Chennai, the Indian state capital of Tamil Nadu, is the sixth most populous city in India, and is located on the southeast coast of India. One of the most severe environmental and public health issues facing Chennai is waste, and is currently managed through two refuse dumps, receiving over 5,000 tons of waste every day. A triptych of three posts: “Informally tracking the trash in Mylapore,” “The rural urban divide and caste politics,” and “Perungudi: A fortress of trash” are part of a larger research project that focuses on the economic and sociopolitical influence of the middle class, aiming to enrich existing scholarship around middle class activism in urban India while also bringing to light the influence of their attitudes and actions around waste on lower classes’ relationships with waste.
Perungudi dump, where all of South Chennai’s trash goes, is a fortress of trash. The road leading up to the dump has been constructed from trash. The sides of the roads are walls made of trash. The water ways beyond the waste walls are turgid with trash.
As was the case the transfer station I visited, the dump seems to rather come out of left field. The adjacent area is majorly developed, with rows of two story houses overlooking the dump and a slushy marsh. But the moment that the car door swings open a gust of silty wind hits me, like a million noisome houseguests swiftly but assertively embracing me and proceeding to make themselves welcome in all parts of my home.
The stench is uniform but multiple. The stench is mobile. It latches onto your clothes, your skin, your lips, the hairs of your nostrils. It leaves no element of the human body behind in its quest to make its presence known.
Two pink concrete buildings, built recently a few years back, are the administrative nuclei of the Perungudi dump organism; I met with one of the managers, Sendhil, in the second one, who welcomed me graciously into the office space. As we spoke, trucks—some like large pick-up trucks with trash spilling over the edges and others the more modern compactor trucks—dutifully climbed up onto the weigh station and clumsily descended to proceed down the rocky road that seemed to end nowhere. Apparently, it ended at the dump.
Sendhil took me up to the roof of the other building where we had a view of the entire site. In the far distance there was reigning a sole multi-bulbed lamppost. The trash is taken there, then leveled out so that more can be added. When I asked why there were so many heaps of trash on the sides of the road leading up to the dump he responded, with a hint of pride, “We used the waste to create the roads. It’s all marsh under here, you see.” So they built gullies out of trash and laid materials down until a stable enough road could be created.
For Sendhil, it’s all about keeping the trucks coming in at the right time, at the right pace. “If work stops here, then they’ll be a line of trucks waiting, people’s trash won’t get picked up. So, we just have to make sure everything keeps going.” Thus, he’s not concerned about segregation, or recycling. What he needs are good roads, infrastructure, he says. Only with that can they keep pushing the trash away from the houses, and prevent “incidents” like the small fires that break out on occasion.
Besides, he said, “the rag pickers get out like 100 tons of the waste. So, it’s segregating. It’s good for us; gives us more space.” Indeed, when we drove down to the dump, there were such informal waste workers picking through the heaps of waste which would later be leveled. There were large canvas bags lining the side of the streets, most filled to the brim and tied up already by 11 am. The workers had set up shaded spots using wooden sticks and tarps or blankets to rest and wait for new loads. As each truck came and dumped its refuse, people would run over to begin the work.
One middle-aged woman with a winning smile used to make artisanal bags before joining this work, a few years ago. “It’s the only way I can pay for their [her kids’] education,” she explained. Before, she made 30 rupees per day; now 3-400 per day, and she only recovered plastics and usable toys.
Perungudi gets around 2,500 to 3,000 tons of waste per day, from seven of fifteen zones in the city. It is literally constructed on the city’s waste. Faded cotton shirts hang limply from the trash walls. Neon plastic bags bounce lethargically in the thick breeze. Still, people work everyday to give value to the abandoned.
In the fortress of trash, all is waste, but not all is wasted.
These posts are a result of a three-month ethnographic study of waste in Chennai, India, by Ashwini Srinivasamohan for her Master of Environmental Science (MESc) at Yale University, and were posted originally on a blog kept during the study period, Talking Trash in Chennai. Her overall research project is centered around middle class attitudes toward waste and their influence on interclass dynamics and urban governance in Chennai, India.