Kaanum Pongal garbage problem: Chennai has forgotten what it learned after 2015 floods

Every year, Chennai faces the most amount of trash on the morning after Kaanum Pongal, predominantly on Marina and Elliot beaches.
Kaanum Pongal garbage problem: Chennai has forgotten what it learned after 2015 floods
Kaanum Pongal garbage problem: Chennai has forgotten what it learned after 2015 floods

The morning after Kaanum Pongal, hundreds of conservancy workers were spread out across Chennai city’s beaches to clear more than 44 tonnes of garbage. Every year, Chennai faces the most amount of trash on this day, predominantly on the sands of Marina and Elliot’s beaches.

In 2013, 59 tonnes of garbage were collected from these two major beaches, which reduced to 36 tonnes in 2017. But this year, the garbage generated has gone up to 44 tonnes.

The dropping count of waste in recent times was due to slimmer crowds and a discernible usage of bins, but a break in this trend, which is particularly glaring at Elliot’s beach, is a cause of concern and serves as an indicator that not enough is being done to educate people against littering. 

The devastating flood in December 2015 was a flashpoint in a partnership between the local administration and civil society, who together cleaned up 1.32 lakh tonnes of garbage washed up in streets, vacant lands and beaches.

Harsh lessons learnt from the natural disaster led to several resident associations taking ownership to manage their waste. It  was evident when jallikattu protesters cleared up their own trash at the Marina and it was also clear from how the Greater Chennai Corporation mandated source segregation of waste. But for better civic sense to continue to prevail and for weaning public off their plastic, it seems a more sustained campaign is required.

Environmentalists have been advocating that this awareness cannot be seasonal, seen only during festivities or calamities. “Unless we demarcate food vending zones and declare the beach as a litter-free zone, this problem will repeat every year and we won’t be able to protect even a small sandy beach like Elliot’s,” says marine biologist TD Babu, who is also the co-founder of Besant Nagar-based civic movement, Spark.

“The beach acts as a buffer zone in two ways - it protects the ocean from the land and also protects our habitat by cooling down the temperature. Littering interferes with this eco-system and clean-ups are not the solution,” Babu adds.

Food waste, plastic PET bottles, paper cups and polythene bags can be found on the beach and before they are cleared, some of the garbage is likely to be washed into the sea. The turtle nesting season has also just begun and goes on to April.

Conservationists along with government officials are working to ensure that mother turtles trying to reach the coastline don’t perish. “Plastics in the water look like jellyfish to mother turtles and they die once they consume it,” says Nishant Ravi from the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network. “I walked along the Marina last night and it was horrid. Instead of investing on picking up the garbage and then dumping it in landfills, the corporation should invest to work with food vendors and mandate them to use eco-friendly products so these can at least decompose.”

Over the years, the Chennai city corporation, along with private conservancy operator Ramky Enviro Private Limited who is in-charge of Teynampet and Adyar zones encompassing Marina and Elliot’s beach respectively, have increased worker strength, added more bins and multiplied cleaning shifts.

“Workers from all the zones are here on the day after Kaanum Pongal,” said a representative of Ramky. “On an average day, we find 3 tonnes of garbage on Marina and it multiplies to be the highest after Kaanum Pongal. This year, the decrease in garbage at Marina was largely because the crowd was comparatively lesser due to vehicular and traffic restrictions towards the beach.”

But this was not the case for the other beaches where there were no such restrictions.

Activists and residents living near beaches attribute the excessive garbage to the spurt of hawkers who have completely taken over the beach. Corporation officials admit that unless hawkers are streamlined, the issue of waste on beaches will continue.

There are at least 1,500 vendors on the Marina and hundreds of vendors on Elliot’s beach. However, when the corporation began enumeration as part of forming the Town Vending Committee to regulate hawking, only 800 vendors came forward to give their biometrics in both the beaches combined.

“We will be able to restrict those hawking illegally once we issue ID cards to licensed vendors and we are in the printing process,” said a senior civic official, on condition of anonymity. These hawkers enjoy the support of local politicians and were allowed to operate for years as they are seen as a political vote bank.

Hawkers have also spread out to the southern beaches in Thiruvanmiyur, Palavakkam and Neelankarai. These neighbourhood beaches which were once isolated and quiet, are now also catering to thousands who visit during Ganesha idol immersions and Pongal holidays.

Starting last year, the corporation and police increased conservancy and security efforts here similar to what they did in Marina and Elliot’s. Last year, one tonne of garbage was collected from each of these three beaches and the count is similar this year.

“These small beaches are usually cleaned only in the mornings but today, we rotated staff to clean the sands thrice,” said the corporation’s Regional Deputy Commissioner for south, Gopala Sundara Raj. “This time we were also prepared to tackle the crowd and the litter all the way up to beaches near Shollinganallur.”

These neighbourhoods, which were part of the erstwhile panchyatas, came under the corporation’s limit following expansion in 2011. The civic body had pumped more funds to improve arterial and interior roads and street lighting. This has drawn more people here.

A typical family's Pongal picnic will include the Arignar Anna Zoological Park (Vandalur zoo), Guindy National Park and a beach. “Since Marina is always so crowded, we started coming to the Palavakkam beach,” said Balaji Ganesan who had brought his family from Kundrathur.

Several families like theirs who were regulars at Marina beach are now south bound, where they not only go for a similar experience of bhajjis and children's joyrides but also, sadly, leave a similar trash trail along the coast. 

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