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Chennai Mayor R. Priya’s week-long trip from Saturday to Spain, France and Italy with a focus on best practices for Solid Waste Management (SWM) should be a welcome development as she would see how countries in the European Union (EU) are faring on targets for reuse and recycling of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).
Data for 2022 show that Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) produces only about 5,400 tonnes of compost from biodegradable waste for a whole year, when its monthly collection of such waste is about 4,000 tonnes, and the volume of compost on an annual basis should be several-fold higher than at present.
Of the three countries chosen by Mayor Priya to visit, including Spain where the headquarters of Chennai waste management contractor Urbaser Sumeet is located, Italy is on track to meet targets for recycling of waste set in the EU, while France lags behind. Germany is better at waste management, and is among nine countries on track to meet EU norms for 2025, but it is not on Mayor Priya’s itinerary.
According to the EU waste directive of 2018, member countries like France, Spain and Italy should reuse or recycle 55% of their municipal waste, and in the case of packaging waste, the figure is 65%, before the deadline of 2025. According to the European Commission, half of the waste generated in the EU is recycled or composted, and 25% is landfilled.
Of the three countries chosen by Mayor Priya to visit, including Spain where the headquarters of Chennai waste management contractor Urbaser Sumeet is located, Italy is on track to meet targets for recycling of waste set in the EU, while France lags behind
Chennai’s waste crisis
As a major consumer of both packaging materials used for fast-moving consumer goods and other forms of plastic, Chennai produces anywhere between 400 tonnes and 780 tonnes of plastic waste in a month, based on 2022 data obtained by this writer under the RTI Act.
India’s waste management law envisages the use of solid waste with calorific value in cement kilns, which is possible only when wet and dry waste are segregated at source and the combustible portion is provided to cement plants. The GCC officially admits that source segregation of MSW under law has largely failed. The civic body does not provide data on recycling of individual items of waste.
Chennai and its mayors have been making foreign visits and participating in conferences for years with the declared intent of assimilating best practices and entering into strategic partnerships for sustainable urbanisation at home. Forming sister-city partnerships is another approach adopted under which Chennai has agreements with no less than half a dozen international cities: Denver, San Antonio, Kuala Lumpur, Frankfurt, Chongqing and Volgograd, the latter being the first in 1966. One media report in 2021 said Thailand had requested that Chennai add Phuket to the list, to share tsunami expertise.
It is anyone’s guess what tangible outcomes have followed these sister-city declarations or mayoral visits. If these cities have specific strengths to share, there is very little discussion about that in the policy space, including the meetings of the Corporation Council. There are hardly any serious media analyses on the results of mayoral visits abroad. This time there is an official GCC delegation including the Deputy Mayor Mahesh Kumar too, say media reports.
Earlier, the GCC was reportedly drawn to San Antonio in America because it had done a successful river clean-up. Venice in Italy is a leading contender for honours among cities handling solid waste well because it has highly sought-after, picture-perfect canals that draw thousands of tourists every day. Chennai’s own canals are well-known eyesores, turned into receptacles of garbage and sewage. They are the theatre of failed attempts by successive governments to do a clean-up and a whirlpool into which much taxpayer funds have disappeared.
It would help Mayor Priya, therefore, to closely study the EU approaches on various SWM problems which broadly converge with those of Chennai. The European Commission’s directive on the topic says the goal is “to ensure biowaste treatment, which represents a third of municipal waste; separate collection of waste – a prerequisite to recycling; and improve data quality. However, most EU countries have or are in the process of putting in place waste reforms to improve recycling rates, some of which should yield results in the coming years.”
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin could ask Mayor Priya for a report on the visit, with a focus on these issues, which would lead to a wider dissemination of the concepts and best practices to other Municipal Corporations in Tamil Nadu as well.
It is anyone’s guess what tangible outcomes have followed these sister-city declarations or mayoral visits
In 2015, Saidai Duraiswamy who was then the mayor, joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Chongqing in China, and a GCC engineer was quoted by the media as saying the trip would help assess options relating to “population explosion and traffic congestion.” Evidently, both migration and a high growth rate of vehicles continue to challenge policymakers, who have not, however, scaled up their efforts to provide more public spaces and public transport to people, while allocating more space to private vehicles.
There is no dearth of “expertise sharing” between global cities and Chennai. London provides insights on how it does public transport well, expanding bus access to all. Japan has invested in Chennai Metro Rail, and the World Bank has obtained many commitments from the Tamil Nadu government in return for its financing, including a new privatised bus expansion scheme for Chennai. A lot of funds have also been received under the Union government’s Swachh Bharat and Smart City schemes.
The key is to use public forums like the GCC Council and the media to discuss the learnings from mayoral visits abroad including the latest by Chennai mayor Priya and the new international commitments made. This will help draft contextual policies for Chennai to benefit the widest number of people.
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