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Garbage, Bridges and Boatmen

Having recently joined CAG, in the capacity of a researcher, I was excited and curious as to the kind of work my job would entail. I wasn’t disappointed. The very first projects I was roped into were about road safety and zero waste cities. Now, being a design major with a background in architecture and urban design I tackled the issue of road safety with verve and set about approaching the issue from a spatial perspective. A study of international standards and local standards of road design followed and I had to admit, it was the closest thing to urban design I had experienced in this city post college. But alas, my forays into the world of intersections, pavements and NMT’s have been temporarily shelved.

This was because I was needed elsewhere, namely the Zero Waste Cities project. This is a joint project with partners in 10 costal cities in 3 countries: India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  In India, the cities are Chennai, Mumbai and Trivandrum. The objective of the report is to fight against the growing tide of plastic in our oceans. It was safe to say that this project would be my ‘baptism of fire’ as a researcher. What comes next is a tale of garbage, broken bridges and a particularly resourceful boatman.

Image: The two main areas of study, highlighted in blue and red. Source: Google

In order to document plastic waste entering the seas, the most viable area of study would most naturally be the river mouth and the adjoining coast. So the day after the project was introduced, a colleague and I made our way towards Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar. More popularly known as ‘Bessi’ beach, it is a hub of activity throughout the day, and deemed much ‘hipper’ than the more famous but slightly old school Marina Beach stretch.

Image: Local resident dumping his garbage into the water. Source:  CAG

We made our way towards the water’s edge determined to document the hazards of plastic along the shore but to our surprise we found very meagre amounts of such waste. Maybe it was an off day for the ignorant masses. We walked along the stretch of sand towards the local fishing community of ‘Urur Kuppam’, admittedly a little miffed due to the lack of contaminant evidence. But that’s exactly when the locals decided to not let us down. Lo and behold, right in front of us was a resident emptying his garbage bin into the water. A plethora of plastic and other bits went into the sea. He pushed his garbage into the swell of an incoming wave and watched with satisfaction as it disappeared into the sea. ‘Out of sight equals clean’ must have been his thought. A thought sadly shared by most of the population.

We decided to walk the stretch from the settlement to the infamous ‘broken bridge’ of Besant Nagar, a point situated roughly 1 km from the beginning of ‘Urur Kuppam’. Along this path we encountered 3 significant points of offal significance.

Image: Three points of interest along the first stretch surveyed. Source: Google

The first point was immediately after the settlement where the residents converted a patch of land into their informal dump yard. Months of waste piled up and spread out into a stretch of plastic vegetation. The second point was of a more dubious nature, located 700 metres. Here we encountered organised black plastic bags, that comprised of items one would akin to visitors of a large public space. Hint. Items such as helmets, food wrappers, plastic bottles and other such trinkets.

Image: Garbage dumped at the 3 points of interest. Source: CAG

The third and final point was at ‘Broken Bridge’. A city landmark among the younger crowd, and witness to many an initiation of unscrupulous habit. But setting all the bad press aside, it does offer a pretty breath taking view, especially during the sun set. My colleague and I were lost in thought taking in the magnificence of the view when we were interrupted by a group of youngsters riding up to the bridge. In their hands were plastic bottles of some beverage, which I assumed would be tossed into the bushes once consumed. Just a 90 degree turn from the beautiful view would allow you to see the collection of bottles you would find there. Soft drinks, alcohol, some medicinal bottles and a few bottles of ethanol make up a pretty diverse collection. Vices that will be prevalent in any society, yet one wishes society took its vice back home when it was done. Shaking our heads we walked back towards the main beach and proceeded to our next point of reconnaissance.

Image: Second area of study (behind Leela Palace). Source: Google

The next point was across Broken Bridge but on the opposite bank, precisely behind Leela Palace (a luxury hotel), on the edge of MRC Nagar. The only access to this part of the river bank was by a back road that stretched the entire length of MRC Nagar. Surprisingly the access to the back road was gated and manned by security personnel. We were denied access beyond a certain point where the bank was the closest to the opposite settlement.

Image: Locals crossing the river on a makeshift barge. Source: CAG

So while we stood at the edge of our trespass we witnessed the simple yet effective ingenuity Chennai city is famed for. The only recognised crossing to the settlement on the opposite bank was more than a few kilometres away. To remedy this inconvenience, one of the local fishermen had devised a crossing at the nearest point by attaching a raft to two pieces of rope anchored on opposite banks. If one needed to cross the river, they simply had to tug the raft towards them and get on it. The boatman would do the rest and naturally charged for his services. As I watched a few coins change hand, this reminded me of a tale in Greek mythology where one had to be buried with a coin to pay the ferryman across the river Styx in Hades. This was a less macabre scenario but a similar one none-the-less. As we watched, a group of young men, clambered  aboard and stood with their feet apart at equal distances to maintain the balance of the raft. A south Indian rendition of the famous Abbey road crossing by the Beatles perhaps? Sadly such ingenuity was masked by the undeniable smother of garbage across the banks, which at many points was so high, that the entire bank was hidden from view.

Image: Garbage along the banks being highlighted in red. Source: CAG

As we were not allowed any further we turned back, deciding to end our first recce at the river mouth. As we walked away I couldn’t help but look back with mixed feelings of admiration and sadness. Sadness for the plight of the people who lived on the edge of society, shunned by the government, and admiration for their resilience to not let that affect them. Power to the people. 

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