time for class. The youngsters, some only in the primary classes, scurried past roadside obstacles and jostled among cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, minivans and the loaders and Corporation lorries, all jammed into a small space outside the school. The occasion was the impending visit of the Worshipful Mayor to inaugurate a campaign to promote “source segregation” of waste in the neighbourhood, starting from the school.

The campaign was, of course, to be pursued not by the Corporation staff or NMF, but using the free labour of the school students. The irony is that the students and the participating residents are unaware that neither the civic body nor NMF has a complete waste management plan in place to handle the segregated waste of Chennai.

There was no policeman in sight (perhaps that, in retrospect, is a blessing in disguise), and it was left to the mass of humanity to find its level in all the confusion.  Any of the giant pieces of metal could have crushed the children, or knocked out an adult permanently. Which brings me to the original question: Are we interested in our survival, as sentient creatures are biologically programmed to be?