Beside the second longest beach in the world, in Southern India, stands the tropical city of Chennai. With a teeming population of 10.5 million, 2 million more than New York and 3 million more than Hong Kong, it generates 3,200 tonnes of waste every day.
In February 2015, Rialto Enterprises, a global business partner in Chennai of the multinational Procter & Gamble Co. chose the neighbourhood of New Beach Road, a densely populated area of one sq. km by the Thiruvanmiyur beachfront for its CSR initiative, the Swachh ('Clean') Beach project.
New Beach Road and the five other streets alongside that constitute the project area are a private residential locality. Approximately 250 families, both owners and tenants, live here. Most of the residents, especially the owners, are invested in their surroundings.
The beach sands and beachfront are public spaces.
They are used by morning/evening/weekend visitors, picnickers, fitness walkers, food vendors and playground operators. All of them are less invested in the neighbourhood.
The Swachh Beach challenge has been to manage both areas, private and public
Spearheaded by Chander Swamy, CEO of Rialto, the effort very soon gained momentum. A number of residents signed up voluntarily, contributing generously in time and resources.
In the three years since the project was started a number of tasks have been completed, many of them simultaneously.
72 small and large garbage bins have been set up on the beachfront. These include lightweight re-usable sacks on the beach itself, designed to make it easy for workers to carry litter across the almost always, hot sands to deposit it in the big bins on the road.
18 large garbage bins have been placed on the residential streets. 13 workers of Ramky Enviro Engineers, the conservancy agency, empty the small bins and sacks into the big bins. This activity is tracked in a register twice a day. A Corporation of Chennai (CoC) compactor truck completes the last task in the chain, the final clearance of the big bins, every night.
The bins are numbered to make it easy to monitor clearing. The amount of garbage collected is noted manually every day and then transferred to Excel sheets so that in any given week there is a clear picture of the amount of garbage collected. This is useful information at weekends, festival times, times when new residents move into new buildings, during holidays etc.
The Ramky workers' attendance, both in and out, is also tracked in a daily register. Regular attendance is rewarded every quarter (see under 'Funds').
The workers have also been provided two tricycle carts, to collect stray litter and empty it into the large bins.
In Indian cities and towns, trash is thrown around bins, never into them. This is because municipalities are woefully short of staff and resources to clear the bins regularly. As the garbage piles up it becomes loathsome for anybody to approach the bins. The Thiruvanmiyur beachside neighbourhood was no exception to this problem until three years ago. The Rialto crew takes special care to keep the bins and the area around them clean. The bins also get a fresh coat of paint every six months. All this enables residents, their house help and visitors to the beach walk right up to the bins and toss garbage into them, not outside.
Recyclable paper, board, glass and plastic trash is separately collected from residences every Wednesday by a private agency.
The first Sunday of every month is designated 'deep cleaning' day: for clearing litter embedded in the sands and behind and around benches and tree guards; weeding around plants and power distribution boxes; removing debris. All of this is done, rain or scorching sun, by the Ramky workers. 90 Rialto volunteers take turns in batches of 30 every quarter to supervise the activity. Three meals for the entire crew are paid for generously by a group of committed residents and delivered on site.
The 19 rainwater harvesting drains are cleaned and flushed every fortnight.
Trees and shrubs
A total of 415 trees contributed by Rialto employees and the Forest Department were planted in 2015 in the entire area, with the beachfront alone accounting for 264. After the fierce cyclone of December 2016 felled a number of trees, Rialto planted hundreds of saplings and ornamental shrubs in front of apartment buildings and along the walkways. All the plants, large and small, have been chosen for their hardiness, ability to grow in relatively sandy soil and withstand the harsh brackish sea breeze.
Rialto has provided specially designed, individual polyurethane supports for all the trees and fitted tree guards made of a sturdy mesh. The company also supplies organic solid and liquid manure to enrich the sandy soil, and provides re-cycled water from the company's factory. During the monsoon and cyclone-prone seasons, all beachfront trees are protected with a re-usable shield.
Street and beach lighting
Rialto has fitted 51 LED lights and two high-mast lights along the beachfront to ensure that the area is uniformly well-lit in the evenings, especially for seniors, evening walkers and the playground operators. The lights are numbered so that they are easy to monitor. While the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) is responsible for the basic maintenance of all power requirements, Rialto teams regularly conduct checks of the 27 distribution boxes. Periodically, they clean and paint all equipment and weed the earth around the boxes.
Water and sewerage
Rialto follows up with Metrowater to ensure regular supply of piped drinking water and clearance of sewerage lines.
In December 2015, Chennai was hit by torrential monsoon rains, causing devastation not seen since 1918. Shock waves ran through the entire city and suburbs, including Thiruvanmiyur which being a low lying area was heavily waterlogged.
After the rains abated, Rialto, along with residents, led a project to put in a zero-error rainwater harvesting system before the next monsoon. This was to run the entire length of New Beach Road, taking into account all gradients.
Residents with expertise in civil engineering contributed ideas and drawings. The final blueprint provided for rainwater to flow directly into each residential plot of land. Excess flood water, if any, was designed to drain into the sands from beneath the elevated beachfront road. Special filters were set under the rainwater grates to prevent dry foliage, litter and loose soil from choking the drains.
The plans were presented to the Corporation of Chennai which readily included all these features in the construction of a new system and re-laying of the road. During the following monsoon New Beach Road was completely dry within a couple of hours of heavy rainfall. By the end of the rainy season the water table rose from below 26 feet to 12 feet across the entire neighbourhood.
In 2015, the CoC and the Gates Foundation co-opted Rialto to build and maintain two free public toilets near the north end of the beach. Rialto has put in a submersible pump and an overhead tank for continuous water supply. A paid attendant cleans the toilets daily and ensures overall sanitary conditions. Rialto has also engaged a weekly pest control service to ensure infestation-free surroundings, and has planted tall shrubbery around the toilet to provide a modicum of privacy.
Vendor zone, car-free weekends
For very many years, vendors of innumerable snack foods, health drinks, coconut water, buttermilk etc; balloon and toy sellers, operators of carousels and kiosk games, all growing in huge numbers month on month, were conducting their business right across the length and breadth of the beach sands, hindering the movement of beach goers, and creating litter.
In 2016, with the help of the Corporation of Chennai and Chennai Traffic Police, the vendors were persuaded to move to a designated zone, in a dead end street leading off the beach. At first they resisted but later began doing even better business than before! There are now 10 vendors in the morning and 41 vendors in the evening, prioritised for the length of time they have been earning their livelihood on the beach. All of them have been issued photo identity cards. No new stalls or carts are permitted. The play area operators have also been restricted to one part of the beach.
At the same time, again with the help of the Chennai Corporation and Traffic Police, a weekend car-free beachfront was created.
Specially paid security staff and Rialto volunteers help the police manage these zones and regulate traffic and parking.
The capital expenditure budget for this CSR project is Rs.20 lakhs. In addition, there is a monthly provision of Rs.60,000 for recurring costs, which covers painting of bins, repair and maintenance of tree guards, lighting equipment, Sintex water tanks, litter collection carts, minor road and pavement repairs; also the cost of manure and the transport of recycled water in tankers for plants.
Residents contribute generously towards miscellaneous monthly expenses at an average of Rs.48,000 per month. This covers sponsorship of deep cleaning resources, the toilet attendant's salary, cost of vendor and weekend traffic control and, for the cleaning staff, quarterly attendance incentives such as packets of rice, dal and cooking oil, an electric fan in the summer, sarees at festival times etc. These cash contributions from residents are significant as the funds are given not just for the improvement of the private streets where the donors live but for the public beach as well.
Recognition from the PMO
The Thiruvanmiyur Beach CSR initiative was listed among the six most dynamic Swachh Bharat ('Clean India') citizens' projects by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Office in 2015.
A team from the PMO paid a surprise visit to the area again in 2017 and reported that not only was the project alive, it had grown even more robust since the team's first visit two years earlier.
The biggest learning
From the PM to senior CoC officials all authorities are candid in stating that the country's Swachh Bharat objectives cannot be achieved by the government alone. The task is humongous and complex. Citizens and corporates have actively to support civic bodies in their efforts. They need to take some responsibility for their neighbourhoods and environment and play a conscientious, sustained role in keeping them clean and green.
The new, improved New Beach Road area is an example of this new ecology. Rialto Enterprises, the residents of the neighbourhood, the CoC, Ramky, Chennai Traffic Police, TNEB, Metrowater and the Forest Department all work in a spirit of collaboration and amity. There lies the success of the project.